Sending the Message

By Pamela Babcock Nov 1, 2003

HR Magazine, November 2003

By blending technology and tradition, retailers get the word out to workers on the sales floor.

When the massive power failure last August left millions of electricity customers in the dark, the Ikea home products company—along with thousands of other retailers in the Northeast and parts of Canada—had to resort to makeshift means of communicating with affected employees.

One approach was back-to-basics: hand-written messages posted on store doors. Another was adaptive: activation of Ikea’s “sick line,” an emergency call-in procedure that enables employees to find out if a store is closed for any reason, such as bad weather. (The sick line worked during the blackout because generators kept store computers and phones operating.)

Getting messages out to dispersed retail employees during a blackout, however, may be only marginally more daunting than reaching them in normal times or when they’re at their busiest, such as the rushed weeks leading up to the year-end holidays.

Just over 23 million people were employed in retailing last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And although many retail employees in corporate offices or in managerial posts have access to tools such as e-mail and company intranets, front-line retail employees often don’t have such channels available to them. The workers who have the crucial role of interacting directly with a retailer’s customers are, for the most part, not wired.

Instead, they are likely to be out on the sales floor ringing up the newest DVD release at Sam Goody, helping design a customer’s kitchen remodeling project at Ikea or showing someone that perfect sweater at The Limited.

“They can make or break a business—and they’re not sitting at a computer reading e-mails or surfing the intranet,” says Alison Davis, CEO of Davis & Co., an HR consulting firm in Glen Rock, N.J.

Of course, some workers on the sales floor do have access to computer terminals and thus to company intranets, and some can receive messages through wireless devices or cash register displays or via radios or TVs in break rooms and other places, such as elevators.

But even retailers who are turning to new technologies often blend them with more traditional means of reaching their sales workers—newsletters, payroll envelope inserts and supervisors’ small-group meetings with their employees. In fact, such sessions are crucial, according to some experts. In their view, effectiveness in communicating with retail employees often comes down to the manager’s ability to make the message clear and personal.

Hired for the Holidays

One of the biggest challenges in reaching employees on the sales floor emerges at around this time every year—the holiday shopping season, when employee ranks expand sharply with short-term workers.

“It’s always difficult when you have large numbers of temporary and seasonal workers who come in,” says Professor Marlene G. Fine, Ph.D., director of the master’s in communications management program at Simmons College in Boston. Such workers, she says, have little time “to learn about the culture and values of the organization and the expectations of the job.”

Global retailer Limited Brands, the Columbus, Ohio, company whose more than 4,000 stores include Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Express, Express Men’s, and The Limited, adds 75,000 associates to its 100,000-employee roster of retail workers during the company’s peak holiday period of October through January, says Toyin Ogun, vice president of stores human resources. The company uses packaged training materials “to educate seasonal associates about our values, policies and processes,” Ogun says. Managers present the training to employees while they are on the clock but not expected to be on the sales floor.

Some organizations prepare workers in advance of the Christmas rush. For example, during the holidays there’s about a 20 percent growth surge in the retail staff at Musicland Group, a Minnetonka, Minn., company that regularly has about 10,000 retail employees and operates more than 1,100 Sam Goody, Suncoast Motion Picture and Media Play stores.

“We generally ‘front-load’ our communication somewhat, making sure employees understand the holiday execution strategy prior to Thanksgiving weekend,” says Michael Voss, Musicland Group’s communications director.

Then, during the holidays, “we tend to dial back on the amount of communication to stores so they have time to work with customers,” Voss continues. “From Thanksgiving through Christmas, only absolutely critical information is sent to store employees.”

Messages and Media

Whether it’s a peak selling period or a slower time, messages that go out to retail workers generally fall into familiar categories such as product information, sales strategies, company news, the day’s plans and employee benefits.

For HR professionals and corporate communication specialists looking for ways to convey such messages, consultant Davis offers three suggestions.

First, get to know your employees. Find out how many aren’t wired, and learn their locations and routines, Davis says. Research their work environment. Do they have phones? Where do they take breaks? “You may have to do some digging. If you don’t know who [and where they are] and what they do, you can’t reach them.”

Second, Davis says, engage managers and supervisors, because they play an “important role in translating company information for nonwired employees.” Many may have risen through the ranks and may not have been trained in effective communication, she adds. “They need your help figuring out how to share information.”

Third, don’t give up on the basics. In retail outlets as in other businesses, printed materials and visuals are still effective, Davis says. “One of the things J.C. Penney has done a very nice job of is featuring real employees—as opposed to models—in their communications with retail employees,” she says. “They seem to really understand how a compelling visual of someone’s face really gets people’s attention.”

Davis adds that “many companies send weekly mail packs to their stores or warehouses with news updates and other information. The key is to make these relevant and compelling so that employees are drawn to them.”

While an employee handbook’s chapter on the corporate mission statement or the company’s vision and values may not grab retail workers’ attention, a poster in a break room can have a strong impact.

