Retail Leadership Insights

This post is a compilation of retail leadership insights shared by store managers around the country, from both large and small retail brands. These retail leaders have been among the first to reopen their brick and mortar stores with the lift of the COVID19 lockdown.  They are proud of what they are doing and couldn’t wait to share their story.  

I honestly wish I could reveal names and brands because I heard amazing stories from remarkable leaders, however I promised anonymity and will keep my promise.

One thing that continues to be true about retail leaders is their drive and motivation to fight back.  This group is no different.  They are ‘IN IT TO WIN IT’ and I am proud of each of them.

I am humbly sharing recommendations for retail executives to consider taking action on.  These are not random suggestions, rather my professional store operations expertise after more than 40 hours talking to retail store leaders (in orange below) 

What Matters Most to Retail Leaders

Overwhelmingly, the health and safety of the store teams and customers tops the priority list of every manager I spoke with.  I could hear the concern in their voices.   They shared real stories about their team members.  Some, happy to be back at work and others, afraid to come back to work and would rather give up their job than be exposed to the virus.  

Store Leaders were initially worried about how they would get tasks completed, and have now diverted the worry to keeping their teams and customers safe.  A few managers said, “nothing else matters right now, the tasks will get done.”

An interesting global comment was the reality that some associates are fine one day, and freaked out the next.  So managers are working hard throughout the day, every day, to keep associates calm.  

Customers shopping without masks contributes to the panic.  While for some this has become a constitutional issue, the truth is, store associates just want to be safe.  

I loved this comment shared by a Store Manager in Orlando, Florida.  “My job is to make the uncomfortable feel comfortable for my associates and my customers.”  He does this by showing empathy, by making it as fun as he can.  If an associate is stressed out, he takes them aside and asks what he can do to make them feel safe.  “It’s being aware of the team and customers every hour of every day” he says.

Confronting Customers 

One of the biggest pain points for store leaders is having to confront customers who are not following protocol or appear to be ill and not wearing a mask.  

Create talking points on how to engage customers who aren’t following CDC or store guidelines and provide them to your store teams.  While I am sure many store managers can figure it out, some may need talking points in order to ensure they say it the right way.  Each manager handling this differently, whether ignoring it or addressing it, creates experiences that may ultimately alienate customers.  They need your support!  

Time to Reset how Stores Operate

Stores are now open shorter hours and using less payroll.  What if you adjust your hours of operation going forward?  If you have traffic counters, you can see the traffic by hour and determine hours that are profitable.  Talk to your landlords.  Talk to your finance team.  Now is a great time to reset how you operate stores.  Is it really necessary to be open 12 hours a day?  The first two hours and the last two hours are typically light on traffic.  This will allow you to reduce the management complement and overall minimum hours spent each week on what could be same volume making your store more profitable.

If you need fresh eyes to evaluate how you operate, call me.   I will help you strategize and get to your next normal.

Don’t Assume…ask the Customer’s Permission

Brands spend a lot of time and money creating their customer experience selling model.  During this “re-entry” period where some stores are open and customers aren’t sure what to expect, store teams have to shift on the fly and reinvent the selling model while still connecting with their customers.  I heard over and over how hard it is to give great service while executing a long list of guidelines.  (Social distancing, mask on, counting the number of customers that are in the store at once, quarantining product that is tried on and not purchased and the list of “new normal” continues).  

These retail leaders shared the importance of asking the customers permission before doing anything that might be perceived as unwelcome.  Where one brand always knelt down to place a shoe on the customers foot, they now ask permission before doing it.  While all the different aspects of connecting to the customer feel kind, in this post COVID world, nothing can be assumed. 

Conversion is King

Many stores haven’t opened back up, the few who have reopened are seeing record Conversion rates.  There has always been a normal relationship between low traffic equating to high conversion.  But no one knew what to expect with the post-covid reopening. 

Customers who are shopping have high intent to purchase and the conversion metrics are reflecting that.  This will likely adjust as traffic increases.  Although conversion will likely remain strong for the foreseeable future.  If customers are venturing out to malls, they clearly want to buy something.  The teams need to engage and be prepared to sell.  

It appears many retail brands are phasing the return of associates.  Keep this as frictionless as possible.  Consider how much you are asking store managers to do.  

Klarna recently said they are seeing revenge spending across Europe and Asia so hopefully we will see that trend in the US.  

Inventing New Ways to Drive Sales

With soft traffic, many store managers are looking for creative ways to connect with their customers who are still at home.  From happy hour zoom calls to live chats, managers are meeting customers where they are.  This has been popular among small boutiques throughout the lockdown but now national brands are getting creative to drive sales.  

These store leaders all seem to have an entrepreneurial streak!  Love it! A couple managers commented how the customer isn’t satisfied engaging shopping online.  They want the live associate, even if it is on zoom to talk to them about what is new and what they need to purchase.  Those relationships are invaluable and need to continue to be nurtured. 

Retail Leaders Biggest Surprises

  • Consistently managers commented their biggest surprise was how tattered the supply chain is.  It is difficult to get popular items replenished and result in lost sales.  
  • Most stores in the mall didn’t open when the governor lifted the lockdown.  Customers are hesitant to make a trip to the mall with only a handful of stores open.  This has caused soft traffic.  With the holiday weekend here, managers said more stores would be opening which should help their traffic.  
  • Several malls had committed to extensive safety protocols, but managers commented how surprised they were that these protocols lasted for a week or two and then ended.    

Store Managers Need Support too

If I was talking to these managers in person, I would have wanted to give them a big hug.  They are demonstrating courage and commitment as if they owned their stores!  Some managers appear to have amazing DMs and RMs who are checking in and making sure they have what they need.  This wasn’t the case with everyone I spoke to. 

As a reminder, if you lead teams remotely, don’t assume they’ve got it all together just because they sound like they do on the phone.  Check in daily and give them the support they are giving their store team.  

Retail CEOs, Here are my learnings and a few recommendations  

  1. Your retail leaders are super stars.  Stay connected with them and cheer them on from the sidelines.  For every retail executive, if you aren’t visiting stores and calling store managers, I encourage you to start.  They know best what is happening on the front lines and what customers want.  Better than the governors, reporters or even countries who are sharing their protocols.  Listen to them.  
  2. There are great brands out there who have hired amazing talent. I hope you are proud of them and are doing everything in your power to keep them feeling safe and appreciated!  CEOS, you should be visiting stores, calling stores randomly daily and thanking them for what they are doing.  It is easy to sit in our homes and make decisions that we don’t have to carry out.  Calling your leaders will re-recruit them to your company and help you tweak your operations.  
  3. Feeling safe one day doesn’t mean you will feel safe the next.  Just because stores are open, it doesn’t mean this is all figured out.  This is an emotional time for people and we need to care about and love on our teams!  It isn’t about sales or task execution right now.  It’s about caring for teams and customers.  Do that well and the sales will come.
  4. Provide your Store teams with talking points on how to handle customers who aren’t complying with the regulations.  Don’t leave it up to them to figure out.  They are already figuring a lot out to keep the stores operating!
  5. Use fresh eyes to evaluate how you operate your stores.  Now is the time to reset and consider shorter hours, different management complements, removing friction for your store leaders and associates just to name a few.  


I am here to help…as a retail expert, I am available to guide retailers through this post-covid period.  Let me know how I can serve you.

In your Corner,

retail consultant

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