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Retail accounts for 1 in 4 American jobs. What does that mean for your HR department?

The retail industry has an incredibly diverse workforce. Between part-time and seasonal employment, retail HR departments have to be better prepared through processes and technology to manage that diversity and the 25% of American jobs it supports.1 

We asked Tim Rowland, VP and GM of global industry retail at Lexmark, and Ailie Kofoid, director of global back solutions at Lexmark, to learn more. 

What makes HR in retail unique? 

Tim Rowland: A retailer’s image is carried by its employees more than any other industry. Whether or not a customer liked shopping at a particular store is so closely tied to their experience with store employees. With a young, seasonal and temporary workforce, how in the world do you guard your image? 

Ailie Kofoid: Exactly. It’s such a distributed workforce. The sheer ratio of employees in the stores versus in corporate creates a command and control issue—a lack of visibility.

Tim: Yes! In almost any other industry, you can blow a whistle and communicate to everyone in earshot. But in retail, you have a centralized HR department with a nationally distributed workforce across thousands of stores. How do you know your message is getting through? It becomes a game of telephone. 

It was projected the 2014 holiday season would bring in more than 800,000 seasonal jobs in the U.S. (a first since 1999).2 What challenges do retailers face with seasonal hires?

Ailie: Onboarding is a challenge for most businesses, but when you have to onboard short-term employees en masse, the challenge only increases. The stickiest area is I-9s*. The potential for errors there is a huge problem for retailers because the fines around I-9s are steep. So, not only do you have to onboard a large volume of people quickly, but the timeframe to ensure compliance is shortened, creating more room for error. Also, that time crunch makes it challenging to get everyone up to speed—both in terms of training and singing in tune with your brand message.

Tim: Right! You don’t want your seasonal hires to come across as just that: Seasonal. Or, hear shoppers asking, “Is this your first day?” It also makes me think about security. With all employees, retailers need to know: What’s their background, where else have they worked? But with seasonal hires, training and screening has to be done quickly and thoroughly. 

Beyond seasonal hires, what is the biggest HR challenge for retailers?

Tim: I’m always amazed at how retailers handle records. It’s unbelievable how many are kept at the store in file cabinets, or even stashed away in the ceilings! When it comes to paper documents, the exposure alone is hard to imagine, but how would corporate even begin to audit that? How can there be visibility and consistency when it’s scattered in file folders across the organization?

Ailie: Completely agree. And even more worrisome? The documents that aren’t even in a file folder. The paper doctor’s note, for example, that’s sitting on a manager’s desk. How do you catalogue that?

Tim: Another challenge we’ve found is employees using their own mobile devices to capture the information they need. For example, a manager using their own device to take a picture of employee information to send off to where it needs to go. Great, the job is done, but ... that information still exists on that personal device. That makes me think most retailers have no idea how exposed they really are. 

How are HR operations affected by millennials entering the workforce?

Tim: Millennials are incredibly annoyed by inefficient technology. Rightfully so; they’ve been raised with a device in their hand. Like the manager above, millennials are resourceful in that they’ll get the job done using the technology they have, but that means they aren’t sensitized to the risk they can create for their employers.

Ailie: As employers start to think about improving communication with employees, they have to consider those personal devices and how to best leverage that user population to relay information.

Tim: Retailers don’t want associates in the back room on a system, but they don’t want them constantly checking their phones on the sales floor when they could be helping shoppers. It’s a hard balance to strike.

Ailie: As Tim mentioned, millennials are technology “natives”. The ease of access and use of technology is all they’ve ever known and a lot of them spend their lives in their device. So, the questions become: how do we get the business world to reach that device and how do we share information and train using the technology they use? Millennials expect it, but businesses haven’t quite caught up yet.

Tim: It’s also interesting, this workforce (millennials) is the same consumer demographic that many retailers are targeting. It’s really an untapped benefit. Aligning how technology is used to connect with both the employee and the consumer would create huge advantages for retailers. It creates a rich environment with huge potential. 

What changes should retailers consider to keep up with employees?

Tim: Well, with the advent of mobile technology, the analysts like to say the power has shifted from retailer to consumer. To me, that parallel holds true between the employer and the employed, too. Gone are the days when retailers say, “Here is how you are to act, new associate, and here’s your rigid list of dos and don’ts”. Instead, retailers should leverage that knowledge base and help them do their best so they can serve customers better. I feel like there’s a call to a mind shift: Instead of putting employees in a box and telling them what to do, it’s how can we empower them to do better? If you’re talking down to them, you won’t get that high-energy customer service. And that’s when you begin to compromise your brand image.

Ailie: Tim’s right. Retailers have to think about where they can implement technology in the stores to drive their business, and empower the workers that drive their business. 

What about the cloud? How does that play into HR?

Tim: Well, cloud storage solves the challenge of accessing and managing paper documents. With files that are electronically and securely stored in the cloud, the lack of visibility between headquarters, stores and employees is greatly reduced.

Ailie: At the corporate level, HR is usually pretty lean and lower on the priority list for IT. That makes the cloud very appealing. They don’t want to manage the tech side of it; they’re happy to let others do that for them so they can focus on what they do best.

What’s on the horizon for HR in retail? Any new technology or industry trends?

Ailie: HR has always been really good at incentive programs: employee rewards, appreciation, scoreboards. So, as technology evolves, that will be interesting to watch as well—seeing how these grassroot trends that are usually contained at the store level will play into the larger organization and connectedness between units. 

Lexmark solutions for human resources process automation 

Lexmark’s Human Resources solutions give you comprehensive access and visibility into your HR documents and processes. The core of our solutions? Electronic personnel files. From one secure, electronic repository, you can track and access employee information where needed—at the store, regional office or headquarters.

With our solutions for HR, you can:

  • Administer employee information with electronic Employee File Management
  • Expedite the onboarding process for your team and new hires with Employee Onboarding
  • Track and log documents, and simplify HR audits with Human Resources Compliance 

What is the most common question retailers ask about Lexmark HR solutions?

Ailie: How does your solution solve the challenges I have in the store? That’s where their pain is.

Tim: At times, if we’re not clear, they think we’re trying to replace existing systems of record. We’re not. We’re here to leverage and complement the work they’ve already done. It’s about extending the value of the systems they’re already using.

What’s the number one thing retailers should know about Lexmark HR solutions?

Ailie: Like Tim said, we’re not here to replace their core HR systems. We’re here to leverage those investments. There are pieces of information that those core systems don’t cover, like the paper doctor’s note. We provide the “single talent record” capability that consolidates hard-to-manage documents with information from core systems. We’re here to make managing employee files easier.

Tim: We’re uniquely placed in that we truly appreciate the dilemma of the distributed workforce. There isn’t a ton of attention paid to the gap between a centralized department and their national workforce. But we get it. So for us it’s about bridging that gap by increasing continuity and the flow of information.


Learn more about our solutions for HR in retail.