A Major Retailer’s Approach

Although visuals can be effective, it’s important not to limit your options in communicating with retail employees. For reaching a diverse workforce quickly and effectively, Ikea’s Clive Cashman says, “Multimedia is absolutely the way to go.” Cashman is deputy corporate communications manager for Ikea USA (which encompasses the United States and Canada) in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Ikea, a Sweden-based company with stores in more than 30 countries, reaches employees through printed materials, radio broadcasts and its global intranet, which includes regional sites for each country and individual sites for most store locations.

The company’s tiered approach includes a general message presented via Ikea Radio, a short news program produced through Ikea’s North American office in Plymouth Meeting. The programs, in English and other languages, are aired over public address systems before or after store hours or are played at staff meetings. Radio programs are complemented by a full story online and links and downloads for managers and co-workers who want more information about the topic.

Ikea’s intranet content includes product and commercial priorities, expansion news, company initiatives and policies, online learning and development programs, and job opportunities. Employees can access the intranet at terminals in break rooms and training facilities. Eventually, Ikea plans to allow employees to have intranet access on the sales floor at “appropriate times,” Cashman says.

Ikea’s internal communication specialists are responsible for general company news, while HR puts out information on its areas of expertise. This year, for example, an HR initiative called “Open Ikea” was launched to communicate with workers about job opportunities. One component uses blue and yellow stickers throughout stores and offices to spark interest. Stickers on restroom doors read, “Open the door to a new career.” Those on mirrors say, “Find a job that really reflects your interests.” Next to light switches: “Find work that turns you on.” On soft-drink machines: “Refreshing opportunities.” All include the intranet address where employees can get more information.

Most of Ikea’s benefits information is mailed to employees’ homes, while less-personal messages may be stapled to pay stubs or announced at group meetings, Cashman says. The company also sends to stores packages of information that managers are to give to employees. The packages typically include instructions on how managers are to disseminate the information, along with leaflets for workers and posters for their bulletin boards.

“The most effective communication for retail employees addresses the ‘what does this mean for me?’ issues directly, on a level appropriate for their daily work experience,” says Cashman. “We learned that discussing high-level business strategy, for instance, with our retail co-workers creates disinterest.”

Store managers are a critical part of the process, Cashman adds. “We’ve found co-workers consistently identify managers as the most trusted source of information.”

The manager’s role is also a priority at Musicland. “The best way to drive desired behaviors is to hear the messaging directly from the store’s leader,” says communications director Voss. “Our least successful methods have been individual memos sent to stores from corporate leaders.”

From Newsletters to Laptops

Like Ikea, Musicland uses a mixture of media to reach retail workers. Most stores have intranet access for real-time information, breaking news and “The Daily Source,” a tool that managers print daily off the intranet to prioritize tasks. Each week Musicland sends every store a four-page hard-copy newsletter that Voss says has a “cool, hip look and feel, which makes employees more likely to check it out.” Information is also dispensed through conference calls and via brief in-store meetings led by managers.

Limited Brands, which also communicates through its intranet, disseminates key strategic and operational messages to regional and district managers—and in some instances to store managers—who then communicate with retail employees. “All of our managers have laptops or, in some cases, wireless devices so that the brand can communicate easily and quickly with them,” says HR vice president Ogun. “They in turn communicate to their store associates via conference calls and their routine visits and meetings with individual stores.”

Limited Brands also can communicate urgent and important text messages to stores through the cash register system.

Getting Together

For moving information quickly and accurately to retail employees, consultant Jim Shaffer recommends “huddling.” Shaffer, who runs the Jim Shaffer Group in Annapolis, Md., and is the author of The Leadership Solution (McGraw-Hill, 2000), says huddling is “essentially a very fast-paced, very focused way to bring people together into quick meetings to discuss critical performance issues that are confronting the team or the department or the store. In retail operations, it’s ideal since you don’t want to pull a lot of people off the floor or keep people after store hours when it intrudes on their personal lives and requires paying overtime.”

Methods of huddling vary according to company and communication needs. For example, stand-up huddles lasting just a few minutes are conducted in Ritz-Carlton hotels for discussion of each day’s issues, Shaffer says. Other companies, he says, use huddles at shift changes as a “hand-off meeting where people talk about performance on the previous shift, adopt performance targets for the upcoming shift, celebrate something great someone did the day before and get back onto the floor.”

But the effectiveness of such gatherings hinges on managers, Shaffer adds; it’s up to them to personalize information and provide the “how does this affect me?” context that employees want and need.

Shaffer, a former principal at the Towers Perrin global consulting firm, has worked with numerous companies, including Sears and Nordstrom. He says that for 90 percent of “the work that needs to get done” in a retail operation, the best source of information is the store manager, the department manager or the workers’ other colleagues. Moreover, he says, there’s a strong correlation between a store manager’s ability to communicate and the store’s profitability.

“Some retail companies know that turning a store’s performance around within one year requires bringing in a store manager who knows how to engage people,” Shaffer says, “Engaging people is all about communication.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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