On Staff: Fashion’s Pandemic Workforce Redux

When corporate chieftains talk about the pandemic-induced “acceleration” in retail’s digital transformation the emphasis is on new kinds of growth — but the unavoidable subtext is all about jobs. 

The nature of work in fashion and retail is changing — along with seemingly everything else.   

And as the stars realign around a new reality, where both shoppers and employees more readily log in to take care of business, don’t expect the workforce that returns in full force, hopefully in 2021, to look anything like it did in 2019. 

The mission is the same — get shoppers looks they want, in the way they want and at a price they’ll pay — but the crew is changing.

That includes both at slimmed-down home offices where some more techie-types might be added to mind the new artificial intelligence efforts and in stores, where the quick pick up is now a key touchpoint with customers. 

If there is an upside, it could be that the past nine months have made for a battle-tested workforce. 

 “You know who your resilient ones are,” said Matthew Katz, managing partner at advisory firm SSA & Co. “From a DNA makeup, you know which of your teammates have some of the traits to balance ambiguity, to protect and keep teams safe, who can connect with and support your customer and who represent your brand the way you want it. You also have identified those who thought some of the opposite things.”

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The retail A Team is going to be needed next year as retailers reimagine the store — again — and sharpen new interactions with consumers.

“The beauty of the store over e-commerce is that you have customer interaction,” Katz said, pointing to the evolution of that interaction with buy online, pick up in store programs. “The real trick is going to be how do you create positive customer interactions in that pick-up [in-store] moment and are they easy to add on, create additional abilities to further cement this transaction so it’s not just transactional.”

Retailers in a sense have a chance to formalize some of the skills associates picked up during the pandemic. 

“Many of the associates have already been reskilled even if they don’t know it,” said Deborah Weinswig, founder and chief executive officer of Coresight Research. “They’ve had to deal with the crisis and they’ve figured out how to engage with consumers who are shopping in a very new environment. 

“Those who are currently working in retail have a much broader skill set than they did at the beginning of this year,” Weinswig said. “And they may have the confidence to do more and maybe get promoted faster in their organization if that’s the path they’re on.”

For now, though, there seem to be more people leaving retail than moving up the ranks. 

Retailers have cut 550,000 jobs since February, according to the Labor Department’s latest reading on the employment market last week, which tracks jobs within the four walls of the store. 

Stores gave up a seasonally adjusted 34,700 jobs in November, compared with October. Within that, department stores cut 13,800 positions to employ 1 million and apparel and accessories specialty stores eliminated 2,400 jobs for a total workforce of 967,600. 

The back of the house is picking up the slack, for instance with 36,800 new warehousing and storage jobs last month alone. 

“When we look at holiday hiring for most retailers, most of those jobs — cashiers and sales people — they’re on the floor interacting with people,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “This year, the majority of the jobs are in warehouses, logistics and transformation. It’s just a fundamentally different skill set that’s being required by retailers as shoppers move their experience online.

“A lot of the jobs in retail that are being destroyed because of the pandemic and because of changing consumer preferences are probably not coming back,” Challenger said. 

While the overall number of retail jobs will naturally go down with store closures, the people who do still work at stores are taking on new roles. 

“What’s changing is what you’re actually doing in those jobs,” said Joel Rampoldt, managing director in AlixPartners’ retail practice. “The retailers are doing a lot of work that customers used to do for themselves.”

That includes everything from walking purchases from the store to the car in the case of curbside pick up and getting packages all the way to the shopper’s front door in the case of e-commerce.

“Just as it’s wrong to say the stores are going away because of e-commerce, it’s equally wrong to say the retail jobs in those stores are going to go away,” Rampoldt said. “They’re not, but they’re going to be different.”

Rampoldt said “e-commerce is in the driver’s seat” and that stores should be seen as “a fulfillment arm.”  

“The role that [retail] experience actually plays has been dramatically overblown relative to what customers actually want,” he said, tossing some cold water on the retail trend of 2019. “What we’ve seen over the past year is stores are highly functional and they need to continue to be highly functional.”

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