We’ve been talking a lot over the past few weeks about what retail workers want, and how retail organizations can overcome The Great Resignation by changing the way they support their staff. Today, we’re exploring how investing in diversity, equity and inclusion can attract and retain top retail talent. 

Getting top retail talent to your organization can prove, during the most certain of times, to be immensely challenging. And, given the importance of staffing stores with the right people for the right roles in order to deliver on the experience customers are expecting, the need for retailers to do so is critical.

To support the objective, retailers must possess a deep understanding of the needs of today’s retail workforce, an appreciation for the things they’re looking for from prospective employers and a willingness to deliver on those needs and wants. And, at the very top of the list is a yearning to be part of a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace environment.

In fact, according to a recent McKinsey & Company survey, developing and fostering strong diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives within any retail organization is paramount today with respect to attracting talent. The survey reveals that 39% of all respondents stated that they have either turned down or decided not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion at an organization. 

But… What exactly is DE&I within the retail context? How does the development of these initiatives help support staffing efforts? And, how can retail businesses take the first steps toward achieving such a culture within their organizations? 

What is diversity, equity and inclusion?

Diversity, equity and inclusion within retail refers to the efforts undertaken by organizations to create a more welcoming workplace environment for prospective employees. According to Anne-Marie Pham, Executive Director at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, these efforts should encompass the entirety of society and take into account the many faces and voices that it’s composed of.

“Retailers that are looking to develop strategies and initiatives aimed at creating a more comfortable and inviting environment for their employees need to consider every dimension of diversity,” says Pham. 

“That includes gender, sexual orientation and identification, race, religious and cultural backgrounds, languages spoken, levels of ability and more. And, because we now have the social permission in Canada to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, driven primarily by global events over the last year-and-a-half, many retail workers across the country, particularly among the younger generations, are seeking employment with brands that are purpose-driven and aligned with their values of respect for all.”

Why should retailers care about diversity?

Fostering diversity and inclusion throughout the retail organization, from head office executive positions all the way down to in-store associates, makes perfect sense from a customer acquisition point-of-view. Those who can properly reflect the ever-expanding social tapestry of Canadian society will almost assuredly generate an eclectic range of foot traffic to their storefronts. And, says Pham, it’s an effective recruitment tool as well.

“In order to function optimally, retail organizations must rely heavily on many individuals from an array of different backgrounds. So, from a talent acquisition and retention perspective, DE&I initiatives provide merchants and brands with an excellent opportunity to create a culture that will appeal to a range of diverse talent, offering them an environment where they want to go to work every day,” says Pham. 

“It’s an environment that should encourage everyone to bring their whole selves to work, including aspects of their background, lived experiences and life circumstances, facilitating and supporting a sense of belonging for everyone.” 

The benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion in retail

In addition to the development of DE&I initiatives fundamentally and ethically being the right thing for retailers and other businesses to undergo, the productivity and related financial benefits that organizations receive as a result are significant. 

According to a recent survey conducted by The Harvard Business Review of 1,700 companies around the world, those operating with an above-average level of diversity within their organizations experience 19% greater innovation revenues and 9% higher earnings before taxes. And, in Pham’s estimation, it’s all the result of a more engaged and inspired workforce.

“If a welcoming and comfortable environment is developed, one that makes employees feel included and respected, a level of trust and loyalty to the employer will become a natural consequence,” she says. 

“In turn, their trust results in higher levels of engagement, which then leads to greater collaboration and productivity, bringing out the most thoughtful and innovative ideas, enabling any retailer or brand to be much more responsive to the needs of an ever-changing market.”

For a real-world example of the benefits that can result from DE&I initiatives and the development of a truly inclusive work culture, one needn’t look any further than global retail giant Walmart. According to Statista, the company posted worldwide sales in excess of $711 billion in 2021, up from $666 billion in 2020 and $654 billion in 2019. They are earnings that are reflective of the significant year-over-year increases in revenue experienced by the multinational corporation. And, according to comments made during an interview with Winsight Grocery Business by former Walmart DE&I Director, Donald Fan, they are financial results that are made possible by the company’s culture of diversity.

“By embedding equity into the talent lifecycle, you enrich your employees’ experience; thus, you accelerate their engagement and productivity and make your team high performing, dynamic, and resilient,” explained fan. 

How to begin building a culture of DE&I

A recent global survey conducted by Mercer found that 74% of participating companies reported to have been placing greater focus and emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives midway through the COVID-19 pandemic, with 64% actively reviewing talent management processes, such as hiring, in an effort to identify and mitigate potential biases.

For retailers that are committed to developing a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion, but have yet to formalize their strategy, Pham says that there are a few steps they can take to properly and effectively kickstart the process.

1. Commit to learning

Retailers that are new to the DE&I conversation must be open and willing to learn more about the topic and about the lived experiences of individuals. “Read books about DE&I, watch documentaries and read the news in order to understand and build compassion and empathy concerning the many systemic challenges that many face when accessing equality and inclusion within the workplace. Through this education, leaders will gain a greater sense of humility, compassion, understanding, and a heightened awareness of themselves in relation to others,” she says.

2. Conduct an honest assessment

Retailers will want to conduct an assessment of their organizations, the representation on staff and how internal DE&I initiatives might improve their level of diversity and inclusion. “Listen to the concerns of your employees and customers. This can be done through surveys and one-on-one conversations with team members at different levels of the organization,” says Pham. 

“It can also include the engagement of a third-party expert who can help review current policies and practices. This will allow retailers to understand whether or not there are any real or perceived barriers to employment or equity within the organization, as well as help them to identify any unconscious biases that can negatively influence the ways they do outreach, screen applicants, conduct interviews and make their selection at the end of the day.”

3. Commit to change

In order to put the education and assessment to practical use, retailers should determine what is required of them in order to effect actual change within their organizations. “Influencing this kind of change often requires a shift in mindset and philosophy which always starts at the top,” says Pham. 

“To do so effectively, leaders must determine which resources will be required and whether or not a budget is necessary in order to create the positive impact that they desire. And, everyone must be involved in the shift at the executive level of the organization to lay the foundation and set the direction for others to follow.”

Pham goes on to explain that the creation of a workplace environment that is truly diverse, equitable and inclusive requires a substantial amount of dedication, commitment and hard work. And, she adds, it also requires time to develop plans and initiatives and implement the right policies and procedures to actually change or positively influence the culture of an organization. However, she says that once retailers embark on their DE&I journey toward workplace improvements, the momentum among customers and employees of the brand will accelerate rapidly, resulting in the attraction of a greater number of prospective retail workers, increased engagement among staff, and an enhanced ability to cultivate and retain top talent.