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The Big Read in short: No sitting and lack of resting areas for retail workers — what can we do about it?

SINGAPORE — Shopper Linda Chua expects retail staff to be on their feet when customers like herself enter a shop.

The Big Read in short: No sitting and lack of resting areas for retail workers — what can we do about it?

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the working conditions of retail staff and the implications on a sector that is facing a labour crunch as well as rising customer expectations. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • To sit or not to sit when retail staff are on duty became a talking point recently, after media reports of some of them saying they were not allowed to sit during working hours
  • Policy or not, it appears that it is standard industry practice for retail staff to be up on their feet especially when customers are around, according to those in the retail line
  • A straw poll of about 50 shoppers conducted by TODAY earlier this week found that many prefer to see staff up on their feet when entering a store. But they are generally okay with staff sitting down when there are no customers in the shop
  • This raises the question whether retailers should do more to provide rest areas or even just chairs for their workers
  • Amid the outrage expressed by some at the "no sitting" industry practice, perhaps shoppers can take the first step by managing their expectations and showing greater empathy and appreciation for retail workers

SINGAPORE — Shopper Linda Chua expects retail staff to be on their feet when customers like herself enter a shop.

“(Retail staff) should come forward and ask whether the person needs any assistance. This is called service,” the 56-year-old, an insurance agent, told TODAY. 

Similarly, Mr Abdul Ghani, a 58-year-old retiree, said that retail staff should stand when there are people in the store as this "shows respect" to the customer. 

It's expectations like this that have led retail bosses to encourage their staff to get up on their feet when customers are around.

To sit or not to sit when retail staff are on duty became a talking point recently, following media reports of some employees at health and beauty chain store Watsons saying they were not allowed to sit during working hours. 

In response to media queries, Watsons said that it does not impose a “no sitting” policy and allows its employees to take breaks when required in rest areas.

Other companies TODAY approached  — such as FairPrice and DFI Retail Group, the parent company of Guardian pharmacy chain — also said that they have no such policy. 

Policy or not, it appears that it is standard industry practice for retail staff to be up on their feet especially when customers are around, according to those in the retail line whom TODAY spoke to.  

And much of it stems from customers' expectations. 

Indeed, a straw poll of about 50 shoppers conducted by TODAY earlier this week found that many prefer to see staff up on their feet when they enter a store: 

  • About 54 per cent of the respondents said it was unacceptable for retail workers to be seated when there are customers in the shop
  • 75 per cent said it was unacceptable for retail workers to pass time on their mobile devices or chit-chat among themselves when there are customers in the shop

However, the shoppers' sentiments are different when there are no customers in the shop, with almost all the respondents saying it is acceptable for retail workers to be seated in such a scenario. About 67 per cent also feel that it is okay for retail workers to be on their phones or chit-chatting with co-workers when no customers are around.  

 

To sit or not to sit when retail staff are on duty became a talking point recently, following media reports of some employees at health and beauty chain store Watsons saying they were not allowed to sit during working hours. In response to media queries, Watsons said that it does not impose a “no sitting” policy and allows its employees to take breaks when required in rest areas.

WHY IT MATTERS

Speaking to TODAY, some retail workers observed that customers in general have become more demanding over time — and this is now coming at time when the retail sector, like many other industries, is facing a shortage of manpower.

The end result? A vicious circle of labour crunch, tough working conditions and an inability to attract more manpower. 

If nothing is being done to take better care of retail workers, the sector will suffer and the shopping paradise that is Singapore will be no more. 

THE BIG PICTURE

The retail industry in Singapore is facing a labour crunch.

According to NTUC LearningHub’s Industry Insights Report 2022 on Retail, more than two in five retail workers plan to leave the sector in 2023, based on a survey of 200 workers.

More than half cited low salaries (56 per cent) and dealing with unreasonable customers (52 per cent) as their reasons, while a further 46 per cent said they wanted to leave due to long working hours (46 per cent).

Some retailers told TODAY they were finding it harder to hire those with relevant skills.

  • Ms Jamie Lim, the chief executive officer of furniture store Scanteak, said that the number of suitable applicants for retail jobs have dropped from one to two weekly, down from four to six before the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Mr Kelvyn Chee, the director of fashion retailer Decks, said that his staff count has dropped from 150 pre-pandemic to 100 currently

At the same time, retail staff are facing various challenges at work. These include:

  • Having to be on their feet almost all the time 
  • Long working hours
  • Demanding customers
A Scanteak staff seen working at a desk in its Suntec outlet on Jan 5, 2023. Ms Jamie Lim, the chief executive officer of Scanteak, said that the number of suitable applicants for retail jobs have dropped from one to two weekly, down from four to six before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Retail staff and customers alike say that a dedicated breakroom for retail employees would be helpful, especially for the older workers. 

However, companies say there are limitations to providing such a facility. These include:

  • High store rentals
  • Small stores which do not have enough space

Despite these, some companies are convinced of the need to provide better welfare for retail staff. 

Among them is fashion brand Love, Bonito, which has rest areas for its retail staff in all of its six outlets in Singapore. The company said it believes that providing rest areas will help boost employee morale. This, in turn, translates to better customer service.

THE BOTTOMLINE

Although some retailers have turned to technology or provided salary incentives to get around the manpower shortage, they warn that customers will have to manage their expectations as more stores are fronted by fewer retail staff.

Customers may have to wait longer before retail staff attend to them as employees attend to other customers first, or take a break.

Marketing experts say, however, that technology cannot fully replace the “human touch” provided by retail staff.

To boost staff morale and retention, experts say that besides allowing employees to sit during duty hours, companies can also provide vouchers for transport or meals, for example, to improve staff morale and retention. 

 

An employee at a ToTT store in Suntec City standing behind the counter while doing administrative tasks on a computer, on Jan 5, 2023.

With fewer staff, companies will also need to prioritise service components that are more crucial than others to their stores. For example, customers at a pharmacy would want to have accurate information about the drug they are buying and know where it is located inside the pharmacy.

Amid the outrage expressed by some at the "no sitting" industry practice, following earlier media reports on the issue, perhaps society at large — and shoppers in particular — can take the first step by managing their expectations and showing greater empathy and appreciation for retail workers.

Related topics

Watsons NTUC FairPrice Guardian

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