Are retail HQs and stores suffering a communication breakdown?

Photo: RetailWire
May 23, 2019

Why aren’t sales promotions, product launches and best practices from headquarters being heard and acted upon consistently by stores? According to Melissa Wong, co-founder and CEO of Retail Zipline, a “communication and execution platform” for retailers, the reason is the messaging comes from many siloed departments and they constantly change.

“The stores would say there were too many messages, they didn’t see the memo, they didn’t know it was a priority,” Ms. Wong told TechCrunch in recounting her past frustrations in her last job as senior director of corporate communications for Old Navy.

Ms. Wong’s company joins a crop of other solution providers in the chat and task management software space that are looking to utilize mobile devices to improve communications with store associates on a single platform. Some associate apps also help manage scheduling and provide access to corporate training materials.

Retailers by all indications have been slow to embrace mobile communications with stores apparently due to costs and privacy issues inherent in both company-provided and BYOD (bring-your-own-device) mobile device options.

A 2017 white paper from digital workplace provider WorkJam based on a survey of 250 store, district and regional leaders across the U.S., found both technology and execution issues plaguing internal communications:

  • Forty-six percent of managers indicated the primary way their head offices inform hourly staff about new store processes, products and promotions is by communicating these details to managers only;
  • Twenty-six percent indicated their companies convey such corporate information through flyers posted in communal store areas;
  • Only 11 percent of managers indicated their retail employers offered digital access to frontline associates;
  • Only four percent said their stores use a corporate-sanctioned app to facilitate internal communications;
  • Fifty-five percent of managers said that the head office rarely or never recognizes employees from their store for doing good work.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What advice would you have for improving communications between headquarters and individual stores? Are the solutions more technology or execution related?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The solution is enabled by technology, but until the culture changes to simplify the messaging and make it easy to consume, the disconnect will continue."
"The headline should read, “Why are retail HQs and stores STILL suffering a communication breakdown?”"
"All the tech in the world cannot compensate for store staff collaborating effectively to get the messaging correct."

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21 Comments on "Are retail HQs and stores suffering a communication breakdown?"

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Mark Ryski

Communications between headquarters and stores is an age-old problem – and it continues today. There are no simple solutions, and while technology can play an important role in making it better, it won’t solve it.

One of the biggest challenges is the amount and frequency of communications that goes to the stores. There’s often a torrent of information sent to store managers who are already over-loaded. My advice to retailers is to simplify. Provide stores with a daily communication package that is easy to digest and focuses on the most important information the store manager requires.

Sterling Hawkins

Mark is right, technology won’t solve it. This is a cultural issue, technology is secondary. Simplifying communications, automating more and setting expectations is key. But there also has to be a relatedness between the HQ and the store level. If HQ doesn’t understand what it’s like inside their stores and how to run them, they’re disconnected from where their business is actually happening.

Bob Amster

Mark is on point. Communication to and acknowledgement from are key components of effective exchange. One solution with which I am very familiar is Theatro Communicator. This is a wearable device intended for all hourly employees on up the hierarchy. But still, stormbound communications have to be funneled through one group to avoid conflicting directives: they have to be clear, they have to be concise, they have to make sense and, if possible, there should be a method to acknowledge receipt and completion, and the execution should be auditable remotely (such as having digital images of the completed work).

Zach Zalowitz
The solution is enabled by technology, but until the culture changes to simplify the messaging and make it easy to consume, the disconnect will continue. What I find missing, taking store fulfillment via BOPIS for example, is that there’s no go-to board for major changes, directives and communications. What’s more is that this messaging isn’t being written by effective writers (within store ops) if it is written at all. It’s almost as if someone with a copywriting background should help with messaging, and the training documentation and FAQ gets access at will by the store manager and his/her employees. Also – Obviously there are cost implications, but I find that short of the manager’s office in the backroom + some printed/laminated artifacts, there isn’t a portal or training station frequently used by the store associates. Further, those stations aren’t available throughout the store. I see the Best Buys and Targets of the worlds shift to using mobile devices for supporting the customer this way (via product information or training). Simply put, there’s a lack of… Read more »
Cathy Hotka

If there’s one message that emerges from every meeting of the Store Operations Council, it’s that stores are given too many tasks, which results in uneven performance. There are no easy answers.

