Employee Engagement Employee Recognition

9 steps to creating great retail culture

Retail can get something of a bad rap when it comes to culture.

Ask any member of the public about their perception of working in the industry and you’ll likely hear about dead-end jobs, long hours, difficult customers and unsympathetic management.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A lot of more forward-thinking retailers have worked hard to create caring, people-first environments where their employees feel valued, invested in and dedicated to their work.

Want to do the same at your company? In this blog, we’ll explore how to define, build, and maintain a thriving retail culture, all in nine simple steps.

Why culture matters in retail

Attracting and retaining staff in retail has never been easy, but it’s become increasingly difficult over the last few years. The pandemic, The Great Resignation, the rise of remote work, and general labour shortages have all contributed to a situation where many retailers are now seriously struggling to maintain staffing levels. 

Focusing on creating stronger, more attractive retail culture can give companies in the sector a significant advantage in the talent market, and also help them encourage more staff to consider long-term careers in the industry in order to maintain a healthy talent pool in the next decade.

Building culture in retail, step by step

The very idea of changing your retail company culture can obviously feel a little overwhelming. What needs to change? What can you do to make a real impact? What shouldn't you do? Do you even know what you’re trying to accomplish?

Culture in itself is such a broad, ill-defined idea that cultural change can encompass almost anything from wholesale policy changes, to adapting managerial approaches, to simple initiatives to improve employee experience.

To make it easier, we’d suggest breaking it down into simple, logical steps. This allows you to examine your entire organizational approach from top to bottom, but in a manageable way.

1. Understand what good retail culture is

Okay, so you want your company to have a great culture, but what does that even look like? Before you dive headlong into making big plans and initiatives, take some time to do some learning and reflection.

First, look for examples of good retail culture. What companies in your field are actually getting this right, and how do they do it? 

You’ll probably find several industry leaders who you can take inspiration from, each taking different approaches. For instance, Costco and Trader Joe’s regularly make ‘Best Places to Work’ lists with cultures that emphasize good pay, ownership, and opportunity for employees. Patagonia employees, meanwhile, really respond to the company’s sense of social responsibility and purpose.

Don’t be afraid to look further afield for inspiration, too. Look at big companies in other frontline industries, like healthcare and manufacturing, and how they build culture. Or even at tech startups, which are often less conservative and quicker to embrace leading edge, people-first policies (you can even check out our guide to how we build culture here at Guusto). Even if some ideas can’t be applied to your company in the same way, you might still find plenty of things you can adapt to your field and your specific organizational structure. 

From there, take an honest look at your own organization and how it stacks up against others. Are you far behind, or do you have a good foundation to build on? Are there barriers that might stop you from building a better culture? From where you are right now, what can you hope to improve in the short, medium, and long term?

This will help you to put an actionable, achievable plan in place for cultural change.

2. Define what you want your culture to be

The next step is to figure out what kind of culture you want for your company. The key to this is to define what really matters to you and your leadership team, and what you need to put in place to make it a reality.

Is it about improving employee wellbeing? Driving performance? Reducing turnover? Most likely, you’ll have some clue of this already. When companies task HR teams with taking action to improve culture, there’s usually some catalyst that causes them to do it. 

Create a plan that reflects what you want to build, and has the potential to clearly create impact in areas where you want to see change happen. 

Again, it’s worth looking at this alongside your assessment of where your company currently is, so you can ascertain what you can realistically hope to achieve and what success should look like. For example, if your goal is to improve retention and your turnover is currently very high, even small improvements might represent a huge win. As you progress, you can start to set the bar higher.

3. Get your team aligned

For the retail culture you want to truly exist, everyone at your organization needs to be on the same page. Your executives, managers, and office and frontline staff all need to have a clear picture of what your company should be and how they can help make it happen.

Alignment can be one of the most difficult things to achieve in retail company culture. Because of the nature of the business, people are spread across different locations and job functions, often with very little interaction with one another.

Without clear organizational direction, this environment can be a breeding ground for micro-cultures, where different stores or departments develop their own ways of doing things based on their immediate priorities, or even individual management styles. 

To truly create a great retail culture, you want to ensure that it will be uniform across your company, and that both employees and customers can be sure of having the same experience no matter what store, department, or location they’re in.

Your core values can be a key driver in creating this consistency. Make sure everyone at your organization is aware of them, why they are in place, and how they translate to their day-to-day work. You can even use recognition to reward people for acting in line with them.

