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The plight of retail managers: having power vs. being empowered

by Anh H. Nguyen

If you are a retail manager, you have a tough job. Essentially, you are sandwiched between four layers of pressure from:

-The C-suite bigwigs who demand results like they're ordering a pizza: they want it quick, good, and hot. But it is not like results grow on the office supply trees and you only need to shake it a little harder to make the quarterly reports fall into your lap. And let’s not forget the endless meetings.

-The store workers under your leadership who treat the checkout counter as their personal gossip center, skillfully avoid making eye contact with customers, and put greetings on backorder. We have not even started on the fraud situation. Like a captain of a ship sailing through the turbulent waters of retail, you try to restore order, only to find out your crew like to be pirates instead.

-The customers you are trying to please, who usually come armed with complaints, returns, and a bad mood, especially if they are victims to the aforementioned workers. You fail only about 1% of the time, but it will inevitably end up on Google reviews or other social media channel, which will seriously ruin your day.  

-Yourself and your family: you used to have hobbies, quiet time by yourself, and quality time with your pets, kids, and significant others (probably not in that order). Now you need to become a time manager as much as a retail manager to even remember what your hobbies are. 

When we make a list like this, it seems overwhelming indeed. So retail managers everywhere just nod and say, “No wonder we are stressed! It is just an occupational hazard, like part of the package,” and leave it at that.

But manager burnout goes deeper than the presence of pressure - it is the lack of support. 

You are required to deliver so much, but given so little more than the title to actually achieve it.

You are expected to convey power and wield power. 

But how empowered are you, really?

Managing projects without data is like going into battle without weapons. Yet retail managers do it everyday. And I see the same scenarios played out in retail stores across the world again and again:

Store traffic seems to decrease in general, but sometimes it is erratic and will surge on a whim. When that happens, you are wholly unprepared. 

Staff is either reduced, stands around doing nothing, or doing things you will not approve of. Customers are rarely happy.

More pressure from above. 

It is less like a 9-5 job, more like a 24/7 all-you-must handle buffet of stress. 


You are familiar with this. Of course you are (I would seriously doubt you manage to become a retail manager without knowing about the sales funnel.)

The problem is that you do not want it to look like that. In an ideal world, this sales funnel will look like a tub uniform from the beginning to the end. Everyone who passes by your store will enthusiastically come inside, giddily interact with the staff, and fork over their hard-earned cash so the worker bees keep their jobs, the corporate loyalty is happy, you get your year-end bonuses, and your pets get their belly rubs, preferably before you pass out from exhaustion.

In reality, the funnel always gets pointier as it goes on. In bad cases, it will get aggressively pointy, leaving the “Sales” tip tiny and you bewildered, asking yourself “where did I go wrong?”

An empowered manager does not need to ask that question.

An empowered manager sees exactly where the sales funnel starts to shrink and takes immediate steps to widen it. 

An empowered manager, when questioned by their boss, has the answer. 

An empowered manager, when he needs to address their subordinates, has the evidence to back his words up.

An empowered manager has a plan, period.

So where does power come from?

For a retail manager, the secret sauce of enduring power comes from knowledge. Personal charisma and interpersonal skills go a long, long way, but people respond to those things differently. What works for one may not work for another.

Knowledge could be acquired via two ways: experience, or cold hard truth. To have both is the gold standard, but if you can only pick one, choose cold hard truth. 

Experience does not always sync up with reality. Doing things by experience only is like trying to hit a moving target. 

It is the ultimate power move to have experience backed up by the ground truth, which can only be reflected by numbers and figures measured diligently over time. 

A timely prediction of store traffic around the holiday helps you arrive at the exact manpower for maximum sales. No sales slipping through the crack, no lounging around like they are already on vacation. The best part: you can play this profit-boosting game again and again.

An in-depth look into store operations shows that your employees could greet customers a bit more and interact with them with more energy. The best part: you could effectively monitor their progress. Goodbye, lukewarm service!

You take an unorthodox approach in your stores, maybe switching the merchandise around or setting up a whole new section. The best part: you know whether it works and why. No more one-time flukes and blindly shooting in the dark. 

An empowered manager accepts that he cannot hit home run every time, but knows he is trying his hardest. That there are no wrong answers, only unsubstantiated ones. 

An empowered manager stops guessing and starts measuring.

This looks like a lot to take in. You may be wondering, “Do I need all that information?”

The answer may very well be No.

Imagine you are someone’s primary physician. You're doing routine checkups to ensure your patient's well-being is cruising smoothly. Depending on a whole bunch of things such as family history, pre-existing conditions, overall needs and what keeps them up at night, it could be annual or bi-monthly, extensive or only focused on a few criteria. Maybe you especially keep your eye on their blood sugar levels and monitor their cholesterol. If your patient is an athlete, you may take special care of their bones to prevent fractures and help develop their physical therapy plans. 

The point is, you've got yourself a checklist. The decision on which checklist items to scrutinize is your very own choose-your-own-adventure.

If you are a retail manager, your patient is your store(s). 

Some, most, or all of the items on this list will drive your most critical outcomes: your store sales, your staff performance, your customer satisfaction, your boss’s approval, and ultimately, your career.  

A case in point

A leading retailer distributes over 24 international fashion brands.

Before they started measuring, 86% of their managers regularly missed sales, 43% were unable to improve customer service, and 29% could not monitor staff compliance. 

The common troublemaker: the lack of a data compass. 

The common result: stressful navigation of retail mayhem. 

Once the managers started measuring though?

-Sales per visitor was up by 13% even when foot traffic decided to take a dive. One brand especially went all out with a 32.5% boost. 

-The conversion rate surpassed the industry average with a breezy 2.6%pt lead.

-Customer Interaction rate pumped up, increasing by 13% within the first year.

-The number of staff violations decreased dramatically by 78.5% within the first 6 months.

In this case, the managers have unlocked their inner power, not via some magic potion, but information. Scoring information once was the toughest part, but it has now been automated like a retail GPS. Making decisions with the help of information was a matter of course. 

As a tech enthusiast, I once put technology on a pedestal. But after stumbling through many trials and errors, I've come to the profound realization that both the Platform (the technology product) and the Process (the model of using it) are basically sidekicks to the real heroes - the People. They are to be tailored, modified, and adapted to fit, elevate, and empower the People, not the other way around. 

Managers are unsung heroes, the real MVPs of the retail world. Behind the curtains, you are the ones making sure that shoppers skip out with smiles, the store staff do not have to go searching for new jobs, companies are not crying over their profit reports, and the economy stays in good health. All while juggling your own happiness and peace of mind.

Data, insights, information are your trusty new friends in this day and age. Not only are they the catalyst of change for your entire organization, from customers to coworkers, they are here to ensure you both professional fulfillment and personal well-being. By embracing them, you make a choice to take part in a future where knowledge not only means power but also a wonderful life. 



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