At OpenBlend, we’re privileged to count some of the world’s most well-known retailers amongst our customer base (Dr Martens, LaCoste, and Gymshark to name just a few). These brands - along with just about every other retailer that exists - have experienced exponential change over the past two years.
But throughout all of that, one thing remains: the inextricable link between employee experience and retail success. To put it simply: people are the bedrock of a retailer’s business - and in today’s employee-led market, employers are having to work harder than ever to engage and retain top talent.
So what is the current state of play when it comes to retail worker experiences? Are people getting what they need from their managers and employers? Are they being nurtured and developed in a way that works for them?
We decided to find out by polling 500 UK-based retail employees in organisations with +500 employees, and the findings revealed a mixed bag of results: genuine progress in one area coupled with sobering statistics in others.
Here’s a round up of the key findings - and crucially, how retailers can act on them to support better people experiences:
Frequency alone is not enough
Most encouragingly, the research showed that the frequency of manager-employee conversations has increased across the retail industry. In fact, eight out of ten (83%) employees are now having a conversation with their manager at least once a month. That’s a giant leap forward when you consider that annual appraisals were still the standard approach just a few years ago.
Today, retail workers are speaking to their managers regularly and we should all celebrate that, right?
The problem is, frequent conversations alone are not enough to support people’s varied and evolving needs. We know this because our research shows that one in three (33%) customer-facing retail workers says their employer is not doing enough to support their wellbeing - a statistic that rises to 46% amongst Gen Z employees.
So while it’s great to see that retail workers are talking to their managers more frequently, our research confirms that regularity, at least in isolation, is not the golden solution. Frequency definitely matters, but it only adds value if it’s underpinned by broad conversations that enable employees to raise and discuss the issues that directly impact their ability to perform.
Conversations failing to address employee needs
But by far the biggest issue revealed was that manager-employee conversations are failing to address the topics that matter most to retail workers. Specifically, our research showed that one-to-ones are being dominated by performance discussions centred in objective-setting and ratings. Respondents cited ‘performance objectives’ and ‘performance ratings’ as the two most prevalent topics of discussion during an manager-employee conversation, despite ‘work-life balance’ and ‘wellbeing’ being the two issues that retail employees most want to talk about (and in fact performance fell amongst the topics they least want to talk about).
That’s one heck of a disconnect.
What it tells us is that retailers need to enable broader conversations that cover a breadth of relevant content beyond just performance - and it’s a point that survey respondents agreed with: 92% indicated that one-to-ones should be a balanced, two-way conversation yet just 37% are being encouraged to set the agenda for their one-to-ones.
The race to retain
These findings paint a consistent picture of misalignment when it comes to manager-employee communication in UK retail - and there’s no doubt it’s contributing to the industry’s high attrition rates.
In the midst of an employee-led market and the so-called ‘Great Resignation’, the alarm bell that has been ringing for some time is now reaching decibel heights: according to our research, 21% of retail employees plan on leaving their job within the next 12 months, while another 19% are still undecided. That threatens a collective churn rate of up to 40% - enough to send retail bosses into a cold sweat.
Significantly, of those who said they plan on leaving, ‘feeling more valued’ was cited as the top factor that might persuade retail workers to stay - 60% of respondents chose this option - a point that once again highlights the importance of regular conversations that enable employees to raise any issues and feel heard. This is how organisations can create personalised experiences that tell people “we value your contribution” and “we’re here to support you in reaching your full potential.”
Only once this is in place can we even begin to talk about performance. Or to put it another way: to talk about performance as a topic detached from wellbeing, motivation, and development, is a sure-fire way to disengage people and drive churn.
Prioritising people tech
The solution, of course, lies in empowering managers and employees with both the right culture and technologies needed to support frequent, broad and effective conversations.
But yet again our research found that just 23% of retail employees' one-to-ones are being tracked using performance management software. Well over half (56%) of those polled said their one-to-ones are recorded using pen and paper (31%), or worse still, not tracked at all (25%). This is despite almost 70% of employees agreeing that technology is ‘important’ or ‘very important’ for supporting effective conversations at work.
Again, these statistics reveal another significant misalignment - and when you consider how much the retail sector has invested in customer-facing technology in recent years, it would seem that the industry’s investment in people tech has paled in comparison. The most baffling part in all of this? The single and best route to optimising the customer experience is to invest in your people. They hold the key to success.
The good news, though, is that the opportunity is there for retailers to seize. With the right strategies and tools, managers can be empowered to understand the issues that matter most to each of their direct reports. Likewise, employees are able to convey their evolving needs and wants - and it’s this personalisation that supports the effective conversations that drive retention and performance. The hard truth, of course, is that retailers who do not have these technologies in place will find it much more difficult to ensure their employees feel heard and valued in the race to retain talent.
To read more of our research findings, download the full research report here.