Building a High-Performance Frontline in the Retail Industry

Your blueprint for success

The retail industry is changing by the day. It’s easier than ever for people to shop from the comfort of their own homes, which has forced retailers to find creative ways to maintain steady foot traffic in brick-and-mortar locations.

Running exclusive in-store sales and creating an inviting and unique atmosphere are just some of the ways retailers are trying to up their game. But there’s one distinct advantage retail locations have over their online counterparts: frontline employees. Companies that recognize this reality are focusing their attention on how to attract and retain the best ones.

They’re looking for helpful, high-energy brand ambassadors to serve their valued customers. But the challenge is when they find them, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay. With one of the highest turnover rates in any industry and an average cost of $3,328 to replace a $10/hour employee, retail companies are struggling to see a return on investment for their recruiting and retention efforts.

So, what will it take to build a high-performance frontline workforce in 2020 and beyond? A holistic approach that prioritizes employee engagement as a business strategy and passionate HR leaders who can lead the charge.

Drafting your all-star team

Know who you want and how to find them

If you want to create a high-performance culture, you have to stack your team with high performers.

It might seem like a simple strategy, but it’s an area where a lot of companies fail. The more strategic you can be during the recruiting process, the better chance you’ll end up with a team of all-stars
that will make your company proud.

Be proactive about who you hire by:


Identifying your ideal candidate and must-have traits


Creating and communicating an aspirational employer brand


Targeting your job descriptions to attract high performers

How? Let’s dive into each.

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Identifying your ideal candidate and must-have traits

Hiring for retail isn’t as straightforward as hiring for other industries. Candidates come to the table with different backgrounds, experience, and qualifications, which can make it difficult to create a cookie-cutter mold of your ideal employee.

So, how do you decide which applications go to the top of the pile? By looking for the one thing that all great retail associates have in common: customer service skills.

Look at who’s really shining in your stores and take note: Are they always smiling? Do they know where to find everything? Do they volunteer to pick up shifts? Then, create a list of these stand-out skills and design your ideal candidate.

Must-have traits of an all-star rep

Emotional IQ:

Empathizes with customers, listens to their needs, and adjusts their approach accordingly.

Emotional intelligence will be one of the top 10 job skills in 2020.

Technical know-how:

Knows how to use tools like computers, systems, registers, and phones.

Problem solving:

Can identify a problem, come up with solutions, and take quick action to resolve.


Takes the time to help customers, thoughtfully addressing their questions and concerns.


Can be trusted to work independently and be accountable for all their tasks.

Positive Attitude:

Keeps a happy and friendly demeanor during interactions with customers and staff.

Willingness to learn:

Wants to excel in their role, eagerly accepting learning and development opportunities.

Pro tip: Your all-star reps have all-star friends

Ask your top performers to refer potential candidates, then reward them every time one of their referrals get hired.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it

Creating and communicating an aspirational employer brand


As consumers, we all have brands we love. Whether it’s the look, feel, taste, or experience―there’s something special that pulls us in and keeps us coming back.

Your employer brand can have the same effect. The way you portray your culture and employee experience―in store, on your careers site, or in your job descriptions―can either draw people in or steer them away.

When prospective candidates walk into your store, you want them to see employees who are “straight up having a good time” and
enjoying what they do. Not only is it good for recruiting, it’s good for business. You can replicate this experience online with employee videos or testimonials.

Once you’ve proven your company is a great employer, why not use it to your advantage?


Have you won a top employer award? 


Is your turnover rate at an all-time low?


Are your eNPS scores off the charts?


Do employees refer their friends?

If you found yourself nodding yes, it’s time to start spreading the word. These are all great stories to share with potential candidates―whether it’s during the recruiting or hiring process. And it never hurts to broadcast these stories to your current employees, too.

It’s all in the details

Targeting your job descriptions to attract top talent

Once you’ve designed your ideal candidate and nailed down your employer brand, you’ve got two of the most important parts of your job description in hand―for any role. Let those lead, then fill the rest of your description with more tactical details like responsibilities and any experience or qualifications required.

But don’t stop there. Smart candidates will be scanning for anything that promises them value. Like pay, benefits, perks, discounts, and training and development opportunities.

Don’t be afraid to include these things in your job descriptions, especially if they’re more enticing than what your competitors are offering. They’re high-priority items for today’s picky job seekers, and it might be all it takes to steer top candidates your way.


Not sure if you’ve found top talent?

Scan applications for these signs:

  • Awards or achievements
  • Proof of how they added value (increased sales, improved processes, etc.)
  • Endorsements from previous managers or co-workers
  • Extracurricular activities where performance is rewarded

Pro tip: Don’t let your job descriptions collect dust

Keeping a set of standard, up-to-date job descriptions for all roles will help you save time during the recruiting process and allow you to continually refresh your messaging.

Why onboarding matters in retail

Set employees up for long-term success

Just as you want your customers to feel welcome in your store, you want your employees to feel comfortable working there. Like they belong, and they’re equipped and empowered to succeed. And that requires a strategic and people-focused onboarding program that extends beyond the first shift.

The retail industry notoriously struggles with high turnover. There are many reasons why employees leave (like other opportunities, seasonality, re-location and fit), but a bad onboarding experience is becoming one of the leading culprits.

Sink or swim isn’t a strategy

When employees are thrown into a job with minimal training or prep, they can feel lost, uncomfortable and insecure. And that can leave them wondering if they made the right decision.

An employee’s first few shifts are the ideal time to kickstart engagement. Show them you’re serious about their success and you’re excited to have them around for the long term. You put in a lot of time and effort finding them and convincing them to join.

