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Engage Your Retail Workers with Intrinsic Motivation, Recognition, and Positive Reinforcement

Posted by Ric Agostini

Feb 17 2017
Feb 17 2017

Money talks, as the old saying goes. But in the lower-wage world of the frontline retail workforce, since dramatic pay increases are unlikely to materialize, managers have to look for alternative means of motivating employees. And while there are plenty of perfectly justifiable reasons for not increasing financial rewards for frontline retail workers—tight margins being just one example—supervisors and managers must try to shape specific jobs and tasks in the retail workplace to carry their own intrinsic motivation.



Built-in job motivators can include things like passion, choice, professionalism, and discernable progress. To instill a sense of passion in the job, managers can help team members understand the impact of their individual contributions to the success of the business. It might also make sense to try to connect the dots from the job to some form of social significance in the work—helping young students get ready for a new school year, for instance, or providing parents with products that enable them to make healthy, affordable meals for their families.

Management can create opportunities for choice such as allowing the staff to choose tasks rather than simply rotating or assigning duties, or allowing team members to choose their own schedules within reason. Be creative with job titles and lend them an air of expertise: “point-of-sale specialist” sounds weightier than “cashier.” And implement a progressive title system or badge hierarchy that gives team members a feeling of growth in the job.

Friendly competition can be an excellent way to motivate team members without increases in pay. Turn each daily staff or shift into a team and create a leaderboard on which you post results such as sales figures or customers served. The best automated performance management platforms can do this for you on an individual or team basis, helping you keep score—and motivate workers—in real time. Reward the monthly winners with a celebratory certificates or inexpensive prizes, such as lottery scratch-offs. And don’t assume that workers are aware of your appreciation. Recognize their efforts frequently and regularly. Just putting them briefly in the spotlight can have a big effect on employees’ willingness to perform their jobs well.

And never, ever underestimate the power of a simple “thank you.” Research shows that saying “thank you” is an extremely effective way of motivating and engaging a low-wage workforce. A sincere “thank you” costs nothing, but at the same time, specificity is important. Saying “thanks for picking up the slack with the shelving yesterday, it’ll really make things easier for everyone this weekend,” has an impact, especially when said in front of other team members. And remember, a timely expression of gratitude is more motivating than one delayed by several days. The same thing can be said for compliments for a job well done. Look for opportunities to praise your individual workers. And look especially for credible ways to compliment the least motivated members of your staff. Why not turn a mediocre team member into a winner?

Your retail workforce is likely to consist almost entirely of millennials and post-millennials, the young people known as Generation Z. Millennials and post-millennials don’t compartmentalize their jobs and firewall them from the rest of their lives. They consider the workplace an opportunity for social interaction, and they value and prioritize fun on the job. Retailers should embrace these tendencies rather than discourage them. Your workers don’t have to be close friends with each other, but being friendly and at the same time enjoying their jobs will keep them motivated.

Finally, look for ways to help your millennial and post-millennials connect with each other and with their supervisors through social and teambuilding events. Millennials and post-millennials seek to foster relationships, so work to remove unnecessary barriers. Help them make their work experience more than just another job. Turn your retail operation into a workplace known for its enjoyable job culture. Then stand back and reap the rewards of an engaged, motivated, and loyal frontline workforce.


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