Adrian Grove, Business Development Director, Qube Learning

In an address to the House of Commons last week, Boris Johnson confirmed that all non-essential retail stores would be allowed to reopen from tomorrow (02 Dec).

This can’t come soon enough for non-essential retailers, who were forced to close their stores on November 5, about two weeks before the beginning of the busiest weeks of trading for the industry.

However, the closure of non-essential retail during the second lockdown will see twice as many consumers surge on to the High Street in a ‘three-week festive shopping frenzy’ in December, according to the latest ShopperTrak data from Sensormatic Solutions.

Retail bosses are expecting havoc on English high streets – where shops deemed non-essential will have been closed for a month. 

Shops will be given permission to trade around the clock as the retail industry tries to recoup some of the losses it has suffered during the pandemic, a cabinet minister has said.

Retailers have spent hundreds of millions on safety measures to protect colleagues and customers, and they stand prepared for reopening.

Rob Shaw, MD EMEA, Fluent Commerce:

“There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel for retailers, as the second lockdown draws to an end and businesses in Tiers One and Two can reopen for Christmas trading. After the challenging year we've seen thus far, the public will be looking to Christmas as a way of lifting the mood within their households. However, with non-essential retail shutting for all but Click and Collect in November, there will be increased pressure on the stores in the coming weeks. Indeed, research shows that the closure of non-essential retail during the second lockdown will see twice as many consumers surge on to the High Street in a ‘three-week festive shopping frenzy’. Retailers must negotiate a balance between managing demand and driving sales, and keeping shoppers and employees safe. 

“However, retailers must not forget that caution around the pandemic persists, and as greater restrictions are placed on regions to limit social interaction to slow down the spread of the virus, retailers will also need to prepare for more of a digital trading period. This requires retailers adapting the way they service consumers. Curbside pick ups and socially distanced Click and Collect services will increase - even if this is a make do manual process. 

“Whilst many of these new digital services were introduced by retailers pretty much overnight during the pandemic, customers will quickly have gotten used to having these options. Looking beyond the Christmas period, these new fulfilment options will need to be automated and refined to keep improving customers' experiences with them. Customers now have a whole new level of expectations that retailers will need to satisfy to remain competitive.

“Consumers will also be concerned if the online delivery networks can cope with the anticipated volumes and so retailers need to think about how to utilise store fulfilment options in a safe and efficient manner. With a complete view of inventory and a good handle on stock available to sell, retailers can ensure they don't overpromise and underdeliver. Selling from warehouses, stores and involving drop ship vendors, will ensure that every order can be fulfilled. And, ultimately, those retailers that can offer safe and convenient fulfilment models will do well this season."

Rob Shaw, continues:

“Our experience, over the last few months, has shown that retailers have acknowledged the need to plan and prepare for all eventualities. However, it is fair to say some retailers have reacted quicker and are better prepared than others for the second national lockdown in the UK. Some, I fear, have not had the time or resources to adopt contingency plans and will be exposed.

“We will, without question, see a ramp in online ordering (possibly with a repeat of the panic buying seen earlier in the year) and contactless deliveries/collections. In the previous lockdown, some businesses simply could not cope with this demand.

“A lifeline for businesses, however, is that many are currently preparing for the "traditional" peak trading period. Therefore retailers should accelerate testing and process planning to ensure any further increase in online ordering, due to a lockdown, can be processed and fulfilled in a timely and efficient manner. Vendors and suppliers to retail will also have to continue to extend support and be creative to ensure we get through this crisis together.”

Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO & Co-Founder of Content Guru:

“With all non-essential stores now reopening for a second time, and the ‘normal’ Christmas shopping period being condensed into just three weeks, the need for retailers to continue to optimise their offline and online operations is inescapable. This is especially important as the regional lockdown tier system will undoubtedly cause a range of opinions among customers about how comfortable they are entering physical stores.

“It is clear that the way brands and consumers interact has fundamentally changed. Part and parcel of this ongoing shift is the need for businesses to prioritise their customer engagement strategy – ensuring they are able to meet changing consumer demands and behaviours. Utilising an omnichannel engagement strategy allows retailers to deliver to shoppers’ preferred channels of interaction, whether than be in-store or online. Most importantly, implementing a scalable cloud solution allows retailers to handle any interactive scenario – from social rant to video shopping consultation – whether their customer service teams are in or out of lockdown. Furthermore, AI-driven intelligent automation is on-hand to soak up the excess demand these three weeks will cultivate.”

