How the retail workforce has changed for good

For better or for worse, the definition of work has evolved.
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· 5 min read

It’s been hammered into our brains for the past 14 months: The pandemic has forever changed retail. There’s curbside pickup, self-checkout, e-comm fulfillment—the list goes on.

But these innovations have done more than speed up delivery times. They’ve redefined the role of the retail worker, who is no longer solely tasked with operating the cash register or stocking shelves.

Hands on

One clear example is BOPIS, a pandemic habit that shoppers immediately picked up.

  • Click-and-collect spend in the US hit $72+ billion in 2020, up ~107% over 2019, per eMarketer.

Fulfilling online orders and carrying them to the curb became part of the job description—and it looks to stay that way.

Best Buy CEO Corie Barry, for example, said in a May earnings call that store employees are “becoming an increasingly important aspect of our delivery experience.”

  • ~60% of its Q1 online sales were either picked up or sent from, or delivered by someone working in a store.
  • The company is also testing same-day home delivery by in-store employees.

Best Buy’s also had to consider the size of its labor force, given pandemic shifts. In February, it laid off ~5,000 employees, decreasing its headcount by 17% compared to the start of 2020, per Modern Retail.

  • But it turned more part-time roles into full-time positions; the latter now make up 60% of employees versus 54% pre-pandemic.

Smaller retailers, too, have had to make adjustments.

Madison Reed, a DTC hair color startup, planned to expand its brick-and-mortar presence before the pandemic hit. On March 13, 2020, it closed its 12 stores, and CEO Amy Errett had to figure out what to do with 200 employees, she told Retail Brew.

Luckily, business exploded. The company needed every set of hands it had.

  • “We’re not firing these people; we have to hold onto those assets. Let’s put them in a call center if that’s what they want to do because...we were selling a box of hair color every five seconds,” Errett told us.

She said colorists started handling customer service and working on product development—anything and everything to keep things moving. That’s still the case as the company resumes its IRL plans, Errett added.

You’re hired

Essential retailers, on the other hand, were in the position to hire. A lot.

Walmart’s pandemic approach was to reach out to communities where job loss was highest, Patti Constantakis, director of corporate philanthropy at the Walmart Foundation, said during a March event hosted by UpSkill America.

  • The hospitality and restaurants sectors were a big focus.
  • And rather than having people apply for a specific role, candidates marked any job they were interested in—giving managers a larger talent pool.
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The company cut the hiring process down from two weeks to 24 hours, and Walmart hired more than half a million workers “in stores and across its supply chain since March” 2020—plus 20,000+ seasonal e-commerce workers for what was a busy holiday season.

Amazon surpassed the one-million employee mark last year after bringing on 400,000 workers, primarily for its warehouse and delivery operations. Instacart and CVS also hired thousands in 2020.

Payday: Wages, always a hot-button issue, took on a new urgency during the pandemic.

“Labor productivity has been consistently rising. For every hour of work workers put in, they're producing more goods and services, but workers aren't seeing the benefits of that growth and their wages have stayed flat,” Jenny Weissbourd, associate director of the workforce strategies initiative at the Aspen Institute, told Retail Brew.

With even more being asked of those on the front lines (and with sales surging), many essential retailers, from Target to The Home Depot, introduced hazard pay—boosting hourly rates between $0.21 and $3.07 per hour.

The provisions were temporary, but wage hikes are sticking as companies compete to fill entry-level, front-line jobs amid a labor crunch.

  • Kroger wants to fill 10,000 jobs, and in March said it would aim for a $16/hour average wage by the end of the year.
  • Under Armour, with 3,000+ open roles, raised its hourly rate to $15 last month.
  • Chipotle’s on a 20,000-person hiring spree and said it would bump wages to $11-$18/hour. It’s also bumping up prices to cover the costs.

Trust issues

If retailers want to bring on more employees—especially to handle new responsibilities like e-comm fulfillment—it’ll take more than a pay bump. Companies have to regain workers’ confidence.

  • From 2020 to 2021, trust within the retail sector fell five points, per the Edelman Trust Barometer, in a tie for the second-largest drop across all sectors.

One critical reason for the wariness: worker safety, Sandra Sucher, trust researcher and professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, told Retail Brew, given the huge risk of contracting Covid.

“I think some of the worst excesses have been evidenced in big-box retailers, in terms of really not very safe treatment and the impact that follows,” Sucher said, adding that she’s not convinced we’ll fully return to a pre-pandemic world. “We now have to live with this risk and build the management of it into our ongoing operations.”

Part of rebuilding trust will include making sure employees are safe on the job and striking some sort of balance "between their lives, their ability to feed their families, and their work," Sucher said.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.