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Co-Founder and CEO of Zipline, a company that helps brick-and-mortar stores streamline communication and task management.

Over the past decade, retail stores have displayed a dynamism that is found in few other industries. When they were buffeted by the rise of e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retailers quickly set up online sales processes and pioneered creative new marketing campaigns to attract customers to their stores. This ability to adapt to changing conditions served retailers well when the global pandemic struck. Many were prepared to face a litany of new challenges including labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks and surges in customer demand.

Brands have recognized their retail associates for their willingness to go above and beyond during these unprecedented times—and rightly so. The show couldn’t go on without them. Associates have shouldered additional responsibilities like taking temperatures and distributing PPE to customers while dealing with the new back-office logistics that accompany “buy online, pick up in store” (BOPIS) orders or curbside pickup. But as brands enter a new year and begin to implement new strategies, it’s imperative that they focus on the needs of their store managers. This means creating clear pathways for them to level up their careers while receiving the support they need to do their jobs effectively.

The New Retail Manager

I’ve observed an unfair stereotype of a senior retail leader who is a micromanager, running a store from the back office with little understanding of what conditions are like for associates on the floor. But in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Today, many modern retail managers are agile and engaged with both their associates and their brand. Some are young—even below the age of 30—but this doesn’t mean they’re inexperienced. In fact, I’ve found the best retail managers have usually worked their way up from associate positions, and they possess a deep understanding of their store and customers. Their workflow involves coordinating a complex and nuanced ballet of protocols, places and people to optimize the in-store experience of their customers and build brand loyalty.

The new retail manager is often poised for an exciting career that could culminate in a senior management position. Empowering retail managers to climb the ranks is important both for their individual careers and the vitality of the brand itself. I think it’s hard to imagine someone who knows a brand’s customers and products better than the people who are leading teams on the ground day in and day out. Retail managers often treat their stores like their own, and they should be recognized and rewarded for their dedication to the brand’s success.

But after two years of Covid-19-induced challenges, many employees are experiencing burnout—including retail managers. Each time a retail manager quits, they carry an invaluable amount of brand knowledge and skills out the door with them. It can take years for a brand to find a suitable replacement for a strong retail manager, which means it’s critical for retail brands to implement strategies that support their store managers each day while creating long-term pathways for career success.

Three Ways To Support Retail Managers

During my decade-long stint at one of the largest specialty retailers in the U.S., I saw firsthand the challenges that managers face when it comes to ensuring their store adheres to brand standards and leading teams. I think the key today is finding a way to strike the correct balance between autonomy and guidance.

Overcoming these challenges depends on improving communication between the brand and its store managers, and the store managers and their employees. The store managers need to have a clear picture of where the brand is headed and how they can contribute to achieving the wider goals of the company.

My experience in retail showed me that there are three main pillars that brands need to focus on to empower their retail managers: execution, engagement and feedback. My experience at the helm of Zipline, a field enablement platform, showed me that each of these pillars can be harnessed by improving communication across a retail organization.

1. Look for ways to aid in execution.

First and foremost, it’s important to collect and analyze data that provides managers with insights into their task executions. This will help clarify what jobs need to be done and when—which allows managers to plan for future needs and take the necessary steps to successfully implement a new strategy before it’s rolled out. The key to strong management is to be proactive and intentional about decisions both major and minor.

2. Boost engagement by providing learning opportunities.

I think one of the most effective ways for brands to boost manager engagement is through providing opportunities to learn new skills that can advance their careers. Regularly distribute new training material to managers, and ensure they’ll be able to complete these courses in a timely manner while gaining insights into the priorities and goals of the brand. These materials should help them to effectively manage their employees and serve customers.

3. Provide constructive feedback.

Effective communication is a two-way street. Make sure to provide constructive feedback to managers based on past performance, while simultaneously keeping an open door for managers to provide feedback on the success of different brand initiatives. This creates an opportunity for managers to distinguish themselves through creative suggestions and demonstrate their ability to dynamically alter their management strategies in response to guidance from their brand.

Brands need to demonstrate that managers are integral to their company and that they have the skills to one day ascend to a senior leadership position. They can accomplish this by fostering clear communication.

Empowering retail managers to ascend to senior leadership positions can not only lead to business success for individual brands but improve the outlook for the economy as a whole. Retail is truly the backbone of the American economy, providing millions of jobs and continuing to grow at a rapid clip. But brands put the success of the retail sector in jeopardy when they don’t support the people who understand their business best. The strategies to make this change are clear; now it’s time for brands to use them.

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