Retailers need open stores to make money. While small businesses remain divided over when and how to reopen, too many people have ignored the obvious question: what do the sales associates think?
Research proves that sales associates determine the success or failure of the stores where they work. Customers who work with associates are more likely to make purchases and tend to spend more money than customers who do not.
Retail workers are not to blame for the unprecedented closure of stores in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they have shouldered more than their share of the burden. From massive chains to mom-and-pop shops, retail sales associates have operated on uncertain schedules, sometimes with questionable protective equipment and unclear policies. As the world prepares to reopen, retail industry owners and experts need to understand the positions of the workers on the front lines.
As part of our Reopening of Retail series, we captured insights from 500 retail sales associates around the United States to gauge their thoughts on how their employers have performed during the crisis and what reopening looks like to them.
These workers will play a critical role in both the immediate and long-term futures of brick-and-mortar retail. The days of ill-informed and overly aggressive used car salesman-style tactics are over. Today, retail sales roles require associates to maintain a deep understanding of their products and services, along with personalities that lend themselves to informed customer service.
From May 21-27 2020, Raydiant surveyed 500 respondents who identified themselves as sales associates at brick-and-mortar retail locations. Survey respondents were all currently employed at the time they took the survey. Of the total group, 74% worked for major chains, such as Walmart or Nordstrom, while the remainder worked for independently-owned businesses.
Our survey revealed several interesting truths about retail workers’ views on reopening. Some of the most pertinent insights include:
Most sales associates who still have jobs believe they will keep them. Over 75% believed their jobs were secure, while 13% were concerned and the other 12% were not sure. Given the large numbers of associates who have already been laid off, retail workers have understandable doubts.
Sales associates aren’t worried about losing their jobs to automation. Despite the noise about robots taking over more retail duties, sales associates remain unbothered. Our survey found that only 12% believed robots would replace their roles, with most associates believing robots would not affect them or they would work together.
About half of sales associates feel protected — but not as protected as customers. Regarding workers’ health, 48% believed their employers placed an extremely high priority on their well-being. When it came to customers, though, that number rose to 54.8%.
Retail workers expect more rigorous cleaning processes and curbside pickup to stay. Half of survey respondents said their stores had implemented stricter cleaning and sanitary procedures, and 43% expected to keep those procedures after the pandemic. For curbside pickup, 29% said their stores had adopted the change and 23% expected the offering to become permanent.
Let’s take a closer look at how retailer workers feel about reopening.
Part 1: Pay & Job Security
In May 2020, more than 33 million Americans had lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Retail workers experienced the same upheaval, but parts of the retail sector experienced a hiring boom during the same period. This multifaceted job security situation is reflected in the responses of our retail associate survey pool.
Of our respondents, 36% saw no change in their pay over the previous three months. Twenty-six percent saw a minor or major decrease, while 38% received minor or major raises. These figures likely reflect the pandemic-inspired wage increases led by retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Albertsons.
While our research only covered retail workers who were employed at the time of the survey, those who still have jobs remain optimistic that they will keep them throughout the pandemic and beyond. Only 5.2% said they were very worried about job security, while 8.9% said they were a little worried.
Some have speculated about a rise in automation to limit the need for person-to-person interactions, but sales associates don’t seem worried that these investments will cost them their livelihoods. Most respondents said they did not believe robots would take their jobs or said that associates would work together with robots. About a quarter did not know, while 12.1% believed robots would eventually replace them.
Part 2: Health and Safety
Consumers now care deeply about whether stores take their health and safety seriously. So do retail sales associates. The pandemic introduced new standards of social distancing and hygiene that may never return to previous norms. In light of this reality, retail workers generally expect their employers to protect their well-being. According to those same associates, though, fulfillment of that obligation has been a mixed bag.
Regarding their impressions of their employers, nearly half of respondents said employers placed a high priority on the health and safety of their workers. That still leaves half the retail worker population believing their employers care little or not at all about worker safety. With demand for retail work remaining high, if volatile, retailers must be careful not to drive employees away with substandard safety practices.
When asked the same question about the health and safety of store customers, results improved slightly. This time, 54.8% of retail associates said their stores put an extremely high priority on safety, with 26.6% saying minimal and just 5.2% saying no priority at all.
Customers want to know that stores train employees on new safety procedures. Nearly all retailers have begun to advertise assurances of their safety standards, but employees have seen only a moderate focus behind the scenes. More than a third of respondents said their employers provided neutral, minimal, or zero training related to new health and safety protocols, suggesting that some stores do not take this issue as seriously as they should.
Part 3: Adapting to Change
Whether forced by regulators or driven by personal concern, retailers have made an abundance of changes to their stores and policies during this crisis. From curbside delivery to changes in shift management, employees have taken the lead on implementing the latest in safety-conscious policies.
The most popular changes employees noticed were stricter cleaning and sanitation procedures (50%), limited or reduced hours (44%), partial store closures (37%), curbside pickup (29%), and bans on visits from physical customers (24%). These match the ranges that we would expect to see based on the changes stores have advertised. Still, 50% remains a low figure for stricter cleaning and sanitation measures.
As mentioned earlier, brick-and-mortar shopping may never return to the way it was before the pandemic. Sales associates tend to agree. Nearly nine out of 10 associates who have seen stricter cleaning measures believe those measures will become permanent. Only about half of those who said they have seen limited or reduced hours expect those conditions to continue.
How do retail sales associates feel about reopening? Generally, they feel optimistic, with 38.3% claiming their stores are very prepared to reopen. Only 8.8% said their stores were semi-unprepared or very unprepared, with 18.5% saying they were neither prepared nor unprepared.
Retail store owners should be pleased to note that most employees believe their stores have done well navigating the challenges of the pandemic. Around two-thirds of respondents gave their stores “amazing” or “good” marks, while just 6.1% said their stores had done horribly. If pandemic conditions continue, employees at the worst stores may soon seek employment at one of the higher performers.
Sales Associates Deserve Communication, Appreciation, and Protection
Times have been hard for store owners and associates alike. As the world reopens and customers set expectations for the new normal, businesses should listen carefully to the wisdom of their frontline workers. Our research indicates that most retailers have done a good job so far at managing the changes forced upon them by the pandemic, and associates who receive continued support will continue to help their employers navigate the unknown.