People & Culture Must Be A Retailer’s Top Priorities

Brick-and-mortar retailers have been challenged over the past decade or so to innovate, adapt, or face the inevitable death of being a dinosaur. As consumers have become comfortable with shopping for their wants and needs online, the fate of brick-and-mortar retailers has been on uncertain ground. With what has been happening in the first half of 2020, it probably feels like someone threw gasoline on the fire for many retailers.

As many towns and states ease back into allowing shopping in-person, dining out, and gatherings for events, businesses are faced with new operational procedures, varied and sometimes volatile customer reactions to these new procedures, and concerns of employee safety and staffing. The retail, restaurant, hospitality, and amusement industries are all grappling with how to best do business in this new “normal”. Each business must interpret what will work best for their customers and employees, while following the orders and/or guidelines provided by national, state, and local entities.

The new operational processes are important for everyone’s safety, but there are two other priorities that deserve as much care and attention as the new operational processes, and those are: your people and your business culture.

There have been plenty of retailers that have been challenged by the fast pace of changing guidelines and directives. Some have made poor decisions and received quick public backlash. Many other retailers though, both large and small, have quickly and quietly, made good decisions that clearly demonstrate commitment to everyone’s safety as well as taking care of their employees in exceptional ways, all while staying true to their established company values.

People. Check out what Walmart has done so far this year since the start of coronavirus pandemic. They raised the hourly wage of entry-level employees in their ecommerce warehouse facilities and provided all US full-time and part-time employees with cash bonuses, twice. The cash bonuses alone totaled over $360 million.

Several brands (ex. Nike, Adidas, Urban Outfitters, to name just a few) closed their retail locations for two weeks at the start of the pandemic, even before receiving the mandate from local governments, and paid their store employees for those lost shifts.

The care for employees has happened not only at the largest and best-known brands. In small businesses across the US, owners have taken quick and decisive action to make sure their employees would be protected from the negative impact of having to close their doors, as much as they possibly could. Small business owners who anticipated the inevitable shutdown found ways to continue operating within the new requirements where possible, while continuing to pay their employees, and others quickly assisted their employees with signing up for unemployment benefits. Brick-and-mortar retailers that had never offered online ordering suddenly figured it out and have been able to maintain a cashflow, albeit smaller than usual.

Businesses that had never entertained the idea of allowing their employees to work remotely figured out the logistics and are finding that many key functions can indeed be done remotely, and the productivity is good. The brightest and most innovative are finding ways to stay connected with employees via online meetings, live-chat, creating online hangouts for departments and key work groups, and adding fun, creative touches to company-wide communications.

Culture. Nothing can damage a company’s reputation and create disillusioned employees more than taking actions that directly conflict with their stated company values. Challenging times put everyone on edge and every move a business takes is being closely observed by their employees. The current situation creates an even greater need for business owners, executives, and managers to do more than “talk the talk”. They must “walk the walk”. Any discrepancy between what is stated as the company’s values and actions taken will be quickly spotted by employees. Failure to maintain consistency between stated values and actions can easily result in employees becoming not only less engaged but inspired to find a new place to work. Do not assume your workforce is a given just because the unemployment rate is high. Good employees are in high demand. Any business should be taking careful and thoughtful actions to ensure their cultural values are being upheld by all employees, at all levels.

A great example of consistency between a company’s mission statement and their actions is Publix. Two of the mission statements of this grocery chain are “intolerant of waste” and “involved as responsible citizens in our communities”. The company demonstrated this in an exceptional move made in April to purchase milk and produce from farmers, that otherwise would have had to have been discarded, and donated it to Feeding America food banks.

Summary. While these times are challenging all businesses to innovate and adapt, attention must be focused beyond the operational procedures and profit & loss statements. The people and culture parts of every business represent some of its most important assets yet are often the most difficult to measure. If your business isn’t big enough to have a Chief People Officer (no surprise, most aren’t) then the responsibility to ensure employees are engaged, feeling positive about their contribution as well as their compensation, and there is consistency in the culture throughout the organization falls to every leader within the business.

Take care of your people and your culture. The businesses that keep these as top priorities during challenging times are better able to survive the storm and exit it even stronger.

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