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People power as valuable as data during holidays

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Retailers spend millions of dollars combing through data to help them determine ideal store layouts, merchandise packaging and sales strategies to maximize consumer spending over the holiday season. Real-time data tools promise to give organizations a rapid picture of what’s working and what’s not. But data and numbers don’t tell the full story. In the midst of the holiday frenzy, it’s easy to overlook the most important source of intelligence for retailers — frontline workers who are closest to their customers.

Innovation rises from the pressure

As stress levels and new challenges inevitably rise inside stores over the holidays, employees on the front lines in stores quickly discover that the best laid plans are often tossed aside in the heat of the moment. Popular items sell out, there isn’t enough time to get fresh stock to the floor and the large volume of orders and crowds threaten to overwhelm busy staff.

It is what happens at this point that makes the real ­difference.

These high pressure moments are when staff get creative. They will find new ways to work through problems and be more efficient. An injection of new, seasonal workers adds fuel to the ingenuity. Seasonal workers see the store literally through new eyes, and are not weighed down by the legacy mentality of “That’s how we’ve always done things.” This is prime breeding ground for ­innovation.

One major retailer we worked with was having problems with staff getting high-volume products, like wrapping paper and Christmas lights, onto the sales floor quickly. A merchandise team visiting one of the stores found a massive palette of the products in the seasonal aisle, instead of the standard strategy of restocking it on the shelves. At first, the merchandising team was horrified about it deteriorating the look of the store. Once they understood the impact it had on staff time, overall sales and customer satisfaction, they embraced the change and made it a standard operating procedure.

The best leaders will listen to what’s actually happening and acknowledge there are times when more flexible working styles can offer advantages.

Create the right environment

The store team in the example above used their own initiative to work flexibly and communicate the reasons for the change to others. It sounds like common sense, but in practice it is only achievable in a certain type of organization. The right environment allows workers to flex their style when they can see a better way of working, but doesn’t add to the chaos.

Consider which of these apply to your workplace:

• Workers feel empowered to change the way they work when under pressure.

• Employees have the means to communicate these changes to coworkers quickly.

• Managers can implement changes across the store without having to wait for approval from headquarters.

• New ways of working are celebrated by the whole team, and employees are encouraged to share their ideas.

Workers must feel empowered to adapt working practices if they see a more successful route. Retailers can help fast-track innovation by giving store managers the autonomy, in advance of the holiday season, to accept and implement new ideas during peak periods without fear of censorship. Treat legacy workers and seasonal employees as “one team” whose ideas are equally valued. Find ways to recognize employees who go the extra mile, and ensure there is a process in place to identify and share those ideas.

Capturing good ideas

Each organization will have its own unique process to extract good ideas from frontline employees, ranging from the very simple — poster boards in break rooms — to the more complex — intranet suggestion forums. But how are those ideas communicated? How do you assess their impact? Nothing can be more frustrating to employees than having their ideas ignored.

It is important to institute a method for reviewing new solutions that surface and for escalating the best ideas up the organization. Map out an approach for how to foster ideas that may not be fully baked and incentivize employees to test them out. Many of the best leaders that we work with give their teams permission to innovate — not only encouraging ideas, but effectively processing them.

What does this look like? It brings to mind an example of one of the author’s early working days as a photo technician during the holiday season. Overrun with orders to produce photo gifts like canvas prints, calendars and posters, the photo team ran out of packaging in which to place the finished products. One of the seasonal technicians came up with a way to cut the extra photo envelopes to create makeshift boxes and even used extra ribbons for decoration at the customer’s request. Customers loved the ‘homemade feel,’ and the manager quickly recognized, supported and celebrated the initiative with the rest of the photo team.

At the end of the holiday season, the store team members held a problem-solving session and identified an action plan for next year, ordering four times more packaging and envelopes, in addition to extra gift wrapping materials for photo orders. The plan got the attention and approval of the district manager as well. By one person going the extra mile, the store saw an overall increase in customer satisfaction the next holiday season.

The power of one

Not every good idea will deserve to become a standardized operating procedure. And good intentions won’t always succeed. The crucial thing is to create a culture that encourages, accepts and recognizes innovation from every part of the organization. Employees feel most valued when they know that one cashier’s idea can influence the entire organization.

An overreliance on data can be dangerous. Leaders must get inside the stores this holiday season, listen carefully to employee stories and encourage feedback and creativity. When the chips are down, it’s your own people who are your greatest asset.

Andy Morris is vice president and head of Egremont Group’s global retail practice. He can be reached at AndrewMorris@egremontgroup.com. Carter Koen is an analyst in Egremont Group’s retail practice.


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