The challenge of shifting customer expectations while engaging and retaining employees: A case study

Retailers today are challenged to satisfy shifting customer expectations while engaging and retaining employees.

Working with Zebra Technology, Vera Bradley’s modern store experience lifts productivity, while engaging team members and meeting customer demands.

Best Known for their iconic prints and smart styles, Vera Bradley is a leading US designer of women’s handbags, travel items and accessories. A true multi-channel retailer, they sell through factory stores, online, outlet stores, department stores and special boutique partners.

At this morning’s presentation at the NRF Retail Big Show in New York, we heard from Vera Bradley’s CRO, Mary Beth Trypus, Vice President of Stores, Kelly Brown, and Sara Lauer Head of Customer Success, Zebra Technologies. Their discussion explored how workforce management and store operations innovations have helped them create a modern store experience.

Trypus explained the Vera Bradley luggage products dominate two important categories – travel and campus.

“Our product is very different. It’s easily identifiable when travelling and walking across a campus. It is not uncommon for travellers and students to strike up conversations with others when they see they have the Vera Bradley product”.

The designs, colours and patterns differentiate their products from their competitors, while creating that ‘in-group’ experience consumers desire. Vera Bradley customers see themselves as a part of the Vera Bradly family.

Brown spoke of the key challenges for modern retail.

“Delivering ‘predictability’ to our store teams in terms of inventory deliveries, communicating promotional pricing changes and other store operational tasks. The challenge of communicating quickly, clearly and giving teams sufficient notice, so teams aren’t being taken away from customer service roles.”

“We invest heavily in training our teams.”

Vera Bradley experienced a significant shift in the demographic profile of their teams during and post the pandemic.

“We initially had older team members, mostly in part-time roles, but they left us during the pandemic. They no longer wanted to work directly with the public, so we recruited younger teams, and that created new challenges.”

Vera Bradley’s core customers are middle-class, middle-aged women, and these customers connected well with older female team members. This shifted to employing younger team members in their late-teens and early 20’s, who struggled to engage with older customers. Hence the need to invest heavily in training and up-skilling.

Trypus spoke of the modern store experience and how technology was impacting the customer experience, responding to constantly shifting customer expectations.

“Technology is relevant across the whole journey – from initial product search, contacting the store, then in-store experience and post sales involvement”.

“Take inventory for example, it is important to understand where our inventory is at any stage and communicating that predictability to our customers. They expect us to deliver on our promises.”

Keeping the customers informed about what is happening in store, new ranges arriving, new promotions, was a way Vera Bradley was able to improve their modern store customer experience and meet expectations.

“We optimised our CRM to ensure the customers’ experience is personalised. If we know what our customers are interested it, we can have our teams contact them when something arrives in store and might be of interest”, said Brown.

Finding new team members and recruiting them is hard enough in this economy, but retention has become the most pertinent issue facing our business, said Trypus.

Vera Bradley uses varies ‘tools’ outside of simple incentives. Annual feedback surveys are deployed and importantly, the results are offered transparently to all teams.

Task management system keeps teams moving forward every day on tasks, without feeling frazzled.

“System ‘checks and balances’ are put in place to ensure we are executing well. That transparency into store workload is visible at a head office level, so that we can see where pain points are happening in real time.”

Team member optimisation tools are used to manage rostering and resourcing, ensuring more teams are on the floor at the right time, to meet customers’ expectations.

Brown spoke about the adoption of Zebra’s ‘Workforce Manager’ system that reduced store manager rostering responsibilities to just 1 hour per week, putting them back on the floor, leading their teams.

“As a store manager adds in a task for the day, it gives Head Office vision into what impact that task is having on productivity. When Head Office request a task is undertaken, say a new planogram, stores can actually quantify how much time it actually takes to complete, then we can then adjust hours and wages”.

Our systems can also identify when Head Office are asking stores to undertake a task, that is not resourced.

Inventory optimisation is also become important for Vera Bradley.

Employing Zebra ‘Smart Count’ now enables the retailer to manage inventory. The system enables teams to identify specifically what items are available, so teams can tell customers where products are with a level of certainty, which avoids disappointing customers.

“This can be challenging when a retailer is managing stores across various channels, including factory outlets and eCommerce”, said Brown.

What is the future? Retail is constantly evolving, and customers’ expectations are changing. There is always something emerging and new every day.

“It is no longer about ‘pivoting’, being responsive, adaptable and flexible it is an expectation customers demand”, said Trypus.

“We use smart retail technology only when it is demonstrated to reduce tasks or enables teams to be ‘on the floor’, where they are needed. So, if we take a task away through technology, that removal must increase conversation, leading to a sale”, said Brown.

“Our technology investment must focus on increasing productivity and improving efficiencies, reducing costs, improving safety, and growing revenue”.

The training and retention of younger teams meant Vera Bradley needed to take a different approach.

“These new, younger team members have spent three years in front of a screen, at high school and university”.

The challenge for Vera Bradley was ‘how do we train them to ‘have a conversation’ with a customer’?

“That forced us to shift in how we conducted training.”

“It’s very different to hiring someone in the 40’s or 50’s, with life experiences’, said Trypus.

“We now train to install ‘confidence’ and enhance communication skills in our teams. We now hire on the spot – speed is vital. New, younger employees don’t want to wait for a week to get an interview, then another week for an outcome. We hire our customers – they know our products, love our products, use our products”.

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