At the NRF Big Show last month, keynote speaker Colin Powell drew an interesting parallel between store associates and enlisted soldiers. You might think he was making a somber assessment of the psychological toll of dealing with grumpy customers all day. But no, instead he talked about how much the success of a retailer or an army depends on these, the lowest-paid and often least-respected people in each organization.

It reminds me of something I heard recently at another conference, from a leading retailer. It was along the lines of this: “Your retail success, particularly as you embrace an omnichannel strategy, is riding on the effectiveness of people in your stores making ten bucks an hour.”

Secretary Powell also suggested that both soldiers and store associates deserve a certain dignity that is often lacking in the way they are treated by the higher-ups within their organizations. I’m not sure he used the actual word “dignity,” but the implication was crystal clear.

In retail, as in the military, the people on the front lines deserve to be treated with dignity, not only because of the contribution they make but because they have a really hard job. Have you ever worked in a retail store? I’ll admit I haven’t. But it’s easy to find candid accounts of the life of a store associate – like this one, which is pretty funny, to the point of almost distracting from the harsh reality it portrays.

Even more harsh is that no matter how good a person is at their store job, they’re probably not going to get rich – or, in many cases, even come close to earning an income that will make them comfortable, let alone support a family.

How exactly do you treat store associates with dignity? Again, I think of the parallel to soldiers. I have friends who have been enlisted soldiers, and I know what they want. They – and, I’m confident, store associates – want:

  • Training, and not just a one-time “boot camp” but a continuous program of skill development
  • A sense of purpose and pride so they want to do their job, and do it well, not just because you’re paying them
  • Operational flexibility, because, to modify a saying attributed to many different military leaders, “no in-store engagement strategy survives contact with a consumer.”
  • The right equipment, because anyone in any job will struggle to achieve their goals using outdated tools.

(Retailers, of course, have less control over how customers treat their associates, but we may safely assume that a happier associate is more likely to provoke the same from customers.)

At Demandware, we’ve become keenly interested in understanding and helping store associates, particularly as it relates to the last item on the list above. We’ve got a range of tools to make the life and success of store associates better, from our full point-of-sale (POS) and store operations solution Demandware Store, to our endless aisle capabilities which extend digital experiences into the store.

Check out of our point of view on the future of the store and store associates in a whitepaper titled The Future Store Manifesto, written in partnership with Boston Retail Partners.

And for a great example of how one retailer saved itself from bankruptcy largely by empowering its people, check out the story of Ashley Stewart.

What’s not necessarily obvious in all of this is how much we truly care about the people working the front lines of retail. We love the idea that our technology can help make their work more successful and at least in one small way get them more of the dignity they so richly deserve.

I urge all of us in the industry to make a commitment to this.