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Business Journal
Holiday Stress: What Managers Can Do for Retail Workers
Business Journal

Holiday Stress: What Managers Can Do for Retail Workers

by Ed O’Boyle and Amy Adkins

Story Highlights

  • Workers and their customers alike are frazzled
  • Amid holiday frenzy, managers lose focus on the fundamentals
  • Clear expectations and recognition play key roles

'Tis the season to be jolly -- except, perhaps, for retail employees.

This holiday season is shaping up to be a boon for retailers. On average, Americans are set to spend $830 on Christmas gifts, compared with $720 last year. To compete for those dollars, stores will undoubtedly throw myriad sales and incentives at customers from now until Christmas day. As is typical for the season, businesses are focused on giving customers want they want and doing whatever it takes to keep them happy and spending.

Yet businesses tend to give less of their time and attention to the people who actually provide the customer experience -- their employees.

Customers aren't the only ones who feel the stress of Christmas shopping. The holiday season comes with a heightened sense of urgency and can be a time of chaos for employees, especially those in retail. These workers deal with customers who themselves may be frazzled and have a short fuse. This pressure-cooker scenario applies not only to salespeople, but also to those behind the scenes, such as warehouse workers, or other customer-facing employees, such as call center associates and online support staff. Without support or guidance from their managers, employees can teeter on the brink of disengagement -- or fall right into it.

The Manager's Pivotal Role

Managers are responsible for as much as 70% of the variance in employee engagement, Gallup research shows. In the midst of the holiday frenzy, retail managers can lose focus on the fundamentals of employee engagement and forget to check in with their employees. But engagement requires the most attention during times of change and chaos, and there are straightforward steps managers can take to ensure their team members stay invested and committed to their jobs. These actions don't require excessive effort from managers -- only an awareness of what matters to employees and a commitment to be available to employees and customers and active in responding to their needs.


Clearly define expectations. Gallup's employee engagement research reveals that clear expectations are perhaps the most basic of employees' needs and are vital to performance. Yet even in the course of normal operations, managers struggle to set well-defined expectations for their workers. A Gallup study found that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their manager helps them set work priorities, and 13% strongly agree that their manager helps them set performance goals.

However, when managers get performance management right, they see employee engagement rocket. At least two-thirds of employees who strongly agree that their manager helps them set work priorities and performance goals are engaged.

In stressful times, job responsibilities often become fuzzy. At some companies, the holidays create an "all hands on deck" scenario; at others, employees need to quickly learn new tasks or cover for other workers. Regardless, managers must make it a point to review priorities and goals with their team members, even if those priorities are constantly shifting. Employees want clearly defined responsibilities, and without them, their engagement can quickly falter.

Reinforce the brand promise. Many companies struggle to connect their employees with their brand promise. Gallup's research reveals that less than half of employees (42%) strongly agree that they know what their organization stands for and what makes it different from its competition. Among retail employees, this number falls slightly to 41%.

A brand promise is an agreement between a company and its customers. But in some organizations, the brand promise comes across as corporate jargon with no real substance behind it. Employees don't know how they are supposed to interact with customers, or they view the brand promise as meaningless and therefore disregard it.

Managers need to be aware of this potential disconnect. They must consistently and constantly communicate the brand promise to employees so that workers remember to "be the brand" to customers, even during tense or hectic situations. A company's brand promise serves as a guide for employees, giving them direction in the face of uncertainty. And it can be an especially valuable teaching tool for part-time or seasonal workers, who otherwise may feel no real connection to their job or company.

Be generous with recognition. Recognition matters. Gallup research shows that employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they will leave their company in the next year.

Managers must actively look for reasons to celebrate employees. They should recognize employees who do good work, especially when that work is customer-related and ties directly to the brand promise. Customers won't necessarily notice when shelves are perfectly stocked or dole out thanks when their order arrives on time because they expect all businesses to meet these requirements. Customers will, however, pay attention to employee behavior. They will take note of employees who are polite and responsive and those who are dismissive. Managers can use the same mindset as the basis for employee recognition. They should recognize employees for perfecting their job responsibilities or for excelling at certain tasks, but they should also make a concentrated effort to recognize employees who have a positive impact on the customer experience.

Managers need to define the behaviors they want to see from their employees, communicate those behaviors and recognize employees when they see those behaviors in action. Managers must also share the reason for that recognition with other team members. All employees need examples of what it means to "live the brand promise" or go above and beyond for customers.

Success or Failure Starts With the Employee

Some managers may employ a "just get through it" attitude during the Christmas shopping season or be hyperfocused on how their store is performing. Though price and product account for a large part of a business' success or failure, success rests primarily on the customer experience. Gallup has demonstrated a clear link between employee engagement and better business outcomes, including improved customer metrics. Engaged employees create engaged customers, and those engaged customers spend more money, more often with their preferred brands. Though the focus of the holiday shopping season tends to be on the customer, a business' success fundamentally starts with its employees.

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