How the Best Workplaces in Retail are retaining employees amid the Great Resignation

November 4, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

Dick’s Sporting Goods doesn’t play games with employee safety.

Disputes and altercations between customers and retail workers overall have intensified over the past year and a half, as frontline employees in different retail sectors have tried to enforce mask and vaccination rules.

Amid the rising tension, Dick’s has demonstrated it has employees’ backs. The company, which is based outside Pittsburgh and has more than 850 stores and 50,000 employees across the United States, has a “zero-tolerance” stance regarding disrespectful behavior toward team members. This includes a hotline number for employees to call if they feel they have not been treated with dignity and respect. Customers who shop in the store also can use the hotline.

The stance empowers store managers to escort customers from the premises when efforts to de-escalate conflicts do not succeed, says Paloma DeNardis, head of inclusion and diversity at Dick’s.

Best Workplaces Retail 2021-Dicks-featured
Employees at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods

DeNardis says that has occurred in cases where shoppers used “inflammatory language” toward team members at Dick’s.

“There have been instances where we have asked customers not to return to our stores because they weren’t able to treat people with respect,” DeNardis says.

The way Dick’s has protected frontline staffers in challenging times helps explain why the company hasn’t seen employees leave in droves—something retailers as a whole have experienced. And while job applications dipped to half the usual volume earlier in the pandemic, the company continues to attract a healthy candidate pool.

Given Dick’s treatment of employees and success at retaining talent, it’s not surprising the company earned a place on the Fortune Best Workplaces in Retail 2021 list.

Paloma DeNardis, head of inclusion and diversity at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods

Global company culture and employee experience firm Great Place to Work just announced the list in partnership with Fortune. Supermarket chain Wegmans Food Markets ranked first on the list in the large company category, followed by No. 2 Target, No. 3 grocery store chain Nugget Market, No. 4 CarMax, and No. 5 Publix Super Markets

In the small and medium-size company category, the top spot went to Thrasio, which operates more than 100 brands globally. It was followed by sock specialist Bombas (No. 2), workplace strategy and interior construction firm Goodmans Interior Structures (No. 3), business supplies retailer Zoro (No. 4), and natural health products provider Cymbiotika (No. 5).  

To determine the Best Workplaces in Retail, Great Place to Work analyzed confidential survey feedback representing more than 1.3 million employees working in the retail industry in the U.S.

The survey measures the extent to which employees report their organizations create a great place to work For All™—for example, whether people trust one another and employees are able to reach their full human potential, no matter who they are or what they do for the company.

A “Great Resignation” in retail

The retail industry has been hard-hit by the lingering pandemic and what some call the Great Resignation—in which millions of employees are quitting their jobs looking for better opportunities.

In August, a striking 721,000 retail workers gave notice. This represented the highest number of quits in the retail trade sector in more than 20 years.

Reasons for the mass departures include widespread reflection on life priorities over the past 18 months, better job options given a tight labor market, challenges finding childcare, and concerns over personal safety.

There have been numerous occasions in which customers upset with company rules over masks and vaccination requirements have physically attacked employees.

Online-only retailers have avoided some of these challenges. But they’ve nonetheless wrestled with other difficulties, such as preserving a positive company culture while sending employees home to work remotely.

Bombas CEO David Heath.
Courtesy of Bombas

Consider Bombas, which sells socks, slippers, T-shirts, and underwear directly to consumers. The New York City–based company has grown quickly, from 121 employees at the end of 2019 to more than 185 employees today. Bombas CEO David Heath says many of the new employees haven’t had a chance to participate in a signature company ritual—the twice yearly, multiday, all-staff retreats to places like Key West, Fla. These events are “critical in building culture,” Heath says.

But even with the extended retreats on hold because of COVID and with employees working remotely, the company has sought to maintain its culture of transparency, trust, and autonomy. Hiring, for example, continues to be a collective process, where employees of all levels interview candidates and each person on the hiring committee has veto power.

Distributed authority also is a cornerstone of the company’s customer service approach. To provide world-class customer service, Bombas empowers its agents with the discretion to “surprise and delight” customers. This can take the form of sending flowers, bestowing a $10 gift certificate, and even sending a package of Bombas swag, a handwritten card, and a video message to a customer recovering from cancer.

“Even at the most junior level, it doesn’t need manager approval,” Heath says.

The payoff of trusting people in this way has been dramatic. Consumers who contact the company’s customer happiness team generate twice the lifetime revenue of customers who don’t.

People love retailers with a heart

Another reason Bombas is growing rapidly is its “do well by doing good” ethos. Two years prior to cofounding the company, Heath learned that socks were the most requested clothing item in homeless shelters. Taking a cue from companies that donated an item for every item sold, Bombas launched in 2013 with a promise to donate a pair of socks to needy people for every pair sold.

This mission—now extended to other items—has helped raise the profile of Bombas and now acts a magnet for new job applicants, Heath says. “It has become somewhat of a feeder for talent.”

In the Great Place to Work Trust Index survey, 98% of Bombas employees said they feel good about how the company gives back to the community—five percentage points above the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For benchmark.

Philanthropy also is central to clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co., another company on the Best Workplaces in Retail 2021 ranking. The company, which is headquartered outside Columbus and has more than 730 stores and about 40,000 employees worldwide, doesn’t just engage in traditional charitable giving, such as its $10 million donation to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. Employees also are active in giving-back efforts, says Fran Horowitz, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. CEO Fran Horowitz.
Courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch Co.

“Our associates are incredibly dedicated to making a positive impact on the communities we touch around the world. Some of our nonprofit and brand partnerships were even inspired by our associates’ passion for these organizations and causes,” Horowitz says. “One of our company’s values is ‘authentic goodness,’ and it’s amazing to see this quality reflected among our global associates.”

A sign of the employee involvement: Abercrombie & Fitch has sponsored more than 400 associates to spend a week volunteering at SeriousFun camps globally. These camps offer free recreational experiences to seriously ill children and their family members.

Employee autonomy is another key feature of the culture at Abercrombie & Fitch. Ninety-two percent of employees say people are given a lot of responsibility at the company. That survey figure doesn’t surprise Horowitz.

“We value the voices and opinions of all our associates, regardless of title, department, or seniority,” Horowitz says. “We have a saying that everyone has a voice ‘around the fire,’ which is a nod to the beloved firepit that is in the center of our global home office.”

Survey comments back up Horowitz’s point. Says one Abercrombie & Fitch staffer: “Everyone listens and respects each other’s ideas and opinions, no matter what level they are at in the organization. People push themselves and are not afraid to think outside of the box or try new ways of working to benefit the company.”

Safe and sound in aisle six

Among the topics in which employees have had a voice is safe store operations. That may help explain the strikingly high marks staffers give the company when it comes to feeling secure at work: Ninety-seven percent say Abercrombie & Fitch is a physically safe place to work.

For its part, Dick’s Sporting Goods shows its commitment to safety in part by having top executives make frequent store visits. This is a practice that dates from before the pandemic but has continued—with proper safety precautions—over the past 18 months, DeNardis says.

“Our executive team wants to be in our stores with our teammates and show that we know you are out here every day and we’re going to be out here with you,” DeNardis says.

See the full list of the Best Workplaces in Retail 2021.

Get more insights from Great Place to Work on how great workplaces are hiring and retaining employees in their company culture blog and newsletter.

Claire Hastwell is senior content marketing manager at Great Place to Work.

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