For Food Retailers, Maintaining Employee Morale is Key to Weathering a Crisis
Many retail categories saw an uptick in online sales over the past couple of months. By mid-April, U.S. retailers’ year-over-year revenue growth was at 68 percent. Buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) orders also experienced quite the surge. In fact, Walmart Grocery quickly became the No. 1 most downloaded shopping app in early April.
However, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and fear of falling ill haven’t kept consumers out of grocery or general retail stores. According to analytics firm Placer.ai, Walmart, Target, and Safeway all saw an increase in foot traffic between quarters one and two (14.1 percent, 8.5 percent, and 7.2 percent, respectively). What’s more, per-visitor trips were also up. H-E-B, for example, had an average of 8.5 visits per customer, with Walmart bringing in an average of 7.9 visits.
We know these trends will likely slow down. After all, some grocers have reported that sales are up just 20 percent (compared to 200 percent in March). Regardless, it’s still critical for food retailers to consider the toll these buying sprees could take on staff members. They’re on the front lines — restocking store shelves, operating checkout lanes, dealing with more than a few customer complaints, and, let’s be honest, putting themselves in harm’s way.
Maintaining Employee Morale Through Uncertainty
Thankfully, several retailers have stepped up to the task of offering employees additional support. Along with providing free face masks and gloves, Target increased its employee pay by $2 per hour through July 4. The mass merchant also offered paid leave to at-risk employees, including those over the age of 65 and workers with pre-existing medical conditions, until the end of May. Both Cub Foods and Kowalski’s are doing something similar, offering a $2 pay increase and double-time pay for overtime hours to store workers.
We should remember that maintaining team morale and preserving company culture can be difficult in a normal business environment. These tasks require a constant, transparent flow of information between employees and management.
Approaches emphasizing annual opinion surveys, quarterly face-to-face feedback sessions, and an open-door policy all make this possible. However, that’s not nearly enough in uncertain times.
If you’re not constantly taking a situation’s pulse, concerns and frustrations can fester. You’ll be left fighting not just the COVID-19 crisis, but rumors, speculation and declining morale as well. Sure, you can install sneeze guards at every checkout aisle, but do such precautions really alleviate the immense pressure store workers are under?
How you go about supporting employees and maintaining team morale is entirely up to the retailer, and company culture should dictate the initiatives you enact. That said, there are still a few areas where it’s safe to focus your attention. The following are often the best places to start:
1. Establish a consistent communication strategy.
Consistent communication is essential to almost any business process, as it creates a more predictable workday for employees. Similarly, good communication can create a sense of comfort during uncertain times, as you’ll be providing the information staff needs.
Start by establishing protocols around all communication practices, and be sure to keep messaging transparent and clear. Avoiding tough topics will just hurt your credibility — especially when information is so readily available. It’s better that employees hear things from you rather than filling in the blanks.
How you go about disseminating information is entirely up to your business. Walmart took an interesting approach, choosing to rally employees with its “Walmart Radio Podcast.” The hosts and their guests cover COVID-19 safety measures, offer morale boosters, and broadcast other pieces of useful information to associates far and wide.
Whatever protocols you put into place, though, make sure to maintain your cadence. Canceling a call or meeting might leave employees thinking the worst. Again, stay consistent with all forms of communication.
2. Solicit feedback.
Communication, as they say, is a two-way street. It isn’t enough to share information. In these uncertain times, you also need to seek input from employees.
Send out a pulse survey, but don’t make it too lengthy — just ask a few questions to get a feel for everyone’s current state. Besides this, check to see whether staff members have the resources and information they need to work safely. You might also want to survey employees about whether certain tasks can move to the back burner. Is there anything you can take off their plates to make their work a little easier?
3. Prioritize employees’ well-being.
Around three-fifths of Americans are concerned about potential exposure to the coronavirus, so chances are good that you can say the same about your employees.
Just like a communication strategy, the way you encourage employees’ well-being will vary from one organization to the next. If you can, step up and join the 53 percent of companies that have expanded mental health benefits. Some of these companies have made changes to their employee assistance programs, and others offer discounts on mental health apps. Starbucks, for example, now offers free therapy to all U.S. employees and eligible family members.
Things will eventually return to normal — or some semblance of normal. However, the morale-boosting and employee-support initiatives you put in place should continue indefinitely. These employees have been committed to your business throughout the pandemic, so consider returning the favor and ensuring their well-being.
Joe Schultz serves as the vice president of sales at Harbor Retail, which helps retailers and brands activate Harmonic Retail™ along the path to purchase.
In the first phase of his professional life, he spent 22 years learning and growing at Target Corp. During his tenure, he surrounded himself with inspiring mentors who taught him how to adapt quickly to the retail industry. Through his many leadership roles in stores, store operations, merchandising, and marketing, he learned to think nimbly, seek out new knowledge when approaching challenges, and be a champion for continuous improvement.
Joe has led stores with annual sales of more than $500 million and has led innovative marketing and merchandising efforts across new formats. A few years ago, Joe made the leap into the industrial design and build world and was lucky enough to connect with the innovative, multitalented team at Harbor Retail.