Transitioning into the “new normal” during the pandemic was hard enough for women working in retail, as some brick-and-mortar retailers closed their doors, while others instituted in-store customer limits, as social distancing, masks, and hand sanitizer became the rule of the day.
What do the pandemic and subsequent reopening mean for the future of retail, and specifically for women re-entering the retail workplace (either returning to their old positions or seeking new ones) as the “newer normal” takes hold?
Read on to find out some of what to expect and how to move forward.
Assess the New Environment and Adapt
The pandemic hit women in retail as hard as or harder than anyone else. Retail is the most common kind of work in the U.S., and the majority of jobs in clothing, department stores, gift shops, and souvenir shops are held by women. However, the impact on these different sectors will vary in the months and years ahead. Souvenir shops are likely to rebound as the travel industry picks up again, and may come back stronger than ever in response to pent-up demand.
Department stores, on the other hand, continue to close at an alarming rate — a trend that was well underway before the pandemic hit. Many indoor malls were being converted to office space, creating new job opportunities outside retail. Pre-COVID, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, and others all announced store closures and contractions. As of December 2020, there were 6,000 department stores in the U.S., and 2,000 were expected to close in the next five years.
Consider Online Opportunities
More retail businesses are moving online, which means opportunities can be found there for women as well. How big has the shift been? We all know about Amazon.com, but the online retail boom extended far beyond that single company. In fact, e-commerce sales made up nearly one-fifth (19 percent) of all retail sales worldwide in 2020, with Walmart’s e-commerce sales rising 37 percent during the first quarter of 2021.
The difference in the number of customers who made purchases online before the pandemic and are expected to do so afterward is telling. That projected increase was 14 percent for furniture and appliances; 10 percent in household supplies, jewelry, non-food child products, and personal care products; and even 8 percent for footwear (despite the fact that you can’t try on shoes online).
Expanding online work opportunities can be good news for working mothers returning to retail, as they can provide extra flexibility for supervising and caring for children, an especially important point since many daycares closed during the pandemic, many permanently.
Expect a Change in Spending and Payment Patterns
During the pandemic, it seems, customers learned a lesson about the use of credit cards. Many said they would decided to become more focused on saving the money they had been spending on interest, while also protecting and building their credit. After all, good credit can save you more than $11,000 per year in interest alone. In fact, 42 percent of 1,000 respondents to a recent survey about debt agreed with the statement: “I believe we’ve learned how much interest and fees cost. We’ll permanently cut back.”
On the surface, that might seem to indicate a shift toward cash, but balancing that out is a trend toward electronic payment via hands-free practices, QR codes, voice-activated payments, and pre-payment for pickup. That’s not even mentioning the online buying, covered above.
As a result, women returning to the retail workplace who work at check-stands and cashier stations should expect to familiarize themselves with a variety of nontraditional payment methods going forward. That’s not the only change being driven by new technology.
Prepare for New Approaches to Customer Service
As digital interactions increase, more shoppers expect customer service to be an around-the-clock experience. They’re accessing digital helplines, making use of “chatbots,” and demanding support via text. One survey found that 72 percent of consumers age 18 to 64 said having the ability to text with a live agent in real time would improve their customer service experience.
Women returning to work in retail should be prepared to expand their customer service skill set to accommodate emerging trends. The world of retail is changing, as are expectations and opportunities. Assessing new environments, adapting to changing patterns in spending and customer service, and exploring online opportunities are ways for women entering or re-entering the field to maximize their potential moving forward into the post-pandemic world.