NEW YORK, United States —Before the pandemic, Ally, an assistant store manager and buyer at a small multi-brand retailer in New York, saw herself on a relatively straightforward career path within the fashion industry. After working part-time retail jobs in college, she had slowly worked her way up the ladder, with aspirations to someday become a lead buyer.
Then in March, Ally’s store closed as New York went into lockdown. It has since reopened, but much of her job is centred around overseeing making sure customers wear masks and other mundane tasks. Visits to designers’ studios, which she saw as crucial training on her way to becoming a fulltime buyer, are now few and far between.
“I was in a place where my role was starting to expand,” said Ally, who requested that only her first name be used to avoid repercussions at work. “And now that has sort of been reduced a bit.”
When the pandemic hit, thousands of people who work in fashion lost their jobs, from studio assistants to publicists to salespeople. Others saw the nature of their work change as brands pivoted to chase booming online sales.
Now, companies are figuring out how to permanently adapt their workforce for a market that is more online and built around rapidly changing consumer preferences. That means hiring for different types of positions than they did before – there are plenty of openings for VIP customer service representatives, e-commerce fulfilment specialists – and teaching new skills to existing employees.
What ties these new jobs together is flexibility: roles and responsibilities are more varied, with fewer people taking on a wider variety of responsibilities, often spanning both in-store and e-commerce.
Between September 2019 and September 2020, US retailers cut their workforce by about 25 percent, eliminating about 330,000 jobs, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though some companies have begun to hire again, many of those lost positions may never come back.
Retail employees who kept their old jobs are finding the nature of the work has changed.
“The first few days we had hundreds of fulfilment orders,” said Mark Holup, a retail sales associate in the men’s shoe department at Bloomingdale’s New York flagship and member of the Local 3 group of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. He said pulling merchandise for e-commerce fulfilment is now a routine part of his job, as well handing out hand sanitisers for customers to use before trying on shoes and reminding them to wear masks.
Instead of having these huge e-commerce teams, we just have really the right people.
At LoveShackFancy, a contemporary label known for ruffled, maximalist clothing, employees at the brand’s five stores have started styling, modelling and shooting merchandise for e-commerce and social media channels. These tasks were previously handled by freelance creative teams.
Stacy Lilien, the brand’s president, said giving new duties to store workers helped the company avoid layoffs or furloughs, as well as the time and expense of hiring and training new online-focused employees.
“Instead of having these huge e-commerce teams, we just have really the right people,” she said.
Brands and retailers relying on store associates for e-commerce fulfilment should make sure those employees aren’t losing out on commission sales because they were busy supporting the e-commerce operation.
“There’s always a chance you’re going to lose out when you’re off the floor to do things that are not sales related,” said Holup.
Ensuring a safe and seamless in-store experience has also become crucial for stores. All the qualities necessary for in-store employees — patience, sensitivity, tact — must be heightened in the Covid era.
While traffic may be down, brands have noticed customers that are shopping in-store have done their research and are ready to buy. “Our conversion has been much higher because the people that are out want to buy,” said Lilien. Making sure the right people are in place to safely help customers shop — and more importantly, purchase — is essential.
Customer Service Representatives
Many companies have learned their lesson after a boom in online orders this spring triggered customer service meltdowns. Consumers took to social media to air grievances about delayed orders for sweatpants and cashmere socks.
Retailers have an increased need for ways to connect with consumers who can’t or won’t visit stores. That means hiring representatives who can better bridge the gap between in-store and digital interactions. If the only customer touchpoint is taking place online or over the phone, brands and retailers must invest in representatives with an in-depth knowledge of product recommendations, styling and fit as well as return policies, inventory and shipping information.
“They’re going to need people who still represent the brand and know how to serve customers with a slightly different environment in place,” said Herb Kleinberger, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Everyone and their mother is trying to create an online store.
Brands and retailers should also train representatives to respond quickly across multiple channels, following up a consumer’s Tweet via email or working to find an item number from an Instagram direct message.
Brands may look to hire their own staff instead of outsourcing customer service to independent freelancers in order to have better control over customer preferences and demands.
LoveShackFancy also invested in a VIP client representative to ensure loyal clients’ needs were met immediately with a representative that already knows their shopping habits.
“We have this VIP customer service that's able to speak directly with customers one on one, rather than having to go back and forth through emails,” said Lilien. “It's more immediate so that the customer feels like she's getting that store kind of experience firsthand.”
This also applies to supply chain management. Bergen Logistics, which partners with Shopify and has worked with brands like Bandier, has also expanded its customer service capabilities, creating a senior account management team for its top clients.
For consumers tepid about in-store shopping, ensuring an engaging online experience to explore and discover products is important.
“Everyone and their mother is trying to create an online store,” said Julia Pollak, a labour economist at workforce recruitment platform ZipRecruiter. She added that e-commerce specialists, web developers and data scientists are critical for companies to build out website capabilities and capture consumer information.
Skin care brand Tula has seen e-commerce revenue rise 80 percent from the first quarter to the second quarter, with half of all sales coming from first-time shoppers. The brand has grown its team by 50 percent since mid-March to 60 employees and expects to fill 30 more roles through the end of the year.
Much of that focus will be towards building out the brand’s user experience via web designers, particularly a skin quiz it encourages users to fill out when they’re on the site. The quiz for Tula provides product recommendations for skin types and user profiles similar to in-store consultations.
E-commerce and e-commerce fulfilment is really now becoming the new retail job.
“It’s also an unbelievable data engine to fuel everything that we do from product innovation through to marketing [and] messaging,” said Tula Chief Executive Savannah Sachs. These investments also can help retain first-time customers, providing important data and recommendations after their first purchases.
Sachs has also expanded the search for talent outside of the company’s headquarters in New York, particularly for engineers and design talent.
“In terms of engineering talent that really allows you to get the cream of the crop from around the country, even around the world,” said Sachs.
E-commerce demand, along with lockdowns across supply chains, has made roles surrounding fulfilment increasingly important for brands to expand and solidify their workforces in the coming months as some countries reinstate restrictions.
Navigating platforms, apps and companies necessary to scale e-commerce logistics will require dedicated roles that work to streamline fulfilment and logistics, and adapt to new changes pending shutdowns or supply chain snags.
For brands that haven’t outsourced logistics, hiring dedicated fulfilment teams in stores to meet demand may be necessary. Where typically the skills and background necessary for fulfilment varied from retail positions, job losses and store shutdowns have led more retail workers to consider fulfilment work.
“E-commerce and e-commerce fulfilment [are] really now becoming the new retail job,” said Donny Salazar, founder and CEO of fulfilment startup MasonHub.