For Retailers, Stakeholder Engagement Will Shape Holiday Season Success or Failure

With the holiday shopping season expected to start earlier and be more consequential to companies’ year-end bottom lines than before, the retail industry is surely hoping that the remainder of 2020 will be its chance to come back stronger.

When considering the end-of-year retail experience, most discussion focuses on consumers. Will they return to shopping in-store? Or will online sales continue to reign supreme? Will shoppers be cautious with holiday spending? Or will they redirect money that would have otherwise gone to travel and experiences toward tangible gifts for family and friends? What health, safety or experience missteps will cause consumers who return to in-store shopping to retreat?

To maximize reaching consumers from all angles at this crucial time of the year, businesses will need to balance high and low-tech ways to come back stronger.

From the high-tech perspective, this means a seamless and enhanced online experience. Success in this area is largely driven by operational decisions and bolstered by:

  • Fast web processes, from fast-loading item previews and pages, to efficient checkout processes, to the latest in mobile app technology.
  • Efficient behind-the-scenes activities, facilitated by increased numbers of employees (see Amazon’s announcement on hiring an additional 100,000 employees) to enable fast shipping and returns processing; integration with hybrid shopping approaches that allow customers to do most of the leg work online, then quickly dip into stores for pick up.
  • Marketing integration with affiliated brands, individuals and causes, often enabled by a strong influencer programs.

On the low-tech end, the method needed to achieve success will contrast with the high-tech operations-first approach and instead prioritize stakeholder communication and engagement. Consumers are the obvious stakeholder group, but keeping consumers happy with their in-store experience depends heavily on the efforts of another stakeholder group, employees.

As Americans start to recognize that retail employees are on the front lines of risk, a majority (75 percent, according to APCO research), expect that businesses will pay more attention to the way they treat their employees. While what exactly this means for employers, employees and the consumers that patronize retail establishments during the busy holiday season is still unclear, the season’s success will in part depend on the in-store experience facilitated by retail employees.

It’s been a rough year for retail employees. Many faced furloughs at the height of the pandemic. When stores reopened, these employees had to contend with newfound enforcement responsibilities: mask mandates, social distancing and other new standards related to COVID-19.

Keeping employees engaged, empowered and appreciated heading into the busiest retail season will require low-tech, yet high-results communications best practices. Retailers may consider ways to:

  • Be transparent about the uncertainty of the season and the important role employees play in the in-store experience. Work with managers to develop messaging to let employees know that you are relying on them to help shape the customer experience this holiday season.
  • Turn to employees first when seeking innovative ideas on how to maintain engagement and facilitate stronger customer interactions. For example, roll out a series of regional or national town halls, virtual or otherwise, to solicit ideas, and then remember to provide feedback on how those ideas are ultimately implemented by the company.
  • Keep the Town Halls as specific as possible so employees see where their feedback is valued. For example, have employees suggest alternatives to “doorbuster”-type deals that could draw crowds, putting them in the perilous position of having to enforce social distancing with larger than usual groups. Try to remain agile and seek employee feedback early in the holiday shopping season.
  • Set employees up for success in customer interactions and establish a safer work experience by separating routine customer communication as much as possible from social distancing/security interaction. Have the latter be handled by clearly-designated security employees, allowing most retail employees to eschew the “bad cop” role and poor customer interactions.
  • Monitor channels, like Reddit, where retail employees (and in store shoppers) often first take to complain. Don’t obsess over individual complaints but try to identify patterns and discern how you can channel these negative complaints to improve the retail experience.
  • Remember that in addition to the financial stress the company is under, employees themselves face higher-than usual stress, and consider ways to recognize or reward the extra burden and effort this will require.

While most of the high-tech, operational changes that will help the holiday season are already underway, companies hoping to drive traffic to their brick and mortar locations should now take the time to focus on stakeholder communication and engagement. For retailers, agility in communications, especially with and by employees, will make it easier to close out the year coming back stronger.