Martin Taylor, continued: 

“What is clear is that retailers will be operating in a tough environment for the foreseeable future, with consumer confidence dented significantly by worries about job security, and in many cases actual unemployment. The most successful retailers will be those who offer not just the safest shopping experience, but the best customer service. 

“When retail reopens, so will the channels through which customers will be communicating with their favourite brands and stores. Let’s not forget the impact that re-opening shops will have on contact centre and engagement hub staff around the UK. Ensuring all channels of communication are open – for enquiries or to return items – will be crucial to managing the increased flow of customers venturing out into physical stores. 

“As the demand for customer service increases, retailers will need to think about the kind of contact centre environment they are providing and how they are protecting their employees. Proper social distancing in a physical shop is difficult – in a traditional contact centre it is nearly impossible. Many organisations are being forced to operate reduced capacity customer service models. Retailers would be wise to consider adopting cloud technology for their contact centres, to enable agents to work and transact, effectively and compliantly, from home.”

Rishi Lodhia, Managing Director EMEA at Eagle Eye Networks:

"Despite the Christmas shopping period being a predominantly online affair this year, physical stores that are permitted to open will still attract visitors. All of these businesses will have taken a range of measures to keep their workers and customers safe from Covid-19. Some of these measures are clear to see - limiting the number of customers in a store and encouraging customers to use hand sanitizers and so on. 

"In addition many retailers are now implementing video surveillance to further ensure the safety of their store by, for example, identifying the most efficient traffic flow through the aisles and altering the layout to avoid the build-up of queues. In addition by providing the retailer with a better understanding of the way customers navigate the shop floor, the store layout can be optimised to meet customers’ shopping requirements, helping to minimise the amount of time customers need to be in-store, and ensuring seasonal promotions are located in the most impactful areas.

"As the country transitions in and out of lockdown and our ability to move freely is curtailed, an added benefit is that video surveillance enables owners to monitor and manage their store locations without actually having to go anywhere near the buildings themselves." 

How can retailers make Christmas magic again? 

Christmas should be a retailer’s dream: shoppers hungry to spend, tills ringing and profits soaring... 

However, many retailers will have faced multiple challenges since the country emerged out of lockdown during June and slowly re-opened for business. There continues to be a reluctance for people to return to their normal shopping habits, having got used to increased online shopping during the lockdown.

There is no crystal ball that can predict how Christmas 2020 will pan out, but we know with the resurgence of Covid-19 within the UK, there will be much uncertainty over the coming months leading up to the big day.

With lower footfall coming into our retail establishments companies need to ensure they squeeze every ounce of opportunity out of customers who have made the choice to shop in-store. Whether this is in ensuring that Sales Assistants are offering exceptional customer service and that they are upselling to ensure that basket sizes are increased, or that their stores are in tiptop condition and are really wowing their customers.

Invest in training to get those tills ringing

One sure-fire way in which retailers can accommodate these pressures is to ensure they have a workforce who are highly skilled, invested in what it is they’re selling and knowledgeable of the industry – enabling them to support and increase sales and customer satisfaction. Planning ahead of seasonal demand, investing in your team via Traineeships, Apprenticeships and utilising Sector-based work academies is a must. 

This is where Qube believes that Apprenticeships can be a useful development tool for employers to up-skill their new and existing workforce. Within the retail sector there are great progression opportunities for individuals to develop; in fact, my own personal journey took me from a YTS training scheme to a Store Manager managing 10 million pound turnover stores.

To support these progressions there are Apprenticeships at every level, starting at Level Two Retailer or Customer Service, moving onto Retail Supervisor at Level Three, followed by a Level Four Retail Manager Apprenticeship. These Apprenticeships have been written by retailers and touch on every skill needed for effective working.

Where retailers have introduced Apprenticeships, they have seen several benefits and step changes within their teams: colleagues are more motivated and engaged, attendance increases, and staff are retained within the business. So where will retailers see the benefits through the till?

Although Store Management is important in any retail business, it is the people on the shopfloor who will make or break Christmas. The Retailer Level Two will create a workforce that are really ‘switched’ on to what makes a great shopping experience for their customers and ensure they maximise every sale opportunity.

Cash incentives for training

The Government is really getting behind ‘lifelong learning’ and creating Apprenticeship opportunities for new people joining businesses. To back this commitment up, the Government has introduced several cash initiatives to help support employers to make this a reality. These range from £1,000 for any business introducing a ‘Trainee’ opportunity, and cash incentives -up to £3,000 if recruiting an Apprentice into a new role.

