Calling It Quits: 2 in 5 Retail Workers Considering Leaving

Retaining grocery, other retail workers is about more than pay, Zipline CEO Melissa Wong says
Retail workers feel unheard, Zipline survey finds
Photograph: Shutterstock

In a competitive environment for hourly associates, grocery stores, restaurants and other retail establishments are bumping up wages, offering signing bonuses and promoting opportunities for swift and steady advancement in the organization. But a recent survey from retail operations platform Zipline finds that current retail employees feel their company could be doing significantly more to keep their existing workers from heading for the exit door.

Among the survey's findings: 

  • 42% of retail associates are considering or planning to leave the industry.
  • 24% of associates think retailers are doing enough to retain talent and build the workforce they need.
  • 52% of associates are satisfied in the investment that stores are making in their professional development.
  • 43% of associates said they don't feel heard when making suggestions of in-store changes.

For Melissa Wong, CEO of San Francisco-based Zipline and a former corporate communications manager at Gap Inc., a lot of that comes down to breakdowns in communication between corporate offices and store teams. Whether that's in the form of insufficient communication about training and development opportunities or a failure to get the word out to associates—especially given retail's high-turnover environment—about company priorities and initiatives, it can leave front-line workers feeling unengaged, disconnected and uncertain of whether and how they might fit into the company's plans.

"There is a huge breakdown in communication around both, 'What are we doing for you?' and also that feedback loop back up—what are the stores saying, and what are associates saying?" Wong said in an interview with WGB. More than half (54%) of retail associates surveyed, for example, said they didn't know if their employer supported the 15% Pledge, which challenges retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to products made by Black-owned companies. 

See also: All In: How Walmart, Albertsons and Target Are Accelerating Change

And that has implications for a generation of workers (and consumers) more attuned to companies' stated values and the actions that they're taking to back those up. So while higher pay and promises of wide-ranging benefits may help get workers in the door, more is needed to get them to stay. In her conversation with WGB, Wong discussed how retailers drop the communication ball and what's needed to get back on track to keep top talent in a hot labor market.

Christine LaFave Grace: It seems from the survey results like there’s a perception gap, where employers think they’re offering ample opportunities for career development and advancement and are transparent about what it takes to move up, but employees are saying, "Not so much." Are you seeing that in play?

Melissa Wong: To give you a little bit of context around my background, I worked in headquarters in store communications and store operations, and one of the things that was always consistent was that the stores were never doing the things that we asked them to do. And I think what’s really interesting, and why I left my job after a decade of being in the industry was that there was a huge disconnect between headquarters and stores, and it goes both ways, right?

People in grocery, in retail—I don’t think that anyone in the field or in headquarters is ill-intentioned. No one wants to do a bad job. People choose, typically, the brands that they want to work for—for example, Hy-Vee is one of our customers—and they choose that brand because they feel an affinity [for it]; it’s part of their community. And I think that a lot of times, what I have seen is that grocery and retail, they have accidentally left their workers behind. 

I think people are hard-wired to want to make an impact. In a store, you want to make an impact on a customer’s experience or be a part of a greater community. Part of being hard-wired to make an impact also has to do with: "How much is my voice heard? Is corporate hearing me?" One of the archaic practices that we have seen is that store feedback is bubbled up in a super-manual way, so maybe a regional admin will have a survey with district managers, and then out of 1,200 stores, that feedback gets aggregated in a Word document and then it reaches corporate after four people have reviewed it. That's not really the voice of the people.

And I think that’s why people are feeling ignored. They’re like, I have all of these insights; I see people on a day-to-day basis; I know what my community is asking for; I have good ideas about how we can move the needle in terms of store experience or customer behavior, but no one cares.

You hear over and over that the best ideas come from the store floor, the shop floor—your people on the floor are the ones who know where process improvements need to be made. But for a lot of organizations it seems like it can take so long to act on those ideas, if action ever happens at all. What does a more effective feedback loop look like?

I believe that there are basically four tenets of good communication within a retail organization. Those are: communicating nice-to-know information, like what we’re doing in the community; communicating need-to-do information around, for example, executing promotions; communicating about a library of resources—can I get the information I need to run my business in a meaningful way? And then there’s dialogue, discussion and debate, and that’s really that feedback part. For a store to really run well, you need to have all of those pieces in place.

A lot of the best practices come from the field, and actually we’ve seen the best results from our customers during COVID that did a lot of surveying and discussions with their stores around how to handle some of the region-by-region regulations that were coming down. They really pulled in their field teams to say, “Do you feel good with the guidelines? How would you help us shape these policies, because COVID is unprecedented?” And for it to actually work effectively, there can’t be a disconnect between headquarters and the field.

What are some of the biggest hurdles to making change, and what are some first steps that retailers can take toward better communication with their teams?

I think just acknowledging that there are different results that you want to see from different types of communication and thinking in those four buckets is worthwhile.

We’re also seeing a lot more grocers and retailers reaching out to us to explore technology in ways that we haven’t seen before. I think the pandemic really sped up people trying to reach down to their hourly workers. They are trying to work in a more-agile way.

We’re asking store teams to do even more with less now, and people have a choice. There’s an enormous labor shortage. I think people are just so burnt out from this past year that you have to make sure that your employees know that their voice is heard.

And as you’re making changes in the business, you have to give them context to why and how their role matters in that tide shift, otherwise people are just like, “What are people in headquarters thinking? They’re crazy.” Which is always the case, but there’s going to be even more change at a faster pace than we’ve seen before. Even before COVID, we found that only 29% of the direction sent down to stores actually gets done.

Feeling that you are being heard—does that help in an environment where, as companies struggle to attract workers to meet their staffing needs, their existing staff is getting stretched thin? Is it enough to get people to stay?

Yeah, totally. Through COVID, we saw through all of our customers an increase in communication of about 40%. People are talking more frequently—instead of every week, it’s every day. And some of the retailers that had the best success, they were indexing more on the engagement information.

And it’s not just communicating it once; it’s ongoing, because it’s an hourly worker, and they’re choosing, in hours, to sign on again and again.



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