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Why a multi-skilled retail team is essential for optimal efficiency

Retail is a people business. And while the rise of online shopping has increased the role of technology, it has arguably made the colleague interactions that do happen even more important. The mantra for retailers of “right people, right place, right time” has never mattered more.

A historical retail resourcing debate centred on whether shops ran better with more lower-skilled generalists or with fewer, higher paid specialists – in some ways a throwback to the times when customers were served at specialist counters, before the self-selection revolution – is now more nuanced.

The best retailers not only think about upskilling everyone, they also consider factors such as flexible working that accommodates colleagues’ busy modern lives, caring responsibilities and the changing expectations of newer demographics entering the workforce. And all decisions around skill mix must be considered in the framework of your unique brand promise and customer experience delivery.

Retail operations are at peak efficiency when they have the exactly the right resources available to complete the work at any one time, whether that is providing great customer care, filling shelves, or doing essential admin. It can be a complex balance to get to right across a retail estate where no two stores are the same and customer demand varies by time of day and day of week.

As cost control has become more important, technology is transforming how we shop, trading hours have lengthened and customer behaviour undergoes continual change, it makes sense to build flexibility into our operations. 

A team that can undertake the multitude of tasks required of them while providing great customer experience and implementing the ongoing retail change; needs to be flexible and multi skilled. A multi skilled team means that everyone can do whatever needs doing. 

A sudden rush at the tills? More of the team can hop on and open more pay points.

A quiet, rainy afternoon? A colleague from the tills can do promotional changes.

A surge of Click and Collect customers? Everyone knows the process and systems to hand out of a parcel. 

From an efficiency perspective, a multi skilled team means that the available colleague time created from gaps between serving customers can be used to complete all the essential retail tasks.

We have spent a lot of time measuring how time is spent in retail and the biggest multi skill question is on how stock is managed. We’ve worked with retailers who have dedicated stock teams who do nothing else but stock tasks, and those who have a more integrated approach between looking after customers and stock.

Our experience where there are dedicated warehouse teams, is that Parkinson’s Law applies and “work expands to fill the time”. We observe that if the delivery volume is lower than usual, the pace of work tends to drop and more tidying than is strictly necessary is done so that a small delivery takes as long to put away as a bigger one.

In general, we recommend a multiskilled, integrated team approach to stock management, unless your turnover and delivery volume are so large that it makes sense to have an out of hours team. For example, Primark on Oxford Street sells such a high volume of stock from a very busy retail space that an overnight fill up team is the best way to go. However, there are not many shops as intensely busy as Primark on Oxford Street.

If you have a dedicated stock team that operates while the store is open, you are kidding yourself if you think they don’t need customer skills as customers will approach them as they work. We studied a DIY store where one of the stock team had a pallet of paint to put to shelf. In a whole hour he did not touch the pallet stock due to the volume of customer questions and requests for advice he received.

Another consideration is if stock work is done by a dedicated team, what do customer facing colleagues do with their spare time from gaps between customers. It’s a fine balance to get it right and many retailers achieve the best compromise is a multi-skilled team and agreed times of day where customers are the focus and no stock tasks are carried out.

It is important to know when a specialist role will add value for your operation. For example, in a coffee shop where you want to be famous for great coffee, you need the specialist skills of a barista and focus them on making coffee ahead of clearing tables. And some services require suitably qualified experts, such as pharmacies, financial services and opticians.

Deciding the best configuration of skills to deliver your brand promise is key to having an efficient operation that can flex as the business changes.


Article by Simon Hedaux, founder and CEO of Rethink Productivity,

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