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Today, that associate is more likely to be able to not just take me to an aisle or bin, but to be able to make recommendations on the specific type of material I need, the pros and cons of various brands on the shelves, and in more than the rare case, suggestions for how to do it easier or cheaper or faster. And as a consumer, I couldn’t be happier. And it’s an experience, ironically, that was once considered the standard from neighborhood retailers to department stores.

Retail Comes Face-to-Face with the Changing Workforce

At NRF ’16, there have been multiple learning sessions around the topic of how to prepare the Retail workforce for changes resulting from the shift to a digital economy. Specifically, we’re talking a lot about how millennial and generation z workers expectations for work differ from other generations; how shoppers’ expectations of their store experience are changing; and the fact that 2016 marks the transition year where millennials overtake Baby Boomers as a larger percentage of the workforce. Meanwhile, by 2020, an estimated 60 million workers will be considered “contingent labor” (as compared to traditional full time employed). A large portion of that number will overlap with the Retail sector. Taken together, we’re talking about a radical shift in the retail labor market.

Meanwhile, an SAP SuccessFactors survey on “The New Face of Work” found that just 34% of executives feel they’ve made progress in building a workforce that can meet future business goals.

On-line Expectations and the In-Store Experience

As shopping shifts online, from automated re-order and subscription delivery services, to live-chat access to personalized consultations for fashion, beauty, and healthcare, Retailers are seeking ways to bring people into stores. Once they’re there, though, it’s up to the employees to turn a visit into a sale – or upsell opportunity. Consumers are increasingly accustomed to highly personalized service online – and are going to expect the in-store experience to match – or exceed – what they experience at home, or on their mobile device.

What does that mean for Retailers?
– Associates that are passionate about the brand – conveying honesty and enthusiasm, instead of a vibe that says, “I’m here because they pay me.”

– Associates that are as versed in the social platforms that their customers use, as the customers themselves are

– Associates that know how to tell the story of the brand, and the product, to capture the “hearts and minds” of consumers who want to feel connected to the brand and the products they buy in a way prior generations have not

– Associates who are flexible and adaptable to change, as the technology of retail is rapidly evolving

The challenge is that these attributes are typically attributes we associate with someone who is committed to a brand, and to a company – someone who, historically, was a full-time employee. Someone, ideally, who wanted to make a Retailer their career. And meanwhile, we’re facing a shift to contingent labor at a pace and scale never before seen.

The New Face of Retail

New workforce training tools are one part of the solution – on-demand, customized programming and talent management and retention applications create new opportunities for retail employees to develop their careers in an organization, instead of leaving it to accomplish the same thing. And the drive to make in-store shopping a companion, instead of a competitor, to online shopping will drive technology changes that will raise the bar for Retailers and employees alike, and attract more tech-savvy, ‘born digital’ employees to Retailers who are early adopters of mobile in-store sales, virtual reality, and other facilitative devices.

I was happy to see NRF taking these issues on head-first, and talking honestly within the Retail community about the workforce of the future. Technology is, in some senses, the easy part of digital transformation. The human element, as always, is a bit more complex.

You can check out more on The Future of Work on www.DigitalistMag.com, and learn more about the Oxford Economics Workforce 2020 survey at www.OxfordEconomics.com/workforce2020 .

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