What is a Store Communication Strategy?

(and why you need one)

May 10, 2021

In retail, innovation can’t just exist inside the minds of founders and CEOs. Whether you oversee two brick and mortar retail locations or two thousand, revenue-driving ideas only matter if they’re correctly executed out in stores. 

The link between your ideas and in-store execution? That’s store communication. 

After years taking a backseat to other retail initiatives (Mobile payments! Customer experience surveys! Real-time inventory updates!) it seems that store communication – and the technology that powers it – is finally having a moment. Covid-19 brought with it new standards for health and safety, and in the midst of these ever-changing rules and regulations many retailers realized how important an effective, streamlined communications program was to their business. 

The truth is, store communication has always been the unsung hero of a thriving retail business. And that’s why it’s worth investing time and effort up front to build a communication infrastructure that scales. The faster and more cohesive your store communication network, the quicker your fleet and staff can pivot, react, and adapt. After all, the difference between effective and ineffective store communication can mean the difference between a record-breaking sale or a disappointing customer experience. 

What is store communication?

Store communication (sometimes called retail communication, depending on who you ask) is just that: the internal communication that happens between a retailer’s headquarters and store teams. In the broadest sense, it’s “how HQ tells stores what they need to do.”

Retail giants like Best Buy and Nordstrom have entire teams dedicated to the process of piecing out the real-life, tangible impact of the myriad of HQ-based decisions. When Merchandising decides what product to buy, when Marketing decides when to launch a campaign, and when Pricing decides which promotion to run – the Store Communications Team decides how, and when, frontline store teams know exactly what’s up.

But you’re not a retail giant. Maybe you operate two or three brick and mortar locations, at most. Your “Merchandising team” might just be, well, you. And that’s ok. The principles behind good store communication at scale and good store communication in a small fleet are the same.  

What does a store communication strategy look like?

Traditionally-speaking, retailers’ methods for getting information from HQ to a (usually geographically dispersed) fleet of stores runs the gamut. Many smaller players will rely on conventional methods that any Internal Communications professional will find familiar – email alerts, an intranet, or a shared document repository. 

But it’s worth nothing that these methods tend to fall short because a store employee’s day-to-day reality doesn’t match up with that of a typical white-collar 9-to-5’er. Frontline retail workers might not work a regular, predictable schedule. And they certainly don’t sit at a desk all day, watching their inboxes for new messages (or at least, we hope they don’t. We want them out on the floor, helping customers!) As a result, sending clear communication down the chain can actually be an arduous task.

To compensate for a lack of proper technology, many big retailers rely heavily on their chain of command in the field to relay pertinent information from HQ to stores. District or Regional Managers (leaders who oversee a group of stores) may have regular check-ins with partners at HQ via phone or videoconference, and then disseminate their learnings to their direct reports during weekly conference calls or meetings. 

But if your fleet is small, and you’re only overseeing a handful of locations, chances are you don’t have a lot of folks in the ranks to even manage this real-time cascade. And, let’s be honest – if you’re the CEO and the “District Manager” in this case, you don’t really have time to shuttle from store to store making sure every cashier or sales associate got the right message. 

A good store communication strategy eliminates the need for a verbal cascade by ensuring everybody gets the right message, in the right way, at the right time. But providing the right level of direction and information to the fleet can be challenging. Provide too much and they’re overwhelmed. Provide too little and they’re running blind. Here are three easy strategies to streamline your process for the most effective, and scalable, store communication strategy:

1. Send the right message at the right time

It sounds obvious, but the first rule of a good store communications strategy is: not all messages are meant for all employees. A lengthy email detailing your brand’s upcoming priorities might be a goldmine for your managers, but could also overwhelm cashiers. Even if you don’t have a fancy communications platform that provides a way for you to appropriately segment and target message recipients, you can still prevent message overload by taking time to think critically about who needs to read that note before hitting “send.” Simply outlining “who needs to know” at the beginning of a message can save a lot of headaches down the road.

Timing of communication is also critical. If information is sent too early, it could get lost and forgotten about among other priorities. But if that same information is sent too late (like the day before) people aren’t given enough time to plan and prepare. You’ll need to find a balance between sending information as soon as you have it and communicating the stuff that will actually be relevant to the person reading it at that time. 

For instance: Say there’s a new health and safety mandate that will require one of your store locations to post mandatory signage at the leaseline. You may be better off sitting on this information until the week (or even day) that the new rule goes into effect – and only then telling staff what needs to be done. Send the message too early, and you’ll risk it being forgotten by the time action needs to be taken.

2. Empower your workforce

Good store communication tells your employees on the frontlines what to do, what to focus on, and how to do their jobs. But truly effective store communication also gives meaning to their work. 

Studies show that when people know the context of what is being communicated, they are more engaged, inspired, and empowered to execute their work. Your staff needs to know why an individual task is important in the larger picture and why their role is critical, too. They want to see how the actions they’ll be taking for an initiative will impact the business as a whole.

Fortunately, providing context in your communication is easy. Simply connect the dots between the “why” and the “what” of each employee task. To continue our example from the section above: While sending down a message to “post new signs in the store window” is certainly succinct and clear (and will get you the end result you’re looking for), it doesn’t provide much in the way of context. Instead, add some color: “Post these signs to comply with new county regulations and to ensure our customers feel safe and supported while shopping in our store.”

If people see your business holistically, they can make better judgement calls on how to advance your overall brand. If they can’t see where they are going, they cannot take the right steps to get there. That’s why it’s important for retailers not to separate the information people need to know from the instructions of what they need to do. The two are intricately linked.

3. Listen to the Front Lines

Never underestimate the importance of listening. If your store teams have something to say, it’s crucial you hear it. A big part of making people feel empowered is having them share ideas and feel heard and understood by those above them.

Your store employees have valuable opinions because they are on the front lines. They view the competition and engage with customers every day. They see first-hand what works and what doesn’t in regard to both products and customers. That’s why it’s important to establish working feedback channels so that you’re directly connected to information from those on the front line. 

To streamline communications, it’s best to have a platform for capturing feedback and communicating, in real-time, with staff. An associate friendly app, for example, allows retail store associates to communicate with each other and with leadership as well. An added benefit is that data can be streamlined and synthesized, making it easier to derive insight and act on it.

And don’t forget: Communication doesn’t end when you hear employee feedback.  it’s just as important to circle back to your team about how their insights have changed the course of your company, or impacted certain business decisions. It’s the best way to reassure them that their voice is being heard. 

Zipline was built to solve the unique challenges of communication in retail organizations. Reach out to learn more about how you can drive innovation in retail by aligning your entire team. 

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