Doing Any Holiday Shopping or Retail Hiring? Read This First.

Have you started your holiday shopping yet? Maybe you’re holding out for the best Black Friday deals later this week. If you’re doing any shopping or retail hiring this holiday season — or anytime in 2024 — you’ll want to read ahead.

The fourth-annual UKG retail survey is out, and, while some results are more promising than last year’s findings, there are still challenges ahead for retailers and the shoppers they serve. According to the latest UKG survey, store traffic and shopper demand are both up year over year, and almost all retailers (96%) — up from just 40% in 2022 — plan to increase headcount in stores for the 2023 holiday shopping season.

Seasonal hiring goals could be difficult to hit, however, as turnover continues to be a challenge for the retail sector and competition for talent remains strong, as gleaned from the monthly UKG Workforce Activity report. Although UKG reported shift work in retail grew 1.4% in October, the U.S. Commerce Department reported last week that retail sales in the U.S. slipped slightly (0.1%) for the first time since March 2023.

Before we discuss what this all means for retailers and consumers, let’s review some key findings from this year’s UKG retail-trends report.

Key Findings from the 2023 UKG Retail Survey

If you’ve had trouble locating an associate in aisle five recently, you’re not the only one. Proper staffing remains a challenge for retailers. According to the latest UKG report, about a third of retailers (32%) say staffing shortages limit their ability to adequately care for customers at least weekly, and 75% say shopper expectations are higher than what their stores can deliver.

What’s driving this shortage? Well, 82% of retailers say store employees want greater schedule flexibility than they currently provide, and 1 in 3 say managers are quitting in order to get it. Besides this emphasis on flexibility, retail employees say they also want more frequent and transparent communication from company headquarters and/or store leadership (more on this in a moment).

Despite looming fears of a recession, consumers haven’t completely stopped consuming. Still, 93% of retailers say their stores are struggling to meet sales goals, and almost a third (31%) point to — that’s right — staffing shortages as the main reason.

Shoppers bear some of the blame for these shortages, too, though. The UKG survey found 1 in 3 retailers are dealing with angry or aggressive shoppers in stores at least weekly, and retailers say that this — along with increased exposure to other adverse situations (e.g., increased theft/loss in stores) — is dissuading people from working in retail.

What Does It Mean for Retailers?

As promised, let’s talk more about workplace communication. Effective communication among the frontline workforce has long been challenging, as employees aren’t usually anchored to a desk all day. They’re dispersed in the field, working on the floor, or busy serving customers. Most frontline employees likely don’t have access to a computer at work. But they probably have a smart phone — and that creates an opportunity for employers to better connect with frontline employees (e.g., retail associates).

Retailers recognize this opportunity to improve the employee experience. In fact, when it comes to communication, nearly 9 out of 10 retailers (87%) admit they could be doing more to support employees in stores with mobile technology, according to the UKG survey.

Moreover, on average, only 45% of retailers have equipped store staff with a mobile-enabled solution to complete common work tasks or access work-related information. This includes tasks such as submitting time-off requests, swapping a shift, or sending out employee communications and managing employee schedules from a mobile device. For the most part, retailers overlook these actions or processes that could be exponentially streamlined by a mobile solution, leaving employees underserved by their stores’ technology constraints.

It’s not just about making on-the-job tasks easier, though. It’s also about increasing transparency through increased communication. And, as we’ve reported many times here at the UKG Workforce Institute, greater transparency from the organization can lead to greater trust with employees, which helps build a great place to work — key to long-term business success.

The good news for current and prospective workers is retailers have heard these employee concerns and plan to address them in 2024. According to the UKG report, “employee satisfaction” is the top business priority for retailers next year.

If retailers are committed to improving employee satisfaction, they need to address another major concern. According to the UKG survey, 62% of retailers agree with the statement, “It seems like people don’t want to work in retail anymore,” and one of the top reasons they cite is the increasingly dangerous work environment — not because of co-workers, but because of customers.

Indeed, 41% of retailers believe shoppers are more angry/aggressive now than in the past. You’ve probably seen the viral videos on the news, YouTube, or TikTok trending for all the wrong reasons, capturing chaotic scenes of fights between shoppers or customers berating store associates.

Although they amass millions of views, these customer confrontations are not entertaining to watch. The real-life drama is unsettling, if not horrific. We can and must do better as shoppers, and, more importantly, as people.

A Friendly Reminder for Consumers and Retailers

So, if you’re headed out to the stores this week, next month, or next year, remember to have a little patience, grace, and respect for your fellow shoppers. And do thank all of the dedicated retail associates and store managers who continue to show up daily to stock the shelves, serve the customers, and keep the business running smoothly, all in an earnest effort to provide the most enjoyable (and safe) shopping experience for consumers year-round, and especially during the busy holiday season.

And, if you’re a retailer hoping to return to the black this Friday and beyond, remember this: creating a pleasant shopping and work experience for all people isn’t solely the customers’ responsibility. The ultimate onus for improvement is on retailers.

As the latest UKG retail report so eloquently states, “Whether or not your storefront is a great place to shop depends heavily on whether or not your business commits to being a great place to work.”

And that’s a lesson every person and every business should take to heart.

Want to Learn More?

For a full breakdown on the 2023 UKG retail survey results and what it means for the frontline workforce, watch this LinkedIn Live event featuring a conversation between Rob Klitsch, industry principal for retail and hospitality at UKG, and UKG Workforce Institute advisory board member, John Frehse, senior managing director at Ankura.

Want to compare this year’s holiday retail trends with prior years? Check out the UKG Workforce Institute’s analysis of the annual UKG retail surveys from 20222021, and 2020.