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The COVID-19 pandemic is shaking up consumer spending habits and retail businesses on a massive scale. Social distancing restrictions have shifted purchasing from in-store to online as Australians self-isolate at home. There has also been a shift in consumer spending patterns.

This change in consumer spending has presented retailers with both challenges and opportunities.

Many retail businesses have had to stand down thousands of employees in a bid to cut costs and concurrently ramp up their e-commerce presence. Retailers such as supermarket chains have significantly upscaled their workforce to meet current consumer demand.

Once the economy starts to recover, we’re faced with the scenario of permanent changes in shopping behaviour. The switch to online purchasing may remain for certain segments. As organisations rebuild their workforces, different skill sets may be required.

So how can retail businesses effectively scale up their workforce to fill skill gaps during and after COVID-19?

Here are three considerations to help retailers navigate these challenging times:

Automate your hiring process

Many essential retail chains have had to increase their workforce quickly during the pandemic to keep up with panic buying, which has been made possible thanks to hiring automation. Coles knows this all too well, having recruited up to 30,000 roles each year prior to the pandemic by implementing an approach to find the best person for a role when hiring at scale.

Coles found the part of the recruitment process that most benefits from automation is the application stage. Applicants are asked specific questions about the role they are applying for which helps them identify if they have the right skill set to qualify. For Coles, it provides the information needed to identify the best person for the job right at the start of the application process. The initial screening is automated by scoring answers to enable the most suitable candidates to progress through the funnel.

Target new talent segments and nurture them

Retaining customer loyalty is key to retailers looking to rebuild their operations after the pandemic. With greater emphasis on customer service, certain skills such as communication, patience and empathy will be key considerations in searching for candidates. These capabilities are necessary to deliver excellent customer service in a fast-paced and rapidly changing environment.

Those who’ve had to scale back their workforce will need to re-hire. The race to secure the best talent once the economic recovery begins will be fierce. With this in mind, trying to take a proactive, rather than reactive, approach will help hiring managers and recruiters fill a role more quickly, while helping the business to pivot faster.

The increase in unemployment has resulted in an unprecedented pool of jobseekers looking to find work as soon as possible. When hiring managers and recruiters have a strong understanding of the skill sets required to help the business succeed, they can proactively build talent networks and pipelines of talent. Using recruitment marketing tools, talent acquisition professionals can then identify top talent and nurture them in talent pools until they are ready to start hiring again.

Create a positive candidate experience

The world is an uncertain place at the moment. Candidates may be experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety than usual. Retail is uniquely placed to treat jobseekers like consumers as it has this skill set in abundance. What are the hallmarks of high-quality customer service? To be treated with respect and courtesy, personalisation and responsiveness. Creating a positive candidate experience should extend across multiple touch points – from recruitment marketing and nurture campaigns, through to application, assessment, interview and offer, then to onboarding.

During regular hiring periods only 7% of retail candidates are hired (compared to a 9% average across industries). This means 93% of candidates are told “no”. Given the job shortage and over-supply of candidates this number is currently much higher.  In an environment where many organisations are ghosting candidates, providing feedback and communicating with unsuccessful candidates will set you apart from competitors and increase the likelihood of candidates recommending your organisation to others – now and in the future.

Extending the positive candidate experience beyond recruitment into onboarding is crucial, both to ensure the new joiner is clear on their roles and responsibilities but also for engagement and to reinforce the EVP sold during the recruitment process. One of the ways retailers can do this is by using software that enables personalised onboarding experiences for new hires. Creating open communication channels helps new hires feel comfortable asking questions, which improves engagement and keeps the onboarding process as smooth as possible during these unique times.

The next few months are unchartered territory for the retail industry, with businesses certain to face more changes. As social restrictions gradually start to ease and the economy slowly recovers, spending habits forged during the coronavirus lockdown are set to permanently reshape consumer behaviour in Australia. This will have a knock-on effect on the nature of roles performed by those in the retail sector. Equipped with the right technology and a skilled workforce, retailers can better navigate the current environment and prepare their business for whatever the future of retail may hold.

Rebecca Skilbeck is head of customer insights and market research at PageUp