8 retailers taking employee engagement to the next level

Posted on: September 18, 2023Updated on: April 17, 2024By: Paige Magarrey

Looking to retain your staff, increase revenue and drive memorable customer experiences? While there are many resources and technologies you can invest in that may provide a competitive edge, there is one resource that is infinitely valuable and often overlooked: your people.

Retailers Prioritizing Employee Engagement

Investing in your employee experience to improve employee engagement can have a huge impact on the business outcomes that make or break frontline industries. As virtually every frontline industry battles ongoing staffing issues, these numbers make investing in employee experience and employee engagement a no-brainer. In fact, according to The Deskless Report, 40% of leaders plan to invest more budget into employee engagement in the coming year–which means organizations that don’t start to invest more in employee engagement will quickly lag behind.

Have we convinced you to take a look at your frontline employee engagement tactics? Let’s start with a little inspiration: here are great examples of retailers with high employee engagement who are reaping the benefits of engagement, team performance and customer satisfaction.

1. Best Buy

Best Buy has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to the in-store experience and employee engagement. On a recent podcast, Ron Tite of The Tite Group talked about how Best Buy “empowers their frontline staff to act in a way that reaffirms the values of the organization.”

He explains that Best Buy enables this empowerment by communicating to employees that “[…] the only thing you need to know is to be amazing. Whatever you think that requires for our customers –we trust you”. Empowering the workforce as Best Buy does creates better employee morale and, as a result, a better customer experience.

Best Buy is also very effective at engaging their employees in idea sourcing. As of last year they had opened over 40 Experience Stores to create a more interactive shopper experience, where people can test out the latest technology, from VR to drones or new video game systems. The concept for the new store came from sourcing employee and customer insights and ideas. For Best Buy, listening to their employees and customers ultimately allows them to move with retail market trends more effectively.

2. Golf Town

Golf Town works hard to improve employee engagement and the associate experience across their stores by working with their people. In fact, they recently collaborated with their store managers and associates to rebuild their core values: team, winning, adaptation and authenticity. 

Using their digital communication platform, Golf Town improved communication between upper management and frontline workers and increased engagement on in-store initiatives, such as events, promotions and new offers. Within five days of launch, Golf Town achieved 78% adoption across their entire frontline workforce and have been able to achieve a 75% response rate.

“It’s played a big role in helping us shift the culture and elevating the associate’s connection to their team, company and our brand,” says Golf Town president, Chad McKinnon.

3. Patagonia

Patagonia has always been focused on a strong core vision. But last year, founder Yvon Chouinard took it to the next level when he created permanent legal structure to ensure that his company can never deviate from that core vision—that for-profit business can work for the planet. Chouinard announced that 98% of the company’s stock had been transferred to a non-profit that will make sure that the company’s annual profits are used to fight climate change, and the rest of the stock will fund a newly-created Patagonia Purpose Trust. That unwavering focus has helped the retailer build a community of employees that are engaged and passionate about that vision.

“Building the best product while causing the least harm is at the heart of what we do,” explained Chouinard in a recent interview with McKinsey. “A Patagonia employee is someone who can treat work as play, finds fulfillment in independence, and is obsessed with quality, whether that’s in a shirt or a store display. We spend a lot of time hiring the right person for a job or sourcing partners in business—so it isn’t so much about trying to ‘instill’ our philosophy into a person as it is finding those who already share our values.”

Patagonia’s deep care for the environment has also led them to provide support for any of their employees who want to learn about the environment. One way that they do this is by funding up to 2 months of internship programs for any environmental non-profit, which this year resulted in 10,000 volunteer hours for 43 organizations.

4. REI

This sporting goods co-op consistently ranked in the top 10 companies for employee engagement, with some of the most passionate and happy employees out there. An REI Employee Engagement Index reports that 92% of employees go beyond what is required to help REI succeed and that only 18% of employees were seriously considering leaving REI at that time.

One of REI’s biggest efforts to improve the employee experience is through their “company campfire”. This initiative was launched to improve two-way communication between upper management and store clerks. REI also supports its employees by offering various efforts and benefits. Employees get an additional two days off per year to “go outside and get inspired,” as well as the third day off when REI closes all of its stores on Black Friday for their employees.

