Examining the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on safety and staffing practices in the retail sector, a survey of retail leaders1 by UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group) finds U.S. stores are approaching the holiday shopping season with optimism despite risks posed by perpetual understaffing and a lack of contingency planning that threaten to disrupt business and intensify holiday stress for employees and shoppers.
“Retailers Rethink Holiday Season Strategy: Store safety, staffing, and shopping trends in the COVID-19 era,” an in-depth study by UKG, examines survey responses from 302 U.S. retailers, more than half of which operate 100+ physical stores (61%) and employ more than 5,000 employees (55%), to reveal what’s in store—the good and the bad—for store managers, associates, and shoppers this holiday season.
- Will stores stay open? Retailers display a mix of confidence and caution
- Almost all U.S. retailers (91%) are confident—with half “extremely” confident (54%)—stores will be open and fully operational on Black Friday (Nov. 27), the traditional start to the holiday season.
- To 4 out of 5 retailers (83%), closing a store during the busy holiday season due to COVID-19 is not unthinkable, and 53% say it’s a “likely” scenario they would shut down store operations and tell employees to stay home if their region were experiencing rising cases of COVID-19.
- If stores are forced to close for an extended period during the holiday season, 3 in 5 retailers (59%) have a contingency plan to keep store associates employed.
- Holiday stress meets COVID-19: Retailers prioritize workforce well-being
- Nearly 3 in 4 retailers (72%) anticipate store employees will feel anxious or stressed about COVID-19 while at work, and the majority (81%) think it’s possible that employee concerns about the virus could lead them to quit mid-season.
- Two in 3 retailers (67%) reported that store employees tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020, and 3 in 4 (76%) realistically expect some associates will test positive during the holiday season—emphasizing retailers acknowledge and appreciate potential risk to frontline staff.
- Almost all retailers (95%) believe they have an obligation to notify employees who may have been in contact with a co-worker who tests positive for COVID-19—and 86% of U.S. employees agree. But while 9 in 10 (90%) respondents think it’s important that their stores implement a COVID-19 contact tracing program before the holiday season begins, only about half say it’s very (28%) or extremely (26%) likely this will be rolled out to all stores in time.
- To protect people in stores, more than half of retailers (55%) will conduct employee health screenings before each shift, and more than a quarter (28%) will cover the cost of testing for employees experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of health coverage.
- Workforce flexibility is more important than ever, say 80% of retailers, who are taking critical steps to maintain employee well-being by making schedule accommodations for at-risk employees (46%), compensating associates for work schedules even if they are instructed to quarantine (39%), and keeping a pulse on workforce well-being via employee surveys (36%).
- Store safety, success, and employee experience: It’s all riding on retail managers
- The demands of COVID-19 bring added complexity to the role of the manager—already the backbone of the store—who have assumed new responsibility for overseeing and enforcing heightened safety mandates (72%) and establishing cleaning protocols for their location (66%), and are expected to be far more visible on the floor this holiday season (47%).
- Three in 4 retailers recognize that uncomfortable or unsafe customer interactions in stores—i.e., if a customer refuses to comply with safety requirements—could lead associates to quit, so two-thirds (66%) are training store managers to intervene on behalf of employees.
- Evolving for the new normal: Hiring, curbside pickup, sweeping safety measures, and augmented staff roles keep the store experience alive, despite perpetual understaffing
- COVID-19 gives curbside pickup a major boost in 2020: 4 in 5 retailers (83%) will offer curbside options this season—compared to just 44% in 2019 and 34% in 2018—while nearly half say all stores will offer curbside pickup (48%) and call it a “top priority” for staffing (47%).
- In-store safety is trending: 4 in 5 retailers will require employees (83%) and customers (82%) to wear masks and will increase cleaning frequency (80%), as many others will enforce social distancing (73%); provide PPE (personal protective equipment) for staff (67%); use transparent shields/barriers (60%); and manually monitor and limit store occupancy (50%).
- To fill seasonal roles—including newly created seasonal positions dedicated to helping stores manage and enforce safety protocols—3 in 5 retailers (59%) are seeking new, best-fit talent, while half (51%) look to re-hire former seasonal employees based on their existing familiarity with the job. Additionally, 2 in 5 (41%) aim to recall store employees who were furloughed due to earlier COVID-19 shutdowns.
- As 4 in 5 retailers (81%) brace for holiday shifts to be regularly understaffed due to employee quarantining, and 86% say their stores have already experienced understaffing related to COVID-19, more than 1 in 4 (28%) are prepared to offer associates additional compensation or other rewards to come into work if COVID-related concerns become prevalent.
- Amanda Nichols, senior manager, retail, hospitality, and food service practice, UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group)
“Retail stores continue to demonstrate remarkable resilience as they evolve to provide more curbside pickup, online options, and augmented staff roles to keep the shopper and employee experience alive this holiday season. While two-thirds of U.S. retailers believe their business will not only survive but emerge stronger from this pandemic, they must also acknowledge the tenacity of their frontline workforce—who are keeping their brick-and-mortar business afloat while facing legitimate risks—and invest in technology and processes to make employees’ experience at work as safe and engaging as possible.”
- Note to editors: Please refer to this as “Retailers Rethink Holiday Season Strategy: Store safety, staffing, and shopping trends in the COVID-19 era.”
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Footnote 1: Survey Methodology – This survey was commissioned by UKG and conducted online by Qualtrics from September 2-11, 2020, among a pool of 302 retail managers, directors, executives, and owners in the U.S. spanning numerous industry segments, from big-box and department stores to apparel, consumer electronics, discount, drugstore, hardware, home improvement, housewares, sporting goods, and luxury retailers—more than half of which operate 100+ physical stores (61%) and employ more than 5,000 employees (55%). For questions about the survey methodology, please contact [email protected].
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