How the retail sector retains its frontline workforce

With low job prospects , monotony and demanding work schedules, it is quite a challenge to keep the frontline staff motivated and engaged.

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Meeting and interacting with the same person at our neighbourhood mom and pop store for years, does not really surprise us. Once he retires, chances are that his son will take over the running of the store. That’s the kind of one-to-one relationship that these stores have always offered. And this is precisely what we miss in the modern day supermarkets!

Though we tend to frequent the supermarkets more now, we hardly find any recognisable faces there. We are likely to come across new faces every few months.

Though the organised retail sector in the country has been one of the largest job creators in the last few years, especially for unskilled workers, the retail companies have their own set of challenges, especially with regard to the frontline jobs.

Except for super speciality stores or luxury brand outlets, hiring is not much of a problem, as there is an abundance of unskilled job seekers in the metros as well as in the Tier II cities. While hiring people in hordes, the retail companies look for the right kind of attitude in potential candidates.

Venkataramana B

“Many of these workers join the retail sector thinking that it’s quite comfy, flashy and glamorous”

“There are agencies hired by the companies, which make these unskilled talents job-ready by training them on spoken and written English, and also on basic etiquettes that are imperative for the job,” says a senior HR professional.

However, what comes across as a big challenge for the retail companies is retaining the talent. The companies spend money to get the raw talent trained and ready for the job, and every attrition results in a business loss.

There are unrealistic expectations from the jobs, in addition to a serious lack of growth prospects.

Venkataramana B, group president-HR, Landmark Group tells HRKatha, “Many of these workers join the retail sector thinking that it’s quite comfy, flashy and glamorous.”

What attracts them initially is the airconditioned workplace, and the opportunity to meet new people. However, they soon realise that there is more to it. The job gets monotonous and equally taxing, given that one has to stand for long hours and wear a smile on the face. Also, there is little appreciation from the customers for the job they are doing. In fact, more often than not, the customers treat them like furniture rather than as human beings.

That is why, many retail companies, such as the Landmark Group, make a sustained effort to acquaint the potential candidates with the complete nature of the job and also make them aware of the pros and cons the job offers. Landmark Group operates multiple retail formats, such as Lifestyle, Max and supermarkets such as Spar.

At Croma, the electronics specialty retail chain owned by the Tata Group, the hiring process includes three rounds of interviews and a robust induction programme, where they train the candidates and send them to work in stores under their induction buddies. Therefore, they get the hang of the job and are able to make an informed decision.

Ganesh Chandan

“Many of these workers who start their career in retail may have limited responsibilities in the beginning, but a few years down the line, when they get married and have additional personal responsibilities, they start feeling the heat”

“This helps them experience the job and decide whether the job is suited to them or not,” shares Shalini Vohra, CHRO, Infiniti Retail, the company which operates Croma.
One of the biggest reasons behind high attrition in this sector is that often workers see it as a job and not as a career, particularly at the grassroot level.

The average tenure of the frontline staff is one to two years. Beyond four to five years, they do not know what to do. There is limited growth in salary and also limited opportunity to move to other sectors.

Ganesh Chandan, CHRO, Tata Projects, who has previously worked for Titan, opines, “Many of these workers who start their career in retail may have limited responsibilities in the beginning, but a few years down the line, when they get married and have additional personal responsibilities, they start feeling the heat.”

“They just don’t care and have very little commitment. They may move out without even serving any notice period,” opines Venkataramana. The fly-by-night approach is quite hazardous for the industry.

“There was a time when the attrition level was very high among frontline workers and we were able to overcome this by constantly engaging with the workforce based out of the stores,” says Venkataramana.

“In addition, we also try to build capabilities in people and engage them at every point,” he adds.

For the Lifestyle stores operated by the Landmark Group, the Company runs a capability building programme called the ‘Life programme’.

This programme is segregated into four parts — in the first phase the workers learn; in the second they get to implement their learnings; in the third they go on a fast-track mode and in the last stage they graduate to becoming experts.

“If we find that someone from the stores is good in content writing or can be a great fit in the purchase or sales functions, we seriously consider them for internal hiring”

The idea is to create an environment where people do not want to quit just for a mere increase in salary.

Croma also faces a similar problem.

To address this, the Company has chalked out a proper growth plan for the frontline staff. Someone who joins as an assistant can rise up to the level of store manager, depending on their performance.

Besides, the people working at stores are also considered for internal corporate jobs. “If we find that someone from the stores is good in content writing or can be a great fit in the purchase or sales functions, we seriously consider them for internal hiring,” shares Vohra.

The Company also tries to make the instore employee feel important at every juncture.

“We not just listen to their problems, but also try and address them. We have a ‘Lets catch up with them’ programme twice a year to listen to all the employees working at the outlets. We try to give them the care they need and build trust,” says Vohra.

The Company also has an R&R (rewards & recognition) mechanism, which is based upon productivity, customer centricity and values. In addition to the sales incentives, the Company also has a knowledge incentive wherein it assesses the knowledge level of employees on different brands and products, on a monthly as well as quarterly basis. The knowledge incentives for an individual employee range from Rs 2000 to Rs 6000 per month.

This is also important for the business because often many of these employees come from humble backgrounds and they may not even have bought the kind of products they are expected to sell. This gap also impacts the instore employees on a psychological level.

During festivals or special occasions, such as Mother’s day, high performers are awarded by their respective mothers — the Company makes an effort to not just engage the employees but their families as well.

The answer to this perennial problem lies in a more human approach towards the frontline staff, paying attention to their needs and providing them sustainable career prospects.

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