5. Sephora

Sephora has mastered employee experience by focusing on three key aspects: training, technology and development. All cast members (their internal name for frontline staff) start with training on the three main product categories (perfume, makeup and skincare) starting on day one, and continually get retrained on new products, techniques and trends. Sephora is so committed to training that they even developed Sephora University with three locations globally, offering training to the frontline and corporate employees alike.

In addition to making their cast members industry experts, Sephora provides them the most cutting edge technology to use in store. From ColorIQ (their digital shade finder) to handheld registers, cast members are using world-class tech as often as they use a makeup brush, which makes their jobs easier and more enjoyable.

Finally, Sephora prides itself on providing mobility for its cast members; whether that’s between positions, stores, departments, or even countries! One cast member has even grown from a Beauty Advisor to becoming the General Manager of France through Sephora’s commitment to growing, training and developing their top talent.

6. Wegmans

Wegmans is ahead of the curve when it comes to employee engagement, experience design and culture. Kevin Stickles, Wegmans’ VP of HR, stated that “our employees are our number one asset, period. The first question you ask is: ‘Is this the best thing for the employee?’.” In fact, Wegmans awards $6 million a year in scholarships, and has been recognized as one of Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work list for over 20 years.

They also go above and beyond in making sure their employees have the resources and know-how to be experts in their area of work. Deli workers are sent on trips to France, Italy, Germany and Wisconsin to learn about cheese, while butchers are sent to Colorado and South America to learn about beef. Wegmans is a prime example of extending the employee experience beyond the store, by providing a life experience to workers.

While competitors are skeptical that companies can both increase profits and invest in the employee experience, Wegmans has grown to become a $6.2 billion-a-year company. Plus, 94% of their employees state that they’re proud to tell others they work at Wegmans. That sort of brand advocacy is priceless.

7. Zingerman’s

The Michigan-based food business group is so passionate about employee experience that it launched a spinoff. “Zingerman’s Community of Businesses” includes 10 independent businesses in the Ann Arbor area: bakeries, a Korean restaurant, a cheese shop, a candy store, even a travel food tour service. And among them? ZingTrain, a training consultancy that drives the brand’s employee training program while working with other brands looking to take their employee experience up a notch.

At Zingerman’s, employee engagement isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. “The more engaged employees are and the more they understand where you’re trying to go as an organization, and the more bought-in they are to where you’re going, the more they understand how they can have an impact,” explains Maggie Bayless, founding partner of ZingTrain.

The “complex ecosystem” of employee experience at Zingerman’s includes a written vision, decision transparency, a “training compact,” and much more. “Most people want to do a good job. They want to make a contribution. Yes, there are people that just want to punch the clock and go home. But I don’t think that’s most people,” says Bayless. “People spend a big chunk of their life at work. They want to be engaged and feel like they’re building something, and that their brain is being used. I think that for a long time people just didn’t think that was possible at work, so they didn’t ask for it. But I think people always would have liked it.”

8. Lowe’s

For home improvement retailer Lowe’s, part of their approach to employee engagement is empowering their people with the right information to take customer service and transform it into a next-level customer experience. In a talk at NRF 2023, Dave Sansavera, Senior Director of Learning and Development at Lowe’s, told a story about a customer that was looking for electrical push connectors, and asked an associate from a different department for help.

“The customer was asking about how to use them and the associate said, ‘This isn’t my department, but I’ve got this tool and we can figure it out together,’” Sansavera said. The associate then used Axonify on their device to find the information the customer needed, and they watched informational videos together. The customer later filled out a satisfaction survey (10/10!) and even sent a note to the store manager. “That’s how you earn loyalty. That’s how you really solve customer issues,” he said.

“Customer service is simple,” Sansavera explained. “A customer comes in, you say, ‘Hi!’ and ‘I help you get what you want.’ But taking it to another level, taking it to that care and really helping—that ties back to empowerment.” 

The takeaway?

If you want to improve the customer experience, focusing your efforts on the employee experience should be your first step. Which example of amazing employee engagement are you going to try first?

Paige Magarrey

Paige Magarrey is a writer, editor and content marketer obsessed with telling epic and informative stories about the frontline experience.

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