Cultivating the Super Associate


Remember when retail experts were predicting an apocalypse? Retail, or at least brick-and-mortar, was finished. While the dire predictions and the fall of iconic brands made the retail industry shudder, the more level headed simply dug in and got innovative.

These days the retail industry, as a whole, is thriving. A host of companies including Walmart, Nordstrom, Home Depot, Kohl’s and TJ Maxx, report growth from 3% to 8% in their brick-and-mortar outlets. The predicted slow death of in-person shopping is clearly not occurring.

 Despite the healthy growth that leading brick-and-mortar outlets are experiencing, the industry is still experiencing a tumultuous period. The challenges that brick-and-mortar face are many including hiring/retaining capable staff, merchandizing limitations, satisfying the growing demands of customers, and supercharging operations. And the biggest challenge of them all: competing with e-commerce.

In order to meet the e-commerce challenge head-on, brick-and-mortar has been forced to place greater focus on consumer demands. But physical retail has an ace up its sleeve: the store associate. Associates, when provided the tools to succeed, can be the linchpin to a memorable path to purchase and help retailers provide the personalized experience they crave.

To do this, store associates need to be attentive to customer expectations and knowledgeable about the products and services they offer. Finding and retaining employees with this unique skill set is difficult, particularly with the unemployment rate at all-time lows. However, this is only half the battle. Employees must be deployed in an optimal way, so that they are available for customers and a myriad of other responsibilities when needed. Stores also need to be compliant with new regulations regarding scheduling.

Managing the scheduling process has become a significant chore for store managers. Tucked away in the back room wrestling with staffing decisions, the manager is unable to guide store associates and engage with customers.

A modern workforce management solution has never been more critical. It can enable the retail manager to put staff in a position to succeed and deal with rising customer expectations, while simultaneously breaking them free from the back room and putting them on the sales floor where they can truly make a difference.

Below are four guideposts on the workforce management path to success that can help retailers turn their mundane workforce into top performers.  

# 1 Craft the Customer-Centric Experience

Retail is changing faster than ever. Despite the rapid pace of change, the old adage, “the customer is always right,” is more relevant than ever. The Internet has enabled shoppers to obtain a wealth of information and easily search for the lowest price while expected delivery times continue to shrink. How can brick-and-mortar keep pace? The first and biggest challenge is simply bringing the customer into the store.

To draw customers to the store, retailers are building next-gen locations that place the customer experience above all else. By 2020, 55% of retail executives plan to allocate funds for in-store experiences, according to the PFSK' “2018 Future of Retail” report. However, experiential retail is not just a future initiative. It is happing right now. And those that get it right are winning the hearts, minds, and most importantly wallets of today’s increasingly fickle consumers.

Leading-edge examples include:

  • Casper. The mattress retailer recently unveiled its The Dreamery concept location that includes nap pods where customers can schedule a 45-minute luxurious rest. The Dreamery’s are not prototypical stores ― no mattresses are sold there ― it is simply an opportunity for people to interact with the brand, experience the products, and recharge their batteries. Retail experience at its finest.
  • DSW. Select stores include an in-store spa and a nail bar where customers can get manicures and pedicures. The nail bar also offers customers loyalty points towards shoe purchases. Customers can be relaxed and feel good about their look before they consider what shoes need to be in their closet.
  • JOANN Fabric & Craft Stores. Stores feature classes, events, and touch-screen kiosks that allow crafters to pull up inspiration from Pinterest. Customers can gather at the store to feel part of a community of DIYers, even if they are not buying any merchandise, they can learn and be inspired.

In addition to creating experiences to draw customers to the store, retailers are striving to offer a personalized experience. Eighty-nine percent of retailers listed personalizing the customer experience as a top strategic priority in the RIS “2018 Store Experience Study.” 

Experiential physical locations and personalized path to purchases require associates willing and able to provide a high-level of service. Leading retailers are equipping their enterprises with cutting-edge workforce management software to ensure associates are in place when demand strikes and are armed with the tools to turn shoppers into buyers.

The Gap enjoyed a 7% increase in sales and a 5% increase in productivity when associates were given stable schedules.

# 2 Enable Your Team with the Tools to Succeed

Shoppers increasing demands and the need to personalize the customer journey falls on retail associates and store managers. Managers must schedule the correct number of employees at the right time with the right skills to ensure customer demand is met. Other work responsibilities, including stocking shelves; picking, packing and shipping digital orders; and work assigned from the corporate office also need to be handled. What's the optimal way to handle these various assignments?

These labor management challenges are exacerbated by the multitude of regulatory changes such as predictability scheduling laws. Predictive scheduling dictates times, conditions, and rates under which employers can have their associates work. The goal is to increase work life balance for associates as these laws make schedules more predictable. These laws can vary down to the municipality level, and violation often brings with it a hefty fine. It's unrealistic to expect a store manager with a pen and paper or an excel spreadsheet to optimally manage the complexities associated with scheduling. 

Providing store managers with a modern workforce management solution simplifies the scheduling process and enables the optimal schedule to be created. With the burden of schedule making removed, store managers are freed up for other tasks such as interacting with shoppers on the sales floor and mentoring associates.

