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Is 2020 the Year of Employee Experience? Insights from NRF 2020

Mia McPherson
January 14, 2020

3 minute read

Fresh into a new year and a new decade, expectations are high for customer experience. And tech and retail companies are eager to deliver. NRF Vision 2020: Retail’s Big Show expected record-breaking numbers this week, and there was certainly no lack of inspired solutions on display, poised to wow show-goers.

While new innovations and tech trends dominated the show floor and session content, another theme strongly emerged: the focus on the employee experience, and its effects on retail customer experience success and the success of the industry as a whole.

Kevin Johnson, President and CEO, Starbucks and Stephanie Mehta, Editor in Chief, Fast Company at NRF 2020. Courtesy of NRF.

Employees unlock organizational momentum – especially Millennials

Stephanie Mehta, Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company and Kevin Johnson, President and CEO of Starbucks kicked off day 2’s keynote session with “Nurturing humanity in modern-day retail”. A key theme in nurturing humanity and unlocking organizational momentum, according to Johnson, is a focus on the partners – which is how Starbucks refers to its employees. And that naming convention isn’t an anomaly, it’s an intentional aspect of the employee experience strategy. Johnson expressed the importance of creating not only a common language within a company culture, but shared experience, which he believes leads to shared understanding and beliefs.

Johnson described hosting roundtables with partners to gain insight and feedback into their experiences. From those insights, “My job was to pick what to work on and start to create a movement,” said Johnson.

Millennial employees are key to the movement and building momentum within Starbucks, noted Johnson, as he described Millennial employees as a catalyst for change, with a willingness to try new things and demonstrate a new way to do business.

Mercedes Abramo, President and CEO, Cartier North America, Tammy Sheffer, Chief People Officer, Rent the Runway, Shawn Outler, Chief Diversity Officer, Macy’s Inc., and Shannon Schuyler, Principal, Chief Purpose & Inclusion Officer, PwC at NRF 2020. Courtesy of NRF.

Employees are key to other employees’ success

Retail executives Shannon Schuyler, Principal, Chief Purpose & Inclusion Officer, PWC; Mercedes Abramo, President and CEO, Cartier North America; Shawn Outler, Chief Diversity Officer, Macy’s Inc.; and Tammy Sheffer, Chief People Officer, Rent the Runway, shared the keynote stage as part of a panel discussion representing CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion.

The “largest CEO-driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace”, according to the website, CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion is made up of more than 800 CEOs of leading organizations.

The panel discussion centered around topics of diversity and inclusion that typically had not been discussed in the workplace in the past, according to the panelists. This includes the idea that often times, according to Sheffer, men in the workplace are provided with sponsorship while women in the workplace receive mentorship. She elaborated to explain that a sponsor is a leader willing to advocate and speak up on behalf of an employee, whereas mentorship involves a leader assisting an employee with skill building. And while both are valuable, more sponsorship is what’s needed to increase representation and opportunity.

Another recurring theme throughout was the idea that promoting diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do for the business. Outler noted Macy’s goal to reach 30% ethnic diversity at the senior level by 2025, supporting the idea that a brand’s ability to represent and reflect its customers and community is foundational for business and for the future world.

Shifting focus from the customer experience to the employee experience

In a press briefing with Jack Kleinhenz, Chief Economist, NRF; Yelena Shulyatyeva, Senior US Economist, Bloomberg Economics; and Steven Blitz, Managing Director, TS Lombard, a major topic of discussion was the idea that the consumer is driving economic growth.

So, naturally, many retailers and brands turn their attention to the customer experience – how to keep up, and how to meet and exceed expectations in an era of fast-moving tech and instant gratification.

Yet some are taking another approach – the employee-experience-first approach. In the NRF Innovation Lab, SmarterCX spoke with Alison Zook, VP of Success at Arcade, a software company that creates gamification tools to incentivize engagement, motivation, and fun in the workplace – seeking to solve the issue of disengaged front-line employees while creating better outcomes for the employee, customer, and company alike.

“We put a ton of focus on improving the customer experience; I think we’re going to find retailers be more apt to engage their employees on a day-to-day basis to improve that customer experience,” said Zook. “I see retailers starting to turn their focus in-house, making sure their employees love work and are more engaged to be able to provide that customer experience.”

To see coverage from NRF 2020, read “NRF 2020: 3 Emerging Trends in Retail Customer Experience“.

Mia McPherson
Mia McPherson is a lover of cats, community involvement, and Pittsburgh sports. Mia is the Editor-in-Chief of SmarterCX.com and has been working with talented teams to create content for the media, publishing, and technology industries for 15 years.
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