Carol Spieckerman
Carol Spieckerman
President, Spieckerman Retail
3 years 1 month ago

To be fair, retail operations have become tremendously complex, particularly as bricks and clicks converge. On one hand, retailers are armed with better data and have better tools to act upon it. On the other, people-powered processes aren’t as cut and dried and BYOD adds yet more complexity and more variables that can muck up the works. Communication between HQ, store management and store associates can seem like a game of telephone in this environment. From an organization standpoint, retailers continue to streamline and reduce the number of “middle messengers.” I speak with a lot of tech/solution providers and have noticed a considerable uptick in those that focus on retailer communications platforms, including training and content delivery from HQ to associates. This makes sense as retailers swing attention back to store-level execution. I’m confident that the tools are “out there,” it’s just a matter of choosing wisely and working out the bugs.

Jeff Sward
Too often I walk into the front entrance of a mall retailer and find myself saying, “Really? After all the planning, designing, merchandising, editing, and massaging … this is what everybody agreed was the story they wanted to tell in this moment? Really?” Something gets lost between finalizing a floor set and how it gets executed when the product finally hits the store. Often it’s trying to put four pounds into a two pound space. Sometimes it’s the difficulty in populating stores of wildly different sales per square foot. Two stores of equal size. One does $1,000 per square foot and one does $200 per square foot. How does HQ plan and merchandise for those variances? In the old days we called it “branching.” Buyers and merchandisers visiting stores and understanding physical space and capacity differences. Impossible to do reading spreadsheets. So what is the “Listen & Learn” platform in place at any given retailer that informs the overall process? The solution lies in HOW technology informs both the initial planning and merchandising and finally… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.

While the article focuses on execution, the real issue is the appropriateness of the strategies emanating from corporate. Unfortunately, many corporate executives spend little time in the stores. They need to regularly and routinely visit stores.

Recall that when Sam Walton was building Walmart, he and his corporate team would visit stores from Monday to Thursday. During these visits he focused on three questions: 1. What’s working? 2. What’s not working? 3. How can we fix what’s not working? The Friday morning meetings were dedicated to the followup from the store visits. It worked for Walton and Walmart and still should work today. High tech is good but high touch is still relevant.

Ron Margulis
There could be an adage that since the retail HQ folks are consumers themselves, they must know what shoppers want and how best for the store staff to give it to them. If this ever was true, it certainly isn’t today. How often do HQ staff actually go out to the stores and engage the retail staff? Clearly not often enough. If HQ staff did engage the store teams beyond periodic conference calls, if they routinely went to retail to talk with shoppers, if they visited stores of all formats and approaches to merchandising and if they tried to understand what people are buying rather than selling products pushed by suppliers, there would be a host of benefits. Among these are lower inventory and higher turns, improved asset utilization, reduced product failures and, most important, better customer service in terms of fewer out-of-stocks. HQ staff should go out to retail every week, even when on vacation. They should make time for store visits when traveling on business. It will provide the insight needed to improve… Read more »
Ray Riley

Technology, at this stage, only assists in the distribution of messaging but not the consumption and comprehension. Content isn’t king, but context is, and if directives or training initiatives aren’t able to be consumed regardless of their format, (offline, online, in-app etc.) then it’s moot. There needs to be education on communication skills, and proven methods of delivering information to create positive change.

Georganne Bender

The headline should read, “Why are retail HQs and stores STILL suffering a communication breakdown?”

This isn’t new, it was happening when I was a Gap store manager in the ’70s. Timely communications aren’t always passed down through the chain of command. Messages from headquarters aren’t always clear, regional/district/store managers are busy and miss things, and associates on the frontline pay for it with agitated shoppers. Technology will help if it’s used, but this has always been about training – meetings and conversations that keep everyone up to speed.

Al McClain

Communications between retail HQ and store associates is generally a one way street, and one could argue the street is going the wrong way. Many retail HQ execs rarely if ever visit stores and when they do it is a “roll out the red carpet” situation, so they don’t get the real picture of store-level conditions. Retailers often say how important store associates are, yet the strategy and many of the tactics come from execs far removed from the customer, who are executing based on vendor payouts or direction from the top of the pyramid, which is even farther removed from the customer. Make communications a real two way street and results and conditions will improve.

Shep Hyken

Change is ongoing. Innovation and new technology brings change at a rapid pace – more so than ever before. Seasonal, weekly and even daily promotions are the norm. Improving the communication about changes, promotions and more from HQ is simple. Keep it simple! Create a once a week schedule where all is announced. While there may be special circumstances and opportunities that happen in between announcements, keep them to a minimum.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

There has always been a gap between corporate strategy and store execution. Technology can enable two-way communication if the culture is encouraging.