4. Drive culture through practical initiatives

Once you and your leaders are fully aligned on what kind of culture you want, you can take action to create it. 

What this means for you will depend on what kind of culture you want to create, and what will make it a reality. Most likely, there will be a number of different components to your plan. 

For example, if you want a culture that better fosters long-term retention, you may be looking to:

  • Offer better compensation and benefits to make your overall employer value proposition more appealing
  • Implement a new learning and development plan to encourage growth
  • Introduce more employee wellbeing initiatives to prevent burnout
  • Create a recognition program to make staff feel more valued

Any number of other initiatives could also make this list, depending on your budget and what you already have in place.

The important thing to remember is that there’s no silver bullet to create great retail culture. Better benefits, team-building activities, recognition, or anything else won’t move the needle much for you if it is the only thing you’re doing, and real cultural change may involve a lot more time and hard work.

5. Hire for the culture you want to build

One of the things that can really kill culture is turnover. Employees who come in with different working styles, values, and beliefs can undo a lot of your good work, and it’s important to hire at all levels with the culture you want to build in mind. 

For instance, if you are working really hard to build a caring, people-first culture, bringing in a hardline, old-school store manager could be detrimental to your efforts, even if that candidate has a good track record when it comes to results.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that everyone you look to hire should have the same type of personality, working approaches, or backgrounds. Our People Team at Guusto likes to remind hiring managers that we should be looking for a ‘culture add’ rather than a ‘culture fit’ – people who will bring something new to the table, while still bringing us further towards the culture we want. Having diverse opinions and approaches in the room is a good thing, providing everyone is aligned on their overall aims.

6. Reinforce it every day

Culture isn’t something you ‘set and forget’. If you really want retail culture that’s a cut above the rest, it’s something you have to work at, day after day. 

Incorporate your values into your training and development, and make sure every employee is being consistently reminded of what they need to do on their part to create the environment you are striving for.

Again, employee recognition can be extremely valuable here, as you can recognize and reward employees for actions that reflect your values and mission.

7. Celebrate your culture champions

On that last point, we can’t emphasize enough how crucial it is to show appreciation to highly engaged employees in a winning retail culture. 

If your people are going above and beyond to drive performance, deliver stellar customer service, or just make your company a better place to work for their teammates, they deserve to be celebrated.

Regular recognition will remind them what you’re trying to achieve, and make them feel proud for achieving it.

8. Measure your efforts

Whatever plan of action you put in place for your culture, it’s important to track your progress. Revisit the targets you set for yourself on a regular basis, and see if you’re reaching them.

Depending on what your plans are, this might involve anything from sending out employee surveys, to tracking participation in programs and initiatives, to looking at macro-level business outcomes like retention, productivity, and revenue.

While building culture in the retail industry isn’t an exact science, all these things should provide some indication of how well you’re doing, and help you understand what needs to be changed to keep you on track.

9. Evolve

As much as you should have a clear idea of the culture you’re trying to build, that culture shouldn’t be stagnant. 

Culture in retail is always evolving, and the best practices to maintain yours can change, too. Various factors such as technological advancements, labour market conditions, and changing attitudes and trends can all affect your view on what a good culture looks like for you, as well as make it more challenging to stay on course.

The key is to keep an open mind. Stay up to date on industry best practices and trends, both in HR and the retail sector itself, and constantly seek feedback from employees at every level of the company to gauge how they see your culture, and what they would like to improve. After all, the overall goal is to create an environment where they are happy, thriving, and doing good work, so there’s no better barometer of success.

Transforming culture in the retail industry with recognition

Employee recognition can be one of the most impactful and cost-effective ways to drive real improvements in retail culture. If you want to find out how, check out Employee Recognition for Retail: The Complete Guide. This free eBook will take you through:

  • Some the key challenges facing the retail sector today
  • How recognition can help
  • What you need to consider to implement a successful retail recognition program

The guide also includes a 3-page fillable worksheet that you can use to plan your program. Fill out the form below to download your copy today:

Employee Recognition for Retail

The complete guide to building an impactful recognition program for the retail sector and a culture where your team can thrive.

Skai Dalziel

Written by Skai Dalziel

Skai is the Co-Founder of Guusto. He leads the Customer Success Team, and loves helping HR leaders build workplace culture by sharing his experiences from working with thousands of companies.

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