What retail workers want: Employee engagement secrets from a retail staffing expert

Posted on: January 26, 2024By: Sean Tarry

Retail is all about people. It’s about the excited customers who enter your stores. And it’s about your retail workers who are responsible for providing the engagement, service and exceptional experience that keeps customers coming back. 

But retailers are still struggling to adequately staff their stores, and operations are impacted industry-wide. According to Suzanne Sears, retail staffing expert and president of Best Retail Careers International Inc., this staffing program is driven by the fact that they just aren’t getting what they want from their employers.

“Retail staff right across the country are quitting their jobs,” says Sears. “It’s creating a massive problem and adding to a crisis around staffing that had already been triggered by the pandemic. And why are they leaving? It’s most often because they got what they consider to be a better job.” 

Retail Workers

According to Sears, that’s leading to a lot of instability, particularly around employee development. “If you want to train and grow talent within your organization, you need them to stick around long enough for that to happen. And if your talent doesn’t stick around, your service levels plummet and your ability to grow the company suffers tremendously,” says Sears. “So, retailers across the country have got to better understand what their employees want, and give it to them.”

So, what do retail workers want? Here are Sears’ top 5 must-haves for any retailer looking to attract and retain retail workers.  

1. A strong brand vision

According to Sears, employees today—especially those of the younger generations—are seeking employment with the brands that are most aligned with their values and the things that they believe in. This is a global trend. Edelman’s recent Trust Barometer 2021 reveals that 71% of global workers expect their employer to reflect their values, possess a greater purpose and to engage in meaningful work that shapes society. It’s sentiment that Sears says is gaining momentum, becoming the top consideration among job seekers today:

“The reason any brand can get people to work for them is because of the company’s vision—what it stands for and represents. I can’t even count how many candidates will turn down an organization because they’ve heard negative things about the brand. A brand’s values have always played a role in influencing people who are looking for employment. But it seems to have grown in significance as a consideration recently. Ensuring that you stand for something and that the company has a sense of purpose resonates a great deal with people today, more so than ever before.”

2. Growth and employee development

Although a strong sense of purpose will help attract talent to an organization, it won’t keep them there, Sears asserts. The trick to motivating retail workers, empowering them and making them feel valued? The promise of education and development is key. In fact, according to a recent Randstad survey, 52% of Canadian employees consider career progression to be an important benefit offered by employers. It’s a component of recruitment and retention that Sears says is becoming critically important for retailers to offer if they want to provide the service customers are looking for: 

“Retailers have got to provide a real, tangible platform for the growth and development of their employees. This includes training and education and an opportunity to progress and advance within the company and their careers. And, when looking at the younger generations, they are more highly educated than any other generations before them. They come from a culture of continuous learning and expect to have learning opportunities available to them throughout their lives. Providing training and education is highly rewarding for employees and keeps them engaged with the brand, providing them with clarity concerning their individual roles and the direction of the company in general.”

3. Flexibility

Randstad research also indicates that flexibility within one’s employment is another top concern of prospective employees, with 81% of Canadian workers stating that flexible work, such as the ability to choose their own hours, is highly important to them. Yet only 52% say that it’s a benefit that they enjoy within their current job. It’s an aspect of employment that Sears says is reflective of the tenor of the times that we live in, and an increasingly critical factor in a brand’s desirability:

“Flexibility with staff is a major draw to the brands that are willing to provide it. There has been an evolution in thinking over the course of the past couple of years. They’re prioritizing themselves more than ever and seeking opportunities that allow them the ability to find greater balance in their lives. Retailers that are able to offer this in the form of more flexible scheduling and hours, and leave of absences, will find that they’re attracting the interest of a good majority of retail workers looking for jobs.”

4. A positive employee culture

Prospective retail workers also seek a positive employee culture in which to work. According to Sears, the creation of a strong employee community is very much centered around compassion and understanding, and includes considerations like the flexibility mentioned above, as well as mental health and wellness initiatives and employee recognition and rewards programs. She says that it often doesn’t cost retailers anything in providing these things for their employees, yet yields incredible returns for the brand:

“It goes without saying that a happy employee who feels valued and important is a highly productive employee. When you build a positive workplace culture, you’re setting the tone for your staff and the experience they offer customers. And, the results are astounding: elevating levels of teamwork, morale among staff, the job satisfaction rates of individuals on the team and, in the end, overall productivity. It’s a no-cost move for any retailer to make. And, it doesn’t just serve to attract employees to the brand, it serves really well in retaining their talent as well.”

5. Diversity, equity and inclusion

A critical component in supporting a positive employee community is the concerted focus and effort of retailers toward creating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It’s another initiative, explains Sears, that ends up serving as an extremely strong talent attraction and retention tool. In fact, a survey by ADP Canada and Maru/Blue revealed that 47% of employed Canadians aged 18 to 34 believe they would “be more loyal to their organization” if it placed greater emphasis on DEI. Sears explains: 

“To find the right kind of talent to your organization, you’ve got to make sure they feel welcome and comfortable as a contributing member of the team. Once in the door, if an employee discovers that the culture is not diverse and inclusive, it often ends up in a quick departure. Opening up your recruitment and hiring processes to attract the very best, despite their gender, race, sexual orientation, or identification, is going to benefit any retailer immensely and lend toward the creation of a truly diverse and inclusive culture.”

There’s no doubting the magnitude of the challenges that organizations face when it comes to the retail staffing and employment crisis currently impacting the industry. However, there are clear opportunities in front of retailers to attract and retain top talent by providing a range of non-monetary benefits. By leading with a strong brand vision and providing comprehensive training and development within a positive, flexible and inclusive work environment, retailers can overcome their staffing hurdles, differentiate their brands from competitors and stand themselves well for future success and growth.

Sean Tarry

Sean Tarry is an experienced writer and journalist who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring industry news and analysis to life with over two decades of experience managing and contributing to various publications.

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