Karen Philips shares practical steps, initiatives, technologies and practices for retailers who want to empower women on the frontline.


Successfully navigating the retail landscape hinges on recognising the backbone that is our frontline team. These individuals aren’t just stocking shelves and ringing up purchases; they’re the heart and soul of the shopping experience. And despite the crucial role these workers play in our economy, many are left undervalued and underappreciated.

Frontline retail is a mixed bag – it’s both an exciting adventure and a daily challenge. Retail workers juggle more than the tasks at hand, they deal with a spectrum of personalities, desires, and needs every single day. After all, beyond the glittering displays and promotions, the magic really happens in the connection between our store employees and the customers.

Employers will see no better value than happy and content frontline workers, driving sales and creating memorable experiences for customers, who keep coming back for more.


Focus on women

Retail workers often encounter significantly varied experiences day to day. Specifically, female employees tend to face a stark disparity compared to their male counterparts.

A recent report titled Women on the Front Line: Enabling Them to Thrive, Stay and Perform by Accenture and Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes gender equity and workplace inclusion, sheds light on the experiences of women in frontline roles, unveiling a gulf in acknowledging their physical needs, safety, and overall wellbeing are “often unacknowledged or ignored”.

For example, scheduling policies appear to fall short, particularly for those shouldering caregiving responsibilities: store shifts may be variable and often include hours outside the typical Monday to Friday working week.

Here’s the good news: companies have a clear opportunity to attract and retain more women. However, a roadmap lies ahead.


The path forward

The report articulates practical steps, initiatives, technologies and practices for retailers to empower women on the frontline, so these integral frontline workers can perform at their best, balancing work and personal responsibilities to, in turn, build lasting value for the retail business they serve.

The journey begins with leaders acknowledging the pivotal contribution female frontline workers make in their operations, contemplating the most effective ways to provide support that enables these women to excel in their roles. Most importantly, a secure workplace that is conducive to the safety and wellbeing of women will create tangible value across the entire business.

This entails a commitment to investing in the physical and mental wellbeing of employees by adopting a comprehensive perspective on factors that may adversely affect women. For example, ill-fitting or uncomfortable uniforms, which can impose physical strain, and ensuring the provision of proper security tools to counter potential safety threats – to name a couple.

Moreover, addressing challenges related to irregular working hours and the stress arising from last-minute staffing changes is imperative. Retailers positioned for success will distinguish themselves by eliminating sources of instability and inflexibility from scheduling systems, recognising the need to accommodate the diverse demands of life beyond the workplace.


An important role for technology

Encouragingly, digital tools and platforms are undergoing a transformation. Retailers are crafting innovative workplace platforms that extend consumer-grade digital experiences to the fingertips of frontline employees.

A case in point is Unilever’s recent initiative “My Unilever” app, designed for its 53,000 factory-based employees. This application seamlessly connects employees globally, granting them access to the company’s digital resources from any location or device, facilitating open communication and collaboration.

Australian supermarket Coles also has a Team Member Engagement Platform, allowing employees to streamline everything from managing their rosters and swapping shifts to accessing payslips or procedure manuals. The user-friendly mobile app is designed to enhance both corporate and peer-to-peer connections and is a great solution to enable and simplify worker flexibility.


The human side of retail

The landscape of retail work is undergoing a significant shift, marked by increased adaptability, digitisation, data fluency, and diversity. This evolution underscores the heightened importance of acknowledging the “human” dimension within this emerging workplace.

That means ensuring that all frontline workers have the skills and opportunities to grow, as well as the resources they need to take care of their mental health and find the right balance between their home and work lives.

Successfully navigating this transformation calls for leadership that is both bold and sensitive. There is a concurrent need for clear and transparent communication regarding growth opportunities, specifically tailored to address the unique needs of women. It is crucial to recognise that today’s shop-floor associates could very well emerge as tomorrow’s CEOs.


Bold and inclusive leadership is key

The presence of inflexible structures and operational practices poses obstacles for frontline managers in making empathetic decisions that cultivate supportive work environments. Although achieving this balance is often challenging, it is essential for them to establish an environment where everyone can flourish.

Embracing an approach that is both inclusive and digitally empowered allows for the creation of a retail frontline workplace that is optimised for the benefit of all stakeholders—workers, customers, and retailers alike.

Opinion piece originally published on ‘Inside Retail Weekly’ by Karen Phillips, Partner at Fiftyfive5, a division of Accenture Song