In the Aisles: Retailers can support customers by supporting employees
Rite Aid CEO Heyward Donigan has her hands full — but her head up. For most retailers, the outbreak of COVID-19 is presenting a hefty supply-and-demand challenge, but for a chain in the middle of a turnaround, it is especially trying. Still, Donigan is confident that she and the Camp Hill, Pa.-based retailer’s 2,400 stores — and its employees — are up to the challenge.
Donigan on Monday led the retailer’s first analyst day in some time, addressing not a crowded room, but a virtual audience, updating those who logged on about Rite Aid’s path forward.
“I certainly didn't expect to have analyst day be virtual and have coronavirus be the No. 1 topic of discussion,” Donigan told Store Brands and Drug Store News in an exclusive interview on Monday. If anything, she said, the pandemic “has truly highlighted that pharmacists are the emergency responders in this situation.”
This role puts a lot of responsibility on the chain and its network of retail, mail-order and specialty pharmacies to keep its associates healthy and keep the wheels of the organization turning. "We know that at times like this, people aren’t necessarily going to the doctor, but they are definitely getting prescriptions and flu shots and vaccines,” she said.
That, coupled with demand for hygiene products, as well as perishable and non-perishable daily essentials, is requiring chains to keep associates healthy as they come face-to-face with the shoppers who turn to retailers they trust in uncertain times.
What’s clear from talking to Donigan, as well as witnessing some of the changes that retailers make as the nation grapples with the pandemic, is that retailers’ biggest assets are their associates — some of whom Donigan said are driving to manufacturers to pick up supplies in order to keep shelves stocked. “The challenge really does get back to keeping our associates healthy and keeping them able to keep up with this volume,” Donigan said.
What will be critical in the coming weeks and months will be how retailers take steps to show associates that they matter. Some of the largest are already doing that — Walmart, for instance, has waived its attendance occurrence policy for workers who may not feel well, allowing them to use their regular time off options. It also is offering up to two weeks of pay for associates who contract COVID-19, as well as pay replacement for up to 26 weeks.
Policies like these will be especially important for retailers, who are among the nation’s largest employers but who were exempted from Congress’ emergency coronavirus legislation that passed over the weekend, which only included paid leave for employees of companies with fewer than 500 employees.
How retailers show up for their employees will be critical to their retention rate and the general tenor of their stores — and if done right will help underscore their role as a trusted resource in uncertain times.