The new year hangover will be as long as it is harsh, so how can retailers enthuse staff and inject confidence into the business? Charlotte Hardie explains how positivity is the way forward.

January is a miserable time of year. The holidays are over, everyone's back at work and it's a long way until payday. Add a recession, fears for job security and poor sales into the mix and this year it's likely to be even bleaker than usual for retailers.

But enough is enough. New year, new start. What's needed now is an injection of enthusiasm to help retail workforces tackle what will be a very tough 12 months.

Boosting morale hinges on one person; the business's leader. It is very hard for line managers to be upbeat and enthuse their teams if no one ever sees or hears from the person at the helm of the organisation.

Richard Greenbury, former chairman and chief executive of Marks & Spencer, believes the only way that a leader can gain the confidence of their workforce is by getting out to stores. He says: “This is a very serious recession, so if people have confidence in and respect for their leader, it will be easier.”

Greenbury used to spend most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays visiting stores. “If your face is being seen and you're talking to colleagues and customers rather than being entrenched in an obscure head office it gives people the sense that you're in it with them,” he says. Wyevale chairman Jim Hodkinson agrees: “You've got to talk to as many people as you can in the workforce. Go round, give them support and encouragement.”

In teams where there is a profit- or performance-related share, the monetary reward is likely to go down in challenging times like these and so retailers need to ensure they are looking at other ways to make employees feel valued. Robert Myatt at business psychologists Kaisen Consulting recommends ensuring everyone at every level is given the chance to do something they enjoy. “You need to enhance people's responsibility,” he says. “There are many reasons why people feel motivated at work and so everyone needs to think cleverly about what applies to each individual. The leader needs to encourage people to try things - there are many opportunities out there. The more they can build confidence the more they will succeed.

Equally, don't overdo it. In an effort to involve people throughout the business and rally them together there can be a tendency to place too many demands on people and constantly ask them to go that extra mile. Andy King, former New Look director and now managing director of coaching and mentoring business Kingsight Coaching, says: “You need to encourage creativity, independent thinking, listen to ideas and look at how they can be implemented, but there are only so many times you can go to people and say: 'What can we do?'.”

The right targets

When sales are faltering, success can be more difficult to find. There is no point setting the same benchmarks as you were back in the glory days before the credit crunch took hold because it will be demoralising. Hodkinson advises ensuring that targets are sufficiently adjusted and not giving out too many at once. “Small victories can make a huge difference,” he says.

There is a risk when times are tough that employees become accustomed to thinking that whatever they do, it won't make much difference to the success of the business. Every leader in the organisation needs to do all they can to avoid this mindset. Like Greenbury and Hodkinson, Dreams chairman John Clare has traded a retail business through the tough times of the early 1990s. He says his experience as DSGi chief executive taught him it was vital to celebrate relative success. Even if sales are down across the group, that doesn't mean the top performing branches shouldn't be widely recognised and praised, for instance.

But to do that retailers need to ensure their communication levels are up to scratch. When times are tough there is a hunger for information. Clare says: “It's surprising just how frequently you need to communicate. During times such as this you can give out a certain message to staff on a Monday but that message can change entirely a few days later. You have to communicate more frequently.”

While of course you can't start dishing out data in an attempt to keep people informed, retailers need to be certain the workforce is aware of the performance of the business.

And while it's vital to be upbeat, they also need to be realistic. King says: “There's no point in walking around saying everything is fine.” Making a huge deal about one big sales week will only confuse people if the next three are disastrous. People can see through false optimism.

Because it is almost 20 years since the last recession, very few people know quite what to expect. King suggests retailers gather together all those in the business who worked in retail during the recession of the early 1990s and ask them to share their experiences. “Anyone who has been through this should be actively consulted. You can use those people as ambassadors. Use their acquired wisdom and prove that there is life after tough times,” he says. And that includes absolutely everyone, from the part-time worker on the shopfloor to directors. “Even if times are tough you can make people realise they're in an organisation with the right values,” adds King.

Now is a time for listening, rather than telling. Greenbury says he picked up an invaluable tip from his Marks & Spencer predecessor Simon Marks. “When things are bad you have to put your arm around people figuratively. You need to encourage them. When things are going well, that's the time you should be criticising.” Greenbury - an ardent Manchester United fan - likens it to football. “It's all about confidence. When strikers lose confidence they stop scoring goals. People are like that in every walk of life. Your buying teams don't want you telling them they've made mistakes when times are tough. They'll know that,” he says.

It's been a momentous few months for retail. People have seen that it is possible for a retailer as big as Woolworths to disappear from the high street and have seen retailer after retailer cut jobs. If redundancies do need to be made, Clare advises moving quickly. “You need to bite the bullet. Get it over with, then get back to celebrating success and motivating people.”

Above all, retailers need to avoid a bunker mentality. Practical steps must be taken now if retail employees are to rise to the sizeable challenge of trading in 2009. Those that are able to prove their leadership skills during this recession will be the ones who are most sought after when these tough times are over.

How to create a positive workforce

Examine your own behaviour. Are you genuinely being positive or are you mumbling beneath your breath “Three more days until Friday”? Listen to your own language. Do you frame things in a positive way or do you often start your sentences with “No”?

Ban whining. One whiner can bring everyone down. Stop it at the source and, for future reference, learn to spot them during the interview process. Don't hire them in the first place

Stop the drama. Melodrama sells tabloids, but it's not something you need in your company. It saps valuable creative energy from the workplace. Crisis management is wasteful and destructive

Underline the importance of stress management. Make sure your team understands the role they play in controlling their own stress. People don't always have control over their circumstances but they can have control of how they perceive them. This in turn will help them interact more effectively with colleagues and customers

Live in the now. Dwell in the past only long enough to figure out what you want to learn from it. Stop people from talking about the “good old days”. What is important is what is going on right now

Source: JoAnna Brandi, Customer Care Coach

Retail Trust: on hand

Retail Trust says that calls to its helpline are up 25 per cent on last year and it has witnessed a 400 per cent increase in the past three months. Chief executive Nigel Rothband says: “Sadly we have noticed that staff stress is increasing. The two issues that have come to the fore are people worried about their jobs and worried about debt.”

Rothband encourages people who feel under pressure to use its helpline. “Having an independent ear to talk to allows them to talk through their problems, get back to work and do a better job for their employer,” he says.

Also, from this month, in response to the growing number of calls asking about careers advice, Retail Trust will provide practical advice on finding a new job.

“There is no question that staff stress impacts on the retail business on a wider level. People always say that customer service is so important. The retailer is represented by employees, so to have a workforce that is motivated is absolutely vital,” Rothband explains.

Visit for more information or call the helpline number on 0808 801 0808.