The scenario in the retail industry where men far outnumber women in the workforce may have to do with some of the policies that have shaped modern retail in India. Add to it the prevailing environment of perceived security threats to women’s safety and security. But to my mind it also has to do equally with historical perceptions carried by decision makers who in most cases happen to be men on what women staff can or can’t do.
It will suffice to say that for every perceived drawback and perception, there is a robust rationale on why participation of women in food and grocery retail must be encouraged for this sector to move forward.
The following three points need to be borne in mind to better understand my recommendations.
The end user: Most food and grocery formats stock a multitude of brands and SKUs – sometimes over 5,000 to 7,000 SKUs – in a single supermarket store and more than 20,000 SKUs (food n grocery) in a hyper!
While most of such products are consumed by the household in general, there is a greater connect that the products have with women – than with men. Think fruits and vegetables, daals and spices, attas, rice, sauces, cooking masalas and pastes, cosmetics, household cleaners, detergents, shampoos and skin creams and so on. For most such products, the key end user is a woman.
The decision maker: More than 75 per cent of the shoppers in most such stores happen to be women on a consistent and ongoing basis. They come in, browse, engage, make their choices and then take the final call based on their past experience, recommendation from friends or store staff or basis shelf displays, POS material or by advertising that they may have seen.
Intuitive knowledge: Most employees (including men and women) that work in the front end as contract staff in retail stores come in from relatively weaker socio-economic segments. So their own firsthand experience with many of the products is likely to be low.
In such cases, their intuitive knowledge on such products or their usage is always beneficial.
My view about encouraging women participation in F&G is built around three pegs – intuitive knowledge, inherent skills and attitude.
Knowledge: In a scenario where most users and most shoppers who engage with food and other FMCG products are women, as retailers, if we are serious about influencing choices, then one of the first questions that we must ask is whether the predominant male staff – is aiding or actually becoming a hindrance to achieving the said objective.
How can someone with his own limited experience and intuitiveness (shaped by his gender and past experiences) and perfunctory knowledge of these products suddenly become effective in influencing the choice of consumers who in almost all cases are likely to know more about the product than him. In most such cases, experience shows that women staff members are able to bring their superior innate knowledge (shaped by their gender and experiences) to the fore more effectively and help increase store and format productivity.
Skill: Many of the front end roles in retail stores involve merchandising, maintaining cleanliness and hygiene, cashiering, etc. Again from a larger and maybe traditional perspective, these are roles that have been the domain of women for years. The fact that they seem to enjoy these tasks better than men do, makes it easier for them to appreciate the rigour and importance of the jobs and to excel in them. Ask a guy to spot dust and grime in the store and ask a woman employee to now do the same thing.
The difference would be apparent when you notice the half a dozen areas highlighted by women employees that could be maintained better. Ditto for merchandising stuff on shelves.
Women, thanks to their inherent skill tend to arrange and organize better as also maintain hygiene and cleanliness better than their male counterparts. They also tend to be more agile, skilled and in general dexterous with their hands. The fastest cashiers at Nature’s Basket, for instance, tend to be women. So more women would mean not just better presented stores but operationally more efficient stores as well – something that consumers are likely to notice and talk about as well as make front line managers happy.
Attitude: The final point that I make is that of attitude and connect. The way women easily make friends, engage, converse or connect with other women is far superior than the way men connect with women or say even with other men. It is rare to find them coming out of any public place without having conversed with at-least one complete stranger. This is again something so intuitive, and so innate that it doesn’t seem to require any extra eff ort; nor does it seem to be limited to any socio economic class.
Unfortunately, for most men, forming such easy connects is going against their grain. This makes the job of front end male store staff who are mostly faced with women shoppers, that much more difficult and stressful. Conversely, more women as front end store staff is likely to have longer term benefits in terms of improved productivity as well as improved customer loyalty for the business.
None of the above is to suggest that men can’t do some of the things detailed above as good as women staff members can or that women are good only in the roles described above, or that external training inputs can’t change any of the above. It is just to point out that in certain areas, women are naturally more gifted and all things being equal, better equipped to perform and contribute to the business better.
Arguments from front line managers ranging from perceived instability in the business due to attrition caused by marriage or pregnancy, in the case of female staff must be challenged with hard data.
Surprisingly, attrition – which is in general high across retail businesses – tends to be lower for women than men!! As retailers and marketers, we need to be cognizant of this reality. The perceptions that our operations staff may be carrying about the alleged capability of women staff must be challenged by making them understand and appreciate the above.
To begin with food retailers could experiment in catchments that are perceived to be safer. The argument to have an open mind and a willingness to experiment to make our retail workplaces more gender diverse stems from the understanding that no one gender can completely understand or appreciate the mindset and behavior of every consumer.
By giving women an equal opportunity to showcase their natural skills, we as retailers would go a long way in improving consumer connect and make our stores more productive than what they are today.