Retail's Trust Issue: How To Manage Vulnerability

woman in store with mask

On a recent National Retail Federation webinar Target CEO Brian Cornell was asked about the most important factors facing retailers as they continue to deal with the business disruption caused by the pandemic. He listed a few of them including taking care of employees, keeping clean stores and …

“Trust,” he said. “I think, as I look at our recent success and certainly the response we saw from America during the pandemic, trust is going to be really important for all of us, and making sure we’re building trust with the consumer and in Target’s case trust with the guests we serve. I think that trustworthiness is going to be a really important area of focus for successful retailers, for the years to come.”

Sounds great. But how exactly can retailers build an intangible like trust in the current environment? Experts in the discipline of building trust in business say acceptance of the situation is job one. For example, Tony Simons, professor at Cornell University and author of “The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word,” says definitions are important when discussing trust.

“Trust is especially critical now, because people are all feeling incredibly vulnerable and we talk a lot about trust, but we don’t spend a lot of time defining it,” he tells PYMNTS. “But the definition that scholars have been converging on is the idea that trust is about the willingness to accept vulnerability to another person or another party.”

So in a time when retailers, the workforce and consumers are all feeling vulnerable trust is at a premium. Simons points out that employers especially need to create trusted environments. He points out that as the pandemic continues to rage in hot spots across the country a retailer who asks a store associate to come in to work is literally asking on some level for them to possibly risk their lives. The retailer-employee bond is a critical first step, he says, in building trust in the current climate.

“You need to show them that you care and that you’re doing things to keep them safe,” he says. “So, those employers who told their people they were going to let them go at the first sign of trouble, those employers said, ‘Sorry guys, you’re hitting the road [and] are going to have some challenges.’ And that’s important because you have to get the level of loyalty that you give, and next time around, the employees will be fully aware that this is only a relationship. It’s mutually profitable right now. And so those employers that took some extra care in making sure that their people were OK will be at a huge advantage as retailers.”

Simons also cautions retailers to be mindful of the vulnerability of their customers. Many of them, he says, are in fear when they walk through the door. An atmosphere of calm can be an atmosphere of trust.

“This has been a very weird thing about this pandemic,” he says. “And frankly, it’s probably a good idea to think about how to calm people and make them feel comfortable in the store. Be mindful of the music you play, and the scents you’re putting into the air. They’re looking for signals of caring. Also be aware that the person who’s approaching them offering customer service might be greeted with ambivalence, because that person represents a certain danger. We’ve become conditioned to think of humans now as dangerous. So be watchful of who your employees need to keep their distance from in order to keep them calm.”



Banks, corporates and even regulators now recognize the imperative to modernize — not just digitize —the infrastructures and workflows that move money and data between businesses domestically and cross-border. Together with Visa, PYMNTS invites you to a month-long series of livestreamed programs on these issues as they reshape B2B payments. Masters of modernization share insights and answer questions during a mix of intimate fireside chats and vibrant virtual roundtables.