The Mystery Of The Vanishing Retail Staff

Here’s the church, here’s the steeple; open the door … and where are the people?

It’s difficult to determine how one could manipulate one’s fingers to represent a retail store while cantillating that paraphrased nursery rhyme (not a lot of them have steeples, to begin with), but it would be a fitting depiction of the current situation that has befallen major retail chains recently.

And we’re not referring to the shoppers, necessarily, that are absent from those locations (although their increasingly sparse appearance certainly did contribute to the problem at hand); we’re talking about the employees.

At the start of the year, Macy’s announced plans to eliminate about 4,800 jobs as a result of low sales.

After cutting 130 tech staffers from its company last month (at first 10, then another 120), Nordstrom announced this week that it plans to lay off an additional 400 corporate employees.

And earlier this month, Victoria’s Secret set about casting off about 200 of its employees while eliminating certain merchandise categories entirely.

While, across the board, physical retailers that have been forced to cut staff (and/or close locations) will attest that their hand was forced largely as a result of the substantial chunk of revenue that online commerce has been taking (and continues to take) from their bottom lines. The attraction of the brick-and-mortar shopping experience cannot compete with the convenience of online, many will bemoan.

Solely from the convenience perspective, yes — it’s difficult to beat the ease of clicking a button on a computer or tapping a mobile device and having items delivered to one’s doorstep a day or two later (if not on the same day).

But physical retailers — at least the ones that aren’t willing to just throw up their hands and wait for their very business model to die — have to know that there is a distinct advantage that brick-and-mortar holds over online in terms of what it can deliver to customers: an experience.

Barring those that are currently under house arrest, one would be hard-pressed to find an adult consumer that — no matter how much he or she loves the convenience of shopping online — never has any interest in venturing to a physical store to participate in the tactile experience of shopping in the old-fashioned way. It is simply something that people — despite the sky-is-falling perspective that frequently permeates the physical retail industry — like to do.

A study from last year showed that more than 70 percent of consumers would prefer to browse and shop at a brick-and-mortar Amazon store, for example, than on Amazon’s website.

Even more telling in that study’s results is that 90 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to make a purchase when being assisted by an in-store associate.

Ergo, people go to stores to shop because they want to interact with people who can help them do that.

So, Macy’s … Nordstrom … Victoria’s Secret (and others): Why the staff cuts?

In explaining Victoria’s Secrets’ cuts, L Brands (the store’s parent company) Chairman and CEO Leslie Wexner described the move as part of overall “improvements” that would allow the retailer to “[narrow its] focus”.

Of the 4,800 jobs that Macy’s set about cutting in January, about 2,700 of them were linked to 40 planned store closures. Hard to complain about an absence of a focus on the customer experience at a store that doesn’t actually exist.

In the case of Nordstrom’s most recently announced 400 layoffs, those — as aforementioned — will occur strictly at the corporate level (cold comfort for those affected individuals at the corporate level, no doubt), with the retailer telling The Seattle Times that sales-floor positions are not in the purview of this round of cuts.



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