Retail Apprenticeships can certainly pay dividends as they enable training specifically to an individual store or brand’s needs, thereby developing a retail assistant able to work knowledgably and confidently at peak pressure times – often times when less experienced, temporary staff are employed. 

Upskilling managers 

In addition, employers may also find it helpful to utilise such training schemes for experienced staff members as well as new starters. Upskilling managers via an Apprenticeship to manage a current full-time team and the influx of temporary seasonal staff more effectively is a good use of the Apprenticeship levy and can make significant improvements to instore efficiency and sales targets. 

Qube Learning offers Retail Management training up to Level 4, which includes coaching on how to deal with unexpected or additional workloads and practical techniques to use in store. But of course, there’s a lot more to retail than the shop floor, and the warehousing and logistics side should also recognise the benefits of Apprenticeships for its workforce, something especially pertinent in the context of the Brexit transition. 

Attracting talent 

From a resourcing perspective, the warehousing industry has voiced real concerns on how it will meet staffing requirements once the UK leaves the EU and surely the main challenge to retailers in this respect has to lie in attracting talent to enable these vast warehousing spaces to become operational. 

Apprenticeships within the warehousing and logistics industry will facilitate new talent by offering real opportunities for people to earn, learn and move up the career ladder and, in doing so, supply employers with a future pipeline of middle and upper management. 

Qube Learning delivers a range of Warehouse and Transport associated Apprenticeships, reflecting significant client demand amongst its existing customer base and highlighting the increasing numbers of companies interested in innovative workforce growth via specialist Apprenticeship schemes. 

Levy funding 

Employers are also advised to access government support for Apprenticeship schemes, including the Apprenticeship Levy. The Apprenticeship Levy is charged at a rate of 0.5% of all employers with a pay bill of over £3 million per annum, for them to thereafter draw down from their government account to spend on upskilling their workforce. Should you be a non-levy paying employer, the Apprenticeship Levy is still there for you to spend with the government funding 95% of the costs. 

The Apprenticeship Levy was introduced to encourage employers to analyse how such schemes would most benefit their business and generate the best return on investment. This is vital now as, post-Brexit, the industry is likely to see a dramatic decline in applicants to job vacancies since historically many jobs were filled by people moving to the UK from overseas. In this respect it also makes sense to maximise the Apprenticeship Levy to develop a current and future workforce of team of leaders and managers. 

As the mounting costs of higher education and university life deters some applicants, an Apprenticeship in the warehousing sector could offer an alternative career pathway, and by investing in apprentices at the beginning of their working life, companies will be able to ‘train their own talent’ with the exact skills set that business needs. 

Focussed on the needs of the sector 

Modern day Apprenticeships are designed by employers within the sector subject area and so the content is truly focussed on the needs of that sector. For example, take the Supply Chain Warehouse Operative Apprenticeship where a key element of this programme is Health & Safety; by giving employees the opportunity to complete this Apprenticeship, the knowledge gained will increase the H&S understanding of their staff and in turn reduce the risk of accidents on site. 

There is no doubt that retailers can reap the rewards that Apprenticeships can bring businesses. There has never been a better time for companies to embrace the opportunities that Apprenticeships offer, and where these are working well retailers become the ‘employer of choice’, attracting the best calibre of candidates, improving retention and ultimately a reassurance that their store teams are maximising any opportunity during this Covid Christmas.

Adrian Grove, Business Development Director, Qube Learning

The British Retail Consortium (@the_BRC) had described the #retail industry as facing “a nightmare before Christmas” after the Government announced a second lockdown would take place in November. 

They were concerned it would “cause untold damage to the high street in the run up to Christmas, cost countless jobs, and permanently set back the recovery of the wider economy, with only a minimal effect on the transmission of the virus.”

Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:

“Retail faces a nightmare before Christmas as the Government proposes to close thousands of retail premises under this new national lockdown, denying customers access to many of their favourites shops and brands. It will cause untold damage to the high street in the run up to Christmas, cost countless jobs, and permanently set back the recovery of the wider economy, with only a minimal effect on the transmission of the virus.

“A recent Sage paper reported that closing ‘non-essential’ retail would have minimal impact on the transmission of Covid. This is thanks to the hundreds of millions of pounds retailers have spent making their stores Covid-secure and safe for customers and colleagues. The first lockdown cost ‘non-essential’ shops £1.6 billion a week in lost sales."

“We have no doubt that retailers will comply with the rules and play their part to ensure the British public can remain safe and have access to the goods they need. Nonetheless, Government must also play its part, providing support to businesses that will be forced to close, otherwise the consequences for local retail will be dire.”

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