How Can Retailers Attract the Digital Generation?

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When did a career in retail become so unappealing for young folks? Twenty years ago, a position in frontline retail was one of the best jobs a young person could hope to get. Yet today, a staggering 87 percent of retail leaders are worried about talent shortages. And a 2023 study by Brunswick Group found that a whopping 49 percent of Gen Z say that a career in retail is “not for me.”
Rather than treat frontliners like medieval serfs who face the threat of execution (firing) if they’re found challenging the king (the boss), retailers can focus on opening the lines of authentic communication to facilitate collaboration between corporate and the frontline.
Some of the factors that led to the shift in perspective from retail careers being in-demand to barely tolerable are readily apparent: incompetent retail managers, low hourly wages, and inflexible work schedules, for instance, are a tale as old as time. While other factors, such as an entire generation’s crippling lack of interpersonal skills and unrealistic sales targets based on pre-pandemic performance, have more recently come into play. Let’s take a look at the largest factors inhibiting next-gens’ from joining the frontline and some actionable tactics that retailers can use to recruit, in spite of those objections.

How Can Next Gens Be “Customer Focused” Without Social Skills?

Of the reasons Gen Z doesn’t want to work in public-facing retail, the most prominent is feeling that they feel they lack social skills, or don’t enjoy human interaction, to the level a career in retail demands. It’s no surprise that next gens are enthusiastic online customers with the increasing number of retail interactions taking place on ecommerce channels. But when it comes to future employment, the fact remains that frontline retail careers demand face-to-face interactions with customers, which many next gens feel unequipped to provide. In-person customer interactions are a daunting proposition for the lion’s share of young workers. Brunswick Group found that 51 percent of young professionals believe that being “customer-focused” is the leading characteristic of the world’s top retailers. To put this in context, the characteristic with the second highest votes, “resilient,” had just 19 percent of the votes––so, “customer-focused” won out by a landslide.  But more concerning, next gens perceive retail to be limited to only customer-facing positions when, in actuality, the frontline comprises only a small fraction of professional opportunities that fall under the retail umbrella. For retail to be seen as an attractive, lifelong career path, retailers need to stress the advancement opportunities within their organization. And above all, they need to market themselves as a multifaceted career choice. The question, then, is, how can retail executives and managers help next gens feel comfortable about working in customer-facing positions – or any position in the retail industry? The answer is simple: Start by communicating in job postings that workers will receive training. Training programs can include how to handle various customer interactions (which also enhances communication skills with co-workers and managers). Offering new hires a face-to-face customer service training module can be a competitive differentiator for retailers looking for great talent. In this training module, managers can act out some of the most common retail scenarios and teach workers how to address them effectively. For that matter, bring back a full range of employee training programs. By offering in-depth product and service training on the front end, retailers will help next gens build the confidence they need to excel in their retail positions, whether they be frontline, back-of-house, or corporate. Training can be a powerful recruitment tool for young workers. And experiencing a great training program can enhance an employee’s skillset and enhance their resume to set them apart in future job applications. Like it or not, they are ambitious and will leave you if they don’t get the support they need to excel at your company. Retailers should understand that they can help employees cultivate the life-long social skills they need to aid them throughout their careers.

Top-Down Management Feels Disempowering

Most retail stores are still run as top-down operations: Floor managers are given directives from corporate, who then pass them down to frontline employees in a trickle-down fashion. This type of outdated management style doesn’t resonate with next gen employees who live to be heard and seen. In fact, 9 percent of young folks surveyed by Brunswick Group feel that their “opinion is ignored” when working in retail professions, 11 percent feel that retail careers have “limited opportunity” and an impressive 33 percent consider a career in retail too “ordinary” for their personality. Other concerns about working in retail included “unremarkable managers” (6 percent), “low skill” (18 percent), and “low pay” at 31 percent. Although we saw the value of frontline workers during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean that most retailers keep this in mind during their day-to-day operations. Rather than treat frontliners like medieval serfs who face the threat of execution (firing) if they’re found challenging the king (the boss), retailers can focus on opening the lines of authentic communication to facilitate collaboration between corporate and the frontline. By eradicating top-down management styles, retailers can turn quiet quitters into outspoken brand advocates. This means encouraging corporate interactions with employees during store visits, sharing their contact information, reverse mentoring, and asking frontline employees what they think could be improved––then thanking them for their feedback — and following up on it. Facilitating horizontal feedback is more than a tactic to recruit and retain young employees… acting on the spoken experience of the people interacting with customers will help retailers improve operations on every level.

Position Upward Mobility in Recruiting Next Gen Workers

The retail industry has earned the unfortunate reputation of keeping workers trapped in low-paying positions without hope of promotion. Almost 70 percent of workers plan to leave their jobs this year, so if physical retail is going to survive, retailers need to shake their image as stagnant employers. If done right, individual brands and retailers can position themselves as forward-thinking and a career option that fosters upward mobility as a point of differentiation. Young workers need to be able to visualize an upward career trajectory for themselves at any brand or retailer where they’re considering working. To help next gens do this, retailers can share stories of former frontline retail employees who were able to climb the corporate ladder into the C-suite on recruitment materials. They can also showcase visual merchandisers, traveling artists, training specialists, and other exciting positions, telling the story of how their work on the frontlines helped them get where they are in their career paths. Of course, for this to work, said retailers also need to promote from within. Even frontline retail positions don’t have to be clock-in/clock-out operations. Retailers can reposition employees as influencers and give them the opportunity to earn commission by being brand advocates on social media. They can ask them to help plan events and incentivize them for increasing engagement. We’ve seen a lot of boundaries fade in recent years, but the ones that remain are posing a barrier to retailers’ ability to attract and retain frontline talent. By opening the lines of communication, promoting from within, and teaching their employees transferrable skills, retailers can reduce next gens aversion to working in retail. The key is proactively eliminating any existing structures that make employees feel stuck. Retailers that aren’t sure how to do this can start by driving to their nearest store and starting a dialogue with their frontline employees.

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