Where are the advancement opportunities for retail’s frontline workers?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Mar 10, 2022

A new Pew Research Center survey found as the top two reasons U.S. workers left a job in 2021 “no opportunities for advancement,” tied for first with “pay was too low.”

Advancement opportunities are a common challenge for corporate staff, but the complaint appears as a “con” in many frontline retail associate reviews on Glassdoor despite the industry’s reputation for high turnover.

A Walmart-funded study from the nonprofit Urban Institute, “Moving Up – Talent Strategies for Retail Businesses to Help Frontline Workers Advance,” that came out last June identified five career advancement challenges at retail:

  • Misalignment of business and talent strategy: While many retailers prioritize investments in talent, “operations strategies can be out of sync with effective talent strategies.” For example, costly investments in new technology may be undermined by under-investment in training necessary for successful rollout.
  • Underestimating the value of frontline advancement strategies: Understanding how people metrics (i.e., engagement, retention, promotion, product knowledge) relate to operations metrics (i.e., sales goals, net promoter scores) can be elusive. The researchers wrote, “Incomplete knowledge of these impacts can make investments in frontline workers feel riskier, particularly when turnover is high.”
  • Missing maps for career pathways: Retail business models are “constantly and rapidly evolving” and the workforce is “tremendously dynamic.” Many retailers have “not clearly mapped out what different internal career paths might look like for frontline workers” or how skills and competencies for different jobs might overlap or complement each other to support advancement.
  • High turnover obscures advancement opportunities: While frontline associates make up the majority of retail’s workers, their high turnover makes it difficult to understand their skills, preferences and challenges. The study wrote, “Businesses that do not grasp these issues well have difficulty helping workers identify opportunities for advancement that could be mutually beneficial.”
  • Stringent management and payroll policies: Narrowly defined job titles and rigid policies, such as not being able to work at another location, may make it impossible for staff to take on different roles and responsibilities. The potential pay upgrade also may not be enough to incentivize taking on the training or experience to advance.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do the challenges faced by frontline workers seeking career advancement as described by the Urban Institute’s study ring true? What obvious and less obvious solutions do you see?

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"Retailers need to develop specialized roles which are NOT middle management in order to keep good employees."
"Every major company I have worked for has “prioritized” succession planning and career development and, honestly, very few have done it well."
"The job description for frontline workers has not changed in over a century, mainly because it was designed at the outset to be a lower wage job..."

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17 Comments on "Where are the advancement opportunities for retail’s frontline workers?"


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Ken Morris
BrainTrust

The best-run retail companies hire from within. That is a fact. Providing a path to HQ from the stores is a key to success. We need to go back to the future when retail was a career and opportunities for advancement existed for everyone. When retailers interview potential new hires, they should try to see that first interaction as the beginning of a career in retail. Otherwise, they’re just happy with a pulse and a hope that they’ll stay for a few months. After all, low pay and no future is not a great incentive plan. We have hurt ourselves by moving to a part-time model at store level to save money on benefits, vacations, and holiday pay to the detriment of the organizations.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
8 months 23 days ago

I agree with every point in Mr. Ryan’s story but, at the end of the day, each associate controls their destiny in where they want to progress in the company. The biggest need here, in my opinion, is to have supportive management that will guide and mentor associates in the right direction. In other words: “Managers, get to know your people.”

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

The results of the study seems to be accurate. There is no lack of methods by which retailers can ultimately provide career paths for those who seek them and a secure, well-paid, rewarding experience for those who don’t or are not in a position to take advantage of further career development. There is a chicken-and-egg question here. Is the high turnover in the front lines due to a relative lack of investment by retailers in store associates, or have retailers been loath to invest in store associates because of a perceived, endemic high turnover (this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy)?

Brian Delp
BrainTrust
8 months 23 days ago

I think there is an opportunity to zoom out here. Many of the majors have rolled out tuition programs to support career advancement, not necessarily just within the organization. I am curious if any of these efforts have increased the number and improved retention of younger staff.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Frontline associates are in the best possible position to have a deep understanding of just exactly what is, and isn’t, working within the business. And that’s on both product and process. So corporate has to have an actual plan to tap into that frontline knowledge with an extensive “listen and Learn” agenda. And then turn that into a “listen and learn and promote” policy. Internal visibility into promoting the obvious contributors will help create a culture of cooperation and sharing. Let’s face it, frontline work in retail can be real drudgery. Acknowledging how people contribute above and beyond basic task completion can add a whole new level of satisfaction to frontline work.

Liza Amlani
BrainTrust

The study rings true for most retailers. I’ve been there. I started my career on the shop floor and as a merchant working very closely with frontline teams. The unfair treatment of frontline teams is the worst thing about this industry that we love so much.

This study gives Walmart another leg up from its competitors as they are doing everything to invest in their employees and are solving for most of these challenges. This could be why they funded the study – they want to make changes and set new retail standards.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

The danger in “no paths for advancement” might just be that there aren’t legitimate paths for advancement which fit many employees. For frontline workers, advancement means middle management and that’s a problem. Retailers need to develop specialized roles which are NOT middle management in order to keep good employees. Roles like product and area specialists, efforts to improve buying with contribution from frontline employees and more.

DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

The job description for frontline workers has not changed in over a century, mainly because it was designed at the outset to be a lower wage job with little advancement opportunities beyond store manager for a lucky few. Retail workers have traditionally been thought of as temporary or part-time labor by businesses, which is why it has been so hard to get retailers to redesign this job description. Paying a wage that reflects the huge value of frontline staff and building in validation, reward and a career path means a complete overhaul of the retail business model, which is incredibly hard for such a long entrenched industry.

