Millennials on the Retail Floor: What's the Difference?

6/18/2013
The link between the health of retailers' top-line revenue and the quality of their engagement with employees long has been established. Many of those employees are Millennials, and your engagement with them (or lack thereof) extends to their engagement with customers.

A big part of the equation is having good technology in place. But let's first look at some numbers, because a win-win scenario is emerging: by understanding the differences and similarities in work attitudes, preferences, and behaviors among all employees, Millennial or non-Millennial, apparel retailers stand a good chance of bettering their engagement with all employees and customers, period.

The generations remain the same
Pop quiz—true or false: Millennials constitute a neatly-defined generation, born in the years 1980 through 1995, whose inclinations are entirely unique and require organizations to tailor their approaches to managing employees.

A popular theme says the attitudes and behaviors of Millennials in the workplace take a sharp departure from those of generations born earlier. At work and elsewhere, however, Millennials and non-Millennials have more in common than the news would have us think. One characteristic of all employees is intuitive, yet often touted as pertaining mostly to Millennials: They and non-Millennial employees alike want greater options in their work hours, according to research in a report by PwC titled “PwC's NextGen: A Global Generational Study."

The numbers are practically the same. Sixty-six percent of Millennials and 64 percent of non-Millennials would like the option, occasionally, to adjust their work hours. Depending on the niche, yes, the majority of an apparel retailer's floor staff may or may not be Millennials, but it's good to know that age doesn't really matter when work flexibility is on the menu. About two-thirds of your workforce wants shift flexibility, period.

We hear that Millennials don't care about money as much as others do, but an additional finding in PwC's research — conducted in collaboration with both the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and the London Business School — appears to disprove that assumption and underscores another similarity: regardless of their generation, 79 percent are unwilling to give up pay and thus slow the pace of possible future promotions, even if the tradeoff is to work fewer hours.

In other words, pay and advancement appear to matter to large majorities of everyone. A clothing store's floor staff may not expect promotions, and their tacit understanding may be that the pay is going to be low. However, if you want floor staff to feel good about their work — the necessary precursor to employee engagement — you might consider upping their pay, or better, instituting incentives for improved pay based upon a reward for work or delivery structure. And if your floor staff positions seem like dead-end jobs, brainstorm ways to change that perception.

Millennials' differences are sane
Yes, the generations remain the same in ways relevant to the retail floor. Their differences, meanwhile, are sane. One is of notable consequence to apparel retailers. More than other generations, Millennials hold dear their work–life balance, PwC's research finds. Unlike Baby Boomers and Generation X, Millennials appear unwilling to work long hours today in order to get that high-paying job tomorrow.

Wait a minute. Don't they and all the other generations want their pay, as noted eariler? There's some dissonance there. So, let's assume that Millennials like their pay and their future promotions just as much as everyone else does, but that they also have a higher sensitivity to work–life balance right now, in the present. This all pertains to floor staff at a clothing retailer. Promotions aren't the focal point of jobs on this level, but the potentially low pay is. Again, reward good work with better pay, and clearly define the path to better pay.

Millennials work it on the retail floor
You must maintain a high level of engagement with Millennials whether they're at work or home. If you falter, your sales will, too. Millennials will lose interest quickly when the work environment isn't working for them, and your customers need your floor associates interested in them and paying attention. Millennials are good at multitasking, using technology, and working on teams — skills that suit them for the retail floor and its customers. But the typical floor associate may work more than one job, too. She may work in more than one of your store locations. Her work schedule is complex. And the Millennial will be keenly focused on the need for balance with her personal life. Mismanaged, mundane variables having to do with her work — e.g., scheduling, getting pay right, etc. — will sour her attitude, and her disengagement from her job will follow.

Better core HR technology keeps everyone happy
Fortunately, gaining Millennials' favor in the workplace can be straightforward, an exercise in subtlety occurring in the background. Does your floor staff have a user-friendly online portal, for instance, that enables them to make quick changes to their W2 or keep tabs on their work schedule? Clunky processes frustrate retail employees as they struggle to communicate with store management, HR, or the department handling payroll and benefits. Basic aspects of their employment distract them, fueling malaise that extends to their interactions with your customers.

Social media apps are fun, yes, and they help with employee recognition, teamwork, and more. But the place to start is with your technology for core HR. Time and attendance, payroll, and benefits should be straightforward for your employees to manage. Regardless of generation, floor associates will appreciate the reduction in distractions. This increases their on-the-job focus. Plus, by mobile-enabling your employee self-service (ESS) system for it all, you'll gain favor with Millennials, who have grown up with their smartphones.

If your technology for core HR is a dinosaur, replace it right away. Doing so is the first step to take in improving your retail organization's engagement with all employees, regardless of generation. These improvements improve the performance of your retail outlets and put bigger profits in your coffers.


John Orr is senior vice president of retail strategy & execution for Ceridian HCM.
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