Don’t waste it all by delivering a less-than-stellar first impression.

What’s in your welcome kit?

Make sure employees have everything they need on day 1:

  • Name tag
  • Uniform or company t-shirt
  • Notepad and pen
  • A welcome video
  • Login credentials for your online learning portal

An effective onboarding program should make employees feel like they’re part of a team working toward the same goal. They should know where to go and what to do, but more importantly they should understand what success looks like, and how they play a role.

It’s also a great opportunity to introduce them to the company, its culture and their co-workers. Try these tips for helping new recruits ease into their new environment:

  • Acquaint new employees with their coworkers (during daily huddles or with 1:1 intros)
  • Show them any internal communication channels or tools they should be familiar with
  • Assign them a buddy who they can comfortably ask questions or eat lunch with
  • Ask them to follow social media channels and encourage them to like and share posts

Pro tip: It’s never too early to start learning

Include product training as part of your pre-onboarding program so employees have a base-level understanding of your company and product(s) before they ever set foot in the door.

What do you stand to gain?


A well-structured onboarding program can drive tangible business results. Research shows that organizations with effective onboarding saw significant improvements in retention rates, time to productivity, and time to proficiency.

More new hire



Greater new hire productivity


Faster time to proficiency


Remember, if the cost to replace an employee is $3,328, then that’s the amount you’ll save for every employee who decides to stay.

Pro tip: Onboarding isn’t a one-time deal

Plan to check in after a couple weeks, after a month, and even three months to ensure an employee’s expectations have been met.

What retail associates really want: value

5 ways to retain and engage your top performers

If a customer walks into your store and doesn’t see anything worth spending money on, what do they do? They leave. It’s the same for your employees. Except the currency is time, and if they don’t see anything worth trading it for, they’ll turn and head in the other direction.

There will always be employees who go to work to collect a paycheck. Clock in, clock out, repeat. But when it comes to top performers―the people who see their job as an opportunity to grow as a person while expanding their skills and experience ―money isn’t the only motivation.

They want something of value.

Here are five ways to give it to them

Gift icon 1. Offer generous (yet low-cost) perks 

Pay is a driving factor in any industry. But offering competitive salaries and regular raises isn’t always possible. When this is the case, consider other ways to entice employees to stick around. Like these:

  •   Benefits
  •   Training opportunities
  •   Employee discounts
  •   Incentives and prizes
  •   Social and company events
  •   Swag

While some of these perks may incur fees, they’re all cost-effective ways to enhance your total compensation package. And they can differentiate you from competitors. Because unlike the average retail salary, these types of perks will change everywhere you go―which is all the more reason to make sure they’re unique.

Thumbs-up icon 2. Create a bragworthy employee experience

Have you ever heard someone go on and on about where they work? They love their job, their co-workers, the brand, the discounts... It seems more like a passion than a job! That’s how you want all your employees to feel. Like they scored a really cool job, and the last thing they would do is give it up. That kind of energy is contagious, and it can even help attract new recruits.

Map pin icon 3. Give them a glimpse into their future

One of the most common reasons employees leave is because they don’t see a future with the company. And while some people only sign up for a temporary gig, there is a population of eager, customer-service enthusiasts who shouldn’t be ignored. When you come across one, make sure to discuss career and development opportunities and create a clear roadmap for advancement. If they know where they’re going, they’ll be more motivated to get there―and they’ll know you’re standing by them while they do.

Employee icon 4. Give them good mentors

It’s often said that employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. With managers playing such a pivotal role in whether employees stay or go, it’s critical to ensure they have the right leadership skills and training. Turn the saying on its head by making good people management part of your company culture. Hire great managers, provide them with ongoing management training, and reward them for inspiring their teams.

Heart-shaped icon 5. Help them feel the love

Employees have individual preferences when it comes to how they’re recognized and rewarded. Merit increases and commissions are certainly an effective way to thank employees for a job well done. But there are other ways to acknowledge an employee’s contributions. Like a quick shout-out on the internal communication platform, an opportunity to help with a special project or initiative, or simply pulling them aside to tell them how much of an impact they’re making.

Nurture them and watch them grow

Invest in them and they’ll invest in you


When employees are empowered to grow with the business, retail becomes a viable career path.

It becomes less of a job and more of a personal endeavor—to learn more, do more, achieve more, and ultimately, earn more. Investing in learning and development programs for retail employees not only supports their growth, it can lead to improved performance which can translate into higher profitability for the business.

Whether it’s product training, personal development workshops or learning how to use a new technology, employees come away with new knowledge and skills. To many, that’s worth more than money, and there’s a likelier chance they’ll stick around for more.

Here are some tips to consider when re-vamping your learning and development strategy


  • Overwhelm employees with too much information all at once.
  • Rely on manual, paper-based forms and resources.
  • Require employees to complete training using a store computer.
  • Focus on product training only.
  • Make training seem like a boring or mandatory exercise.


  • Give employees bite-sized bursts on an ongoing basis.
  • Use interactive platforms designed for user engagement.
  • Enable employees to train wherever they’re comfortable—on any device.
  • Provide a mix of product and personal development training.
  • Demonstrate value and offer incentives for completing additional training.
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Before you check out

Battling the high turnover rate in retail will be an ongoing challenge for today’s HR teams. But with employee engagement emerging as a core business strategy across all industries, there’s a perfect opportunity for retail companies to set the stage.

Using modern strategies, tools, and tactics like the ones we’ve laid out, you can become the shining example of how to recruit and retain a high-performance workforce―no matter what challenges you’re up against.

We can’t wait to see what your organization can achieve.