Mohamed Amer, PhD
BrainTrust

I admire Walmart’s initiative and funding of this study, which demonstrates the company’s commitment to developing a better work environment to retain employees. Many research points ring true in retailing, especially in the store environment. A subtle point to highlight is training – it needs to be made more convenient, accessible, and integrated into a day’s routine. If costs are associated with training or education, then don’t put the financial risk on the frontline employees with an expense reimbursement plan. Instead, do step in and pay in advance on their behalf.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

There are three challenges here. The first is the very steep pyramid for frontline workers to get to the next step. The second is that many (maybe most) frontline workers see their job as temporary or one of convenience, rather than a career. The third is how the companies think of their frontline workers. They have always thought of frontline workers as a disposable asset.

Is advancement impossible? No. I know a college grad who went to work as a part-time frontline worker in a local store of a national chain. Fifteen years and two companies later he was senior director of planning for women’s apparel for the largest retailer in the world.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

This is a huge missed opportunity for retail. Those companies that invest in associates (think The Container Store) reap the benefits. Walmart has made major advancements in education for associates, giving them pride in their work and their company. Lots of other companies could follow suit.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Of course they do. Career pathing should begin with the initial hiring interview. It should be clear to every full-time new hire where and how their, “job,” can become their, “career,” including the clear and stated metrics – defined from their perspective – for success. Is it periodic increases in salary, more complete benefits, access to training and/or education, and/or a well defined map leading up the corporate ladder? It should also be clear how long (on average) it takes an employee to traverse their career path. First, this separates candidates looking for “work” from those who may actually make a commitment to the company. Secondly, it sets clear parameters that allow an employee to gauge his or her progress. And, most importantly, it keeps the employers honest. Aligning expectations is the first step in building trust and loyalty and improving morale and performance. Staying true to the plan is the second.

Lucille DeHart
BrainTrust

Every major company I have worked for has “prioritized” succession planning and career development and, honestly, very few have done it well. The frontline associates are the most diverse and broad pool of talent an organization has and rarely are they proactively considered for roles in field management or corporate. Companies need to create a platform whereby individual stores can elevate top talent and share key skillsets with middle management, who, in turn, needs a forum to showcase these employees at higher levels. Most processes today are organic and not executed with much discipline other than annual awards or bogus backroom posters. Retailers should design programs that identify key talent, even if not well-trained in specific areas, implement an inquiry or proclivity “test” and then foster those desires with formal training. Keeping good employees in an organization should be a company-wide initiative and this includes training and advancement.

RandyDandy
Guest
8 months 23 days ago
As a longtime (and always part-time) retail frontline worker, I am sorry to say this is really a nearly zero gain game. The most advancement opportunities at retail are, and always will be, management; and mostly in the middle range. They are also of the least interest to most just-starting to even long-tenured staff. Why is that? It is because those careers are no more than positions involving pushing more people around. By that I mean, going from being a worker who is told to be here at this time and to do that, to being the person doing the telling, is only moving a step above where you already were — but with the added unpleasantness of being responsible for those under you. And of the vast number hardly care to be there in the first place. Meanwhile, the best career advancement jobs at retail are the ones that both the companies and the persons occupying them are loathe to give up: buying, merchandising and product development. And why is that? Well, these jobs… Read more »
Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust

Unfortunately, this is a vicious circle. Young people do not see retail as a “career” because they do not see the opportunity to advance and retailers argue that with such high staff turnover it is not worth investing in their staff. Certainly in the UK and parts of Europe, there are significantly more people going to university education and expecting to get into management roles much quicker. Their expectations are high and retail looks like a long road even if they do see opportunities. Most of the best managers I worked with in retail came from the ground floor and worked their way up through the organization. They really understand customers, how to treat them and how to treat the customer-facing staff to create the best loyalty. If retailers spend their time really looking at their store staff, they will find gems ready to move forward. By doing so they are also more likely to attract better quality staff who will stay longer because they know they can get on.

Rachelle King
BrainTrust

Retailers have long since ignored career pathing, advancement opportunities, flexibility and pay equity for frontline workers. They do not ignore this in their corporate offices. It’s a decision. Retailers then use high turnover and low skill set to validate these decisions.

What would happen if retailers actually invested in frontline employees and treated them like the invaluable resources that they are? Maybe this is where we can learn a thing or two from Best Buy.

Anil Patel
BrainTrust
The challenges mentioned are true. However, the level and the kind of challenges faced vary. Retailers can boost the career path for their employees only when there’s a scope for enhancing domain expertise. Unfortunately, there’s little to no scope when it comes to FMCG products. Customers straightaway walk in, pick their items from the aisle and leave. Employees don’t have enough opportunities to upgrade. Lifestyle, fashion, and luxury items, on the other hand, can leverage domain expertise and establish a career path. For example, store staff at Home Depot are ought to learn the nitty-gritty of all the products to serve their customers better. Again, many fashion retailers train their employees to act as fashion experts and guide their customers about their products. Employees not only upskill themselves but also emerge as consultants. I think the key to solving these challenges is to make sure that the interests of employees and retailers align. Based on the offerings, retailers can create enough options to improve employees’ position in the brand and ensure a high level of… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Retailers need to develop specialized roles which are NOT middle management in order to keep good employees."
"Every major company I have worked for has “prioritized” succession planning and career development and, honestly, very few have done it well."
"The job description for frontline workers has not changed in over a century, mainly because it was designed at the outset to be a lower wage job..."

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