Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

What Does the COVID-Fueled Surge in Online Retail Mean for In-Store Employees?

The shift from brick-and-mortar to online retail has been in the works for years, well before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. Online giants like Amazon have revolutionized the way consumers shop and fundamentally changed the economics of retail, allowing sellers to reach geographically diverse markets without a costly physical footprint.

Online retail
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Added Pressures Challenge Brick-and-Mortar Retailers

Still, many major retailers have stood out for maintaining their physical locations, bucking the trend in an attempt to differentiate themselves with customer service and a tactile experience.

Best Buy is one of the best-known retailers taking such an approach, and it’s had a lot of success taking it. But even this holdout may be succumbing to the added pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a dramatic shift in consumer preference (often spurred by government health regulations) toward online shopping.

“The electronics chain saw total sales rise 8.3% to $47.3 billion in the fiscal year ended in late January, including a 144% increase in U.S. online sales as the COVID-19 pandemic led many Americans to buy electronics to build home offices for a protracted work-from-home period and equip students for remote learning,” writes Phil Wahba in an article for Fortune discussing Best Buy’s changing sales channels.

Best Buy Reports Steady Sales, Less Store Traffic

According to the article, Best Buy reported continued momentum during the fourth quarter, with U.S. sales rising 12.4% and online sales almost doubling. “But store visits fell about 15%, and many customers are now simply using Best Buy stores to retrieve curbside an order researched and placed online,” the article notes.

As with any major economic change, there are winners and losers. Consumers may benefit from greater convenience. Retailers may save money by decreasing in-store staff and even closing some physical locations.

Impact on Staffing Needs

But what about the in-store staff who once helped customers make purchase decisions and answer specialized questions? These staff are often a casualty of the shift to an online sales model. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, though.

Companies that simply let these employees go may be giving up a valuable resource. In-store employees not only have demonstrated customer service experience but also are often highly knowledgeable about the company’s goods and services and about the company itself.

Savvy retailers shifting to an increasingly online model would do well to consider opportunities to transition obsolete in-store staff internally rather than letting that institutional knowledge and customer service acumen go.

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