Ralph Jacobson

Store-level execution has been a challenge since I started in the grocery biz in the ’70s. All the tech in the world cannot compensate for store staff collaborating effectively to get the messaging correct.

Daniel Reynolds

Many retailers still employ a legacy “hub and spoke” system to provide information to front-line staff. This typically consists of channeling corporate messaging through “district managers” and store managers.

No matter how well-crafted and consistent the message, this approach tends to subtract value by introducing confusion and delay.

Use of technology to communicate directly with front-line staff offers the opportunity to improve agility and execution speed by reducing bureaucracy.

This approach could work both ways, of course; offering front-line staff the opportunity to directly ask questions and give feedback.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

In our case, the solution is in understanding that less is more – much more! Headquarters rarely speak with a unified voice to the store. Instead you have merchants, visual, marketing, communications, store ops, facility, distribution center, finance, and on and on piling on what each considers important to them. The store personnel have to decipher and prioritize, which turns to generally dismissing directives as they find their staffing numbers dwindling in each store’s schedule.

Some day, there might even be meaningful two-way communications and store visits that pass the reality check instead of heroic last minute sprucing up that appeases and pleases higher ups with “store compliance.”

Verlin Youd

As with all good challenges in retail, the answer is a focus on the end goal and using a combination of business process leveraged with the right technology. Until recently technology was a barrier as there wasn’t any effective and affordable way to get beyond store manager or generic store level with email, video broadcasts, and signage.

Today companies like The Container Store, Neiman Marcus, and Cabela’s/Bass Pro, have used technology (shameless plug alert) like Theatro (see Bob’s comment above) to connect every store team member. With the technology challenge solved and proven ROI they can now focus on processes to prioritize and optimize communication from HQ, field management, and store managers to drive additional increased store performance.

Jack Flanagan
3 years 1 month ago

“Siloed” and “Hub & Spoke” communications don’t quite capture the frustration that Regional, District and Store Managers experience. As a HQ Ops guy 4x, I tried to explain to my brethren that communications out of HQ to the stores was like the Tower of Babel.

The entire Ops chain was expected to speak and promptly, if not immediately, respond to Buyer speak, VM speak, Distribution speak, Accounting speak, HR speak, IT speak, LP speak, Store Planning speak, etc. Each of these dialects was distinctly different and their native speakers (who, after all, used them all day long) couldn’t understand why timely, clear, concise, and minimal communications allowed the store management team to do what HQ executives constantly asked them to do — take good care of customers (who have choices) and store team members (who take care of those customers).

James Tenser

This is an opportune moment to restate a persistent issue I call The Paradox of Scale: “The larger the retailer, the more remote it is from its customers.”

This remoteness problem applies equally to employees on the front lines. Too many retailers make the tragic mistake of focusing on managing the workforce with commands from the top instead of pushing more decisions out to store workers and enabling them to succeed.

Mobile devices can certainly be a useful piece of the communications solution, but flooding store workers with text messages is far from a panacea. Digitizing poorly-designed business practices merely enables them to fail faster while sowing worker discontent.

Where better In-Store Implementation is the objective, management must first consider how the work can get done better with the benefit of digital signals and direct feedback. Then engineer practices (and apps) to make compliance easier, more accurate and more efficient.

If you fail to enable employees to gauge their own performances using the same tools, you miss an essential opportunity.

Balasubramanian Thiagarajan

Am I wrong in thinking that as much as possible, HQ should not directly be speaking with the shop floor? I believe we have a chain of command in place to ensure that communication gets dispersed to the right audience at the right level, right time and at the right place. While company wide announcements should be made on a regular basis, running of the store should be left to the in-store leadership team which should be the only group talking to HQ directly. I ‘m all for providing wearable devices to store managers to enable them to be constantly in touch and in tune with HQ. This will also enable HQ to get real-time feedback from the stores and if planned right, could go a long way in making allocation decisions better, faster and more effective.

"The solution is enabled by technology, but until the culture changes to simplify the messaging and make it easy to consume, the disconnect will continue."
"The headline should read, “Why are retail HQs and stores STILL suffering a communication breakdown?”"
"All the tech in the world cannot compensate for store staff collaborating effectively to get the messaging correct."

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