New Research: What’s in Store for Retail’s Biggest Season in the Era of COVID-19?

Today’s post comes to us from the executive director of The Workforce Institute, Dr. Chris Mullen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SPHR.

The grocery store aisles may currently be stocked with Halloween candy, but I can tell you that retailers everywhere (along with my kids) are already thinking ahead to the holiday shopping season. The latest UKG survey looks at retail trends for this holiday season which, in light of the unprecedented global pandemic we are all currently living through, is likely to be a season like no other.

The survey touches on a variety of issues from how confident retailers are about staying open through the holiday season, to how good managers are more important now than they ever have been.

Some of the findings I found most interesting focused on prioritizing employee well-being and evolving for the new normal:

  • Retailers are prioritizing employee well-being:
    • Three in 4 retailers recognize that uncomfortable or unsafe customer interactions in stores—i.e., if a customer refuses to comply with safety requirements—could lead associates to quit, so two-thirds (66%) are training their store managers to intervene on behalf of employees.
    • Nearly 3 in 4 retailers (72%) anticipate store employees will feel anxious or stressed about COVID-19 while at work, and the majority (81%) think it’s possible that employee concerns about the virus could lead them to quit mid-season.
    • Almost all retailers (95%) believe they have an obligation to notify employees who may have been in contact with a co-worker who tests positive for COVID-19—and 86% of U.S. employees agree. But while 9 in 10 (90%) respondents think it’s important that their stores implement a COVID-19 contact tracing program before the holiday season begins, only about half say it’s very (28%) or extremely (26%) likely this will be rolled out to all stores in time.
    • To protect people in stores, more than half of retailers (55%) will conduct employee health screenings before each shift, and more than a quarter (28%) will cover the cost of testing for employees experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of health coverage.
    • Workforce flexibility is more important than ever, say 80% of retailers, who are taking critical steps to maintain employee well-being by making schedule accommodations for at-risk employees (46%), compensating associates for work schedules even if they are instructed to quarantine (39%), and keeping a pulse on workforce well-being via employee surveys (36%).
  • Evolving for the new normal: Hiring, curbside pickup, sweeping safety measures, and augmented staff roles keep the store experience alive, despite perpetual understaffing:
    • COVID-19 has given curbside pickup a major boost in 2020: 4 in 5 retailers (83%) will offer curbside options this season—compared to just 44% in 2019 and 34% in 2018—while nearly half say all stores will offer curbside pickup (48%) and call it a “top priority” for staffing (47%).
    • In-store safety is trending: 4 in 5 retailers will require employees (83%) and customers (82%) to wear masks and will increase cleaning frequency (80%), as many others will enforce social distancing (73%); provide PPE (personal protective equipment) for staff (67%); use transparent shields/barriers (60%); and manually monitor and limit store occupancy (50%).
    • To fill seasonal roles—including newly created seasonal positions dedicated to helping stores manage and enforce safety protocols—3 in 5 retailers (59%) are seeking new, best-fit talent, while half (51%) look to re-hire former seasonal employees based on their existing familiarity with the job. Additionally, 2 in 5 (41%) aim to recall store employees who were furloughed due to earlier COVID-19 shutdowns.
    • As 4 in 5 retailers (81%) brace for holiday shifts to be regularly understaffed due to employee quarantining, and 86% say their stores have already experienced understaffing related to COVID-19, more than 1 in 4 (28%) are prepared to offer associates additional compensation or other rewards to come into work if COVID-related concerns become prevalent.

The retail industry has shown remarkable resilience and innovative thinking throughout this pandemic, and it’s critical that they continue to do so as the holiday shopping season commences. Perhaps most important, retailers must recognize and appreciate their frontline workers and minimize the risks they face while doing their jobs each day.

And a final thought: We as shoppers and consumers should also remember how indebted we are to these hardworking frontline workers. Be extra patient while waiting in the check-out line, show your genuine appreciation to the person helping you pick out that perfect gift, keep your sense of humor when things don’t go as quickly or smoothly as you had hoped. A little patience, gratitude and good will goes a long way in these difficult times!

You can download the full report here.

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