Workforce management software has provided a host of benefits for retailers and even impacted the bottom line. Harvard Business Review reported on a study it did with the Gap where retail associates were given more stable schedules. A 7% increase in sales and a 5% increase in productivity was reported in Gap stores that had stable scheduling. Gap earned $2.9 million because of stable scheduling (costs of implementation were just over $31,000) according to study estimates. Creating these type of schedules requires feature-rich, next-gen workforce management technology.

Other retail outlets have also seen benefits by utilizing a workforce management solution, including Staples. The company had multiple goals including increasing project compliance, streamlining planning and communicating between corporate and stores, and task execution. "With the new task management solution, Staples has achieved consistent centralized communication resulting in $1.5 million in soft savings and $460,000 in hard savings,” says Maureen Feinstein, manager of retail operations, Staples.

#3 Attract and Retain Superior Talent

While the healthy U.S. economy has helped bolster the ongoing retail renaissance, the strong financial performance has greatly affected retail’s ability to attract and retain quality store-level talent. The most recent unemployment rate in the U.S. was pegged at 3.7%, according to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Since the summer of 2018, there have been more open jobs than the number of people looking for work. Full employment is great news in many respects, yet it also exacerbates a problem the retail industry has had for a few years: finding good employees to fill positions.

Ninety-one percent of retailers agreed or strongly agreed that the store employee is what differentiates the store experience from the online experience, and 47% say customer-facing employees influence overall sales, according to RSR’s “Workforce eBook: Four Steps To A 21st Century Workforce.”

Yet, the same report found that that 59% of retailers say it was hard to find good and loyal employees, and 67% believe high turnover is just a fact of life.

To solve the employee crunch, a number of retailers have turned to an increase in starting salary. Earlier this year, Walmart increased its minimum hourly wage in the United States and gave employees a $1,000 bonus. "It's our people who make the difference and we appreciate how they work hard to make every day easier for busy families," says Doug McMillon, CEO.

However, simply increasing salaries is not always feasible. It also might not be the best way to attract and retain associates. Fifty-one percent of associates would change jobs for one that offered flexible hours according to the State of the American Workplace by Gallup. Associates are more likely to change jobs for benefits and perks associated with quality of life according to Gallup. So, while a bump in starting salary may help to attract associates, more needs to be done to retain them.

A workforce management solution can help retail managers create an environment which takes into account a multitude of factors including work life balance. It also offers associates the flexibility they crave. Employees can utilize the system by making schedule change requests, offering to work extra hours, and even swapping shifts. By offering associates flexibility which leads to improvement in quality of life, workforce management technology can help retailers tackle the issues of building a next-gen workforce.

#4 Prepare for the Unexpected

Retailers are increasingly aware that having a system that just does schedule management is insufficient. They require a solution that manages all forms of work that needs to be done in the store.  Traditional workforce management software aligned labor with traditional sales drivers such as traffic and transactions. The next-gen workforce management software also takes into account tasks that need to be handled beyond attending to customers, including stocking shelves, pick, pack and ship, and assignments that come from the corporate level.

The average life span of a workforce management technology application deployed on-premises is between eight and 10 years, according “Gartner’s Prepare Yourself for the Future of Workforce Management.”  While the software has a long shelf-life, it must be nimble and flexible enough to adjust to changing workforce demands. All retailers try to plan in advance, but as the Robert Burns saying goes ― the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The reality is that in our 24/7 world things happen last minute and adjustments need to be made. Modern workforce management solutions can help make those last minute changes less stressful.

Maybe, an employee calls out last minute. Perhaps, there is a surge in traffic due to a viral social media trend. Or a major weather event sends shoppers streaming to the store. The possibilities for why in-store staffing might have to be adjusted last minute are endless.

These last minute occurrences leave store managers scrambling to decipher how best to utilize employees so as not to detract from customer engagement. Add in the legal complexities related to scheduling along with consideration for a retailer's best practices, and deciphering who the right employee to contact to help meet unexpected tasks is incredibly challenging.

Having a task management system on mobile devices allows associates and store managers to be on the sales floor.

  Maureen Connors-McBride, Dick's Sporting Goods

The next generation of workforce management technology can help retailers plan in real time. Fifty-two percent of retail winners want to put actionable information into the hands of managers according to RSR. Modern, cutting-edge workforce management solutions help make this a reality. It assists retail managers to quickly ensure staffing is at sufficient levels. The system can be used for multiple stores within the chain and employees can make themselves available at other locations. This adds flexibility for both employees and store managers In addition, the next generation of workforce management systems are able to seamlessly deliver the needed information on a single screen in a go-anywhere mobile app.

Companies utilizing the next generation of workforce management systems are finding a multitude of benefits including being able to give customers the service they demand. One such company is Dick's Sporting Goods. "Having a task management system on mobile devices allows associates and store managers to be on the sales floor,” says Maureen Connors-McBride, store communications project manager for Dick's Sporting Goods. “And be there and present for that right now customer instead of being stuck in the backroom trying to finish all these tasks from their desktop."


Rising customer expectations, regulations associated with scheduling, and the need to adjust in real time are making a feature-rich, workforce management solution an essential tool for brick-and-mortar retailers. As retailers continue to deal with the rapidly changing environment, a workforce management solution can make the ever changing road easier to navigate.

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