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Frontline retail workers are burnt out – here’s how we can help

angry customer
Half of frontline retail employees are considering leaving their jobs in the next few months. What can we do to make their jobs less stressful?

As you can readily see, “frontline” is a metaphor taken from the battlefield.

It is starting to seem extremely apt in the current retail scene.

“Frontline employees face the brunt of customer anger and frustration, and it’s only getting worse,” according to Forbes.

Consequently, “Half of frontline retail employees are considering leaving their jobs in the next few months alone,” according to the research firm McKinsey & Company. “Perhaps worse, 63 percent of frontline retail managers are thinking about quitting in the near future. And many of them do not want to work in retail anymore.”

Forbes tells us that the best way to safeguard frontline employees is with “better experience design”—for customers, that is: “walking through the customer journey and continually updating the experience to meet customers’ changing needs.”

Other recommendations include clear signage (freeing employees from having to answer bastic questions); improved tech resources; and “empathy and language training.”

Companies also need to learn when to fire customers—especially ones that are abusive to and endangering employees.

But I think the most important recommendation is “appropriate staffing.” The Forbes article advises, “Going into a busy season or time of day with limited staffing is just asking for chaos.”

I gather that “the customer must be at the center of every retail decision” was the leading cliché heard at the Groceryshop convention held in Las Vegas last week.

But customer satisfaction depends on more than “experience design.” It is, first and foremost, a matter of having enough staff ready and able to help customers when needed.

It’s a cycle. Short staffing is going to cause customer abuse, which will lead to increased staff shortages, which will provoke more customer abuse, which will, of course, lead to . . .

The problem is the most obvious in retail, given the huge size of the industry, but it is present in any business with customers of any kind (which, I guess, is all businesses).

I have fired more than one doctor (yes, remember: they work for us) because their front staff was rude or incompetent or both.

Of course, the current situation presents opportunities of its own. If you can honestly offer a job that does not entail crushing routine overwork, are consistent and fair-minded in your expectations, and show genuine respect for workers, you will stand out shiningly among employers in the grubby American workplace.

And you could go one better and offer employee ownership, like the much-admired grocery chains H-E-B and Publix.










Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.