In store struggles during a pandemic

When it comes to fashion retail during the Covid-19 pandemic, the conversation has centered mostly on the overall viability of a retailer and their strategies to overcome the decrease in brick and mortar shopping. And this makes sense, considering the onslaught of bankruptcies that were unleashed in the spring and the real concern these closings would have on employment and the overall economy.

However, for those companies that were in a strong enough position to avoid bankruptcy, their focus became two-fold: energize their online sales and re-open brick and mortar. And while the latter was welcomed in theory, in practice it meant store line employees at fashion retailers were put at the forefront of a health crisis, making them more vulnerable to Covid-19 itself, as well as front and center in the mask debate.

Christopher Lacy, former Director of Customer Experience, Learning and Development at Barneys New York and now an Assistant Professor at Parsons School of Design describe it this way, “Prior to COVID-19. We were already seeing a peak of customer entitlement; now that entitlement has an additional layer of not wanting to be told to wear a mask, not being told to socially distance. You have a customer that is living in a stressful situation. And retailers forgot that associates are also under the stress of remaining healthy, needing to work and also needing to provide exceptional service.” He stresses that retailer head offices need to be more cognizant of this dynamic.

Additionally, in the rush to reopen, retailers didn’t really fully consider the operational shifts necessary, especially in relation to storeline employees, to ensure adequate customer service levels. As Christopher sees it, “The implementation of most operations was set up to just get the store back on track and to get the store to generate sales. The problem is that most POS systems still require contact between customers.”

Christopher also points out that with new services such as curbside pick-up came other issues, such as fraud, that retailers were not prepared to deal with. And so with these changes that can have a real impact on business, it’s more important than ever for executives to be on the front line with their employees. He further clarifies, “Now, during a pandemic, it isn't just about receiving feedback from storyline employees. At this point, every member of the executive team needs to commit to working in the store alongside the store team.” He emphasizes that it is unacceptable for retail leaders to make decisions, working from home, that affect the health and safety of employees. And he stresses that Buying and HR teams need to also be present, so that operational decisions can be made efficiently and timely.

Most importantly, Christopher says that executive teams and HR departments need to remember that this is “not business as usual,” and that the employee experience “evolves along with the customer experience.” He continues, ”Yes, the company lost money, but so did the associate population. They are stressed about numbers. They're stressed about their sales. They're stressed about how to outreach to clients in an economically challenging situation.” This crisis necessitates understanding, as well as tools to support teams, that is more long-term focused, beyond day over day sales increases.

He advises executives to “partner with store managers on how to protect the downside and make sure store managers are looking farther out.” And he adds that “there can't be the belittling emails asking why their business is trending behind or why they had a rough Friday.”

Christopher points out that “Crises inform you the old system can no longer be maintained and that there is a need to change.” While the pandemic has certainly had an outsized negative effect on the retail industry, it could also serve as an opportunity for retailers to reset and refocus, beyond sales numbers. It’s a chance for them to rebuild trust between all constituents, the customers, the home office, and most specifically the store line employees who are central to the success of any retail business.


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