Having encountered store staffing issues when shopping physical stores, I visited 35 stores to assess coverage, security and stock to weigh whether any limitations might push me to shop online more and why.

Last weekend, I ventured out to a Dollar Store for gift wrap. It was a Saturday morning and I was not in a hurry. That was a good thing. I picked out a few items and headed to check out. There were four potential lines but only one was being manned.  Like many stores these days, staffing was a problem. Only one cashier was working, and the line was at least eight people deep and flowed into one of the merchandise aisles. The good news was that upon request, another cashier stepped in quickly, cutting the number in line in half. Ten minutes later, I cashed out and headed home.

I couldn’t help but think, so what is to become of stores.

In talking to friends, some seem to be having the same experience. They share that “stores are frustrating and that there’s no one to help me get what they want. “On the contrary, the small local stores like Ace Hardware are good as the staff knows the merchandise.”

She shares that she was at REI looking for swim shirts and got lost in the store. “The only person I saw working was at the cash wrap, and even that associate said she couldn’t find people either. Ultimately, she radioed for help. Deep down, I don’t feel like they want to help and that is a concern.”

In some stores, there appear to be more shoppers than staff. That was certainly the case on June 19th, when I visited a Chicago-area Costco at 11 a.m. The store was packed, and the self-checkout line was at least 20 deep. That’s to be expected on a Saturday, maybe, but not a Monday, even if it was Juneteenth.


Shoppers wait in long lines for self-checkout at Costco                          

Stores are staff-challenged

In many ways, this “register closed” sign at Zara’s Old Orchard summed up what was sure to be a “frustrating” summer – and not just for shoppers, but for store associates too. Maybe one could suggest highlighting the one that was open where at least 15 customers waited to cash out.

One of six closed registers at suburban Chicagoland Zara                                                                                      

Signs of staffing shortages

The stores all seemed to have “help wanted” signs visible on most windows I passed by. Upon entering my favorite Home Depot, prominent signage caught my attention and suggested methods retailers are using in hopes of bolstering their staffs.


Hiring sign at Chicago Home Depot

The many faces of store staffing

One friend who spent her entire career in retail and wholesale positions, talked about her part-time job at The Loft. “When I started, there wasn’t enough help, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying,” she said. “Now, we have a bunch of kids working for the summer so there’s much better coverage.”

“People really want to look on their own, so the notion of a ‘salesperson’ is probably an outdated term,” she said. “I work near the fitting room and will often say to customers trying on clothes, ‘let me know if I can help or offer an opinion’ and many people take me up on it. And interestingly, as they leave the store, they often say things like, ‘thanks for helping me’ and I’m a little surprised,” she said. “On a personal note, I feel like in specialty stores I’m being approached more than was the case six or eight months ago.”

This feedback on big box also supports that notion, “I would say it feels like there is more help. Recently, I’ve only gone to Home Depot and Target, and I’ve been able to easily find people to whom I can ask complex questions (Home Depot) or efficiently do my shopping with returns, etc.,” another friend said.


Another general response about the level of help in stores was interesting. “We went to Target to look for a bike, and our family of five split up to find a sales associate. We did find someone in the end. But this was during the week…maybe they are better staffed on the weekends,” the respondent said. “Walgreens seems to have more people around to unlock things. Free People, Anthropologie, Crate and Barrel and Sephora in Old Orchard had plenty of help. Zara was still spotty,” they said of the Chicago area shopping center.

35 retail visits reveal the real results

This prompted me to put together an ad hoc study of stores and their frontline employees. In the end, I broke the story into big box (10) and specialty stores (25), given the nature of their footprint, how they present themselves and their unique challenges.

This would give me a chance to sample many types of stores to see first-hand what the state of retail help was today. For example, Target city stores are much smaller than others near me, so in those instances I tested both. I also tested both urban and suburban mall-based locations.

I would walk through each store and count roughly the number of people working on the floor. They were delineated by associates, stock people and cashiers. More specialized employees like a framer at Michaels or a pharmacist at Walgreens were counted separately, but in the end categorized as an associate. With ongoing reports of retail crime, I also noted if there was a security person present.

Best Buy Abercrombie and Fitch
Costco Alo
Lowes Anthropologie (2)
Macy’s Apple
Michaels Athleta
Nordstrom Crate & Barrel
Office Depot Free People (2)
Pet Smart Gap
Target J. Crew (2)
The Home Depot Kendra Scott
Lululemon (2)
Madewell (2)
Pottery Barn

The big box experience

Big box stores seem like warehouses, they are cavernous. Customers often appear to be managing their own experiences. The store associate often assumes a secondary role, with stockers and cashiers more visible. A self-service mindset prevails.

Specialty store dynamics

Generally speaking, the specialty store experience remains intact. Many of the stores have small footprints, so they don’t require significant staffing to cover the floor. Stock is ample. One positive encounter with a sales associate is all it takes to establish a relationship.

Of the 10 big box retailers stores and 25 specialty shops I visited, they averaged 9.56 and 2.44 associates per store respectively. Surprisingly, in 80% of those large format stores, I was even greeted,retail while 72% of specialty stores connected with me upon arrival.

Perhaps we can all learn from Apple. My visit to their suburban location on a recent afternoon was an experience where I was warmly greeted and at least twenty people were working with associates.


In larger stores, retailers seem to focus on getting products on the shelf. This Target photo reflects their essential role as I peruse the many aisles.

Stockers have a strong presence at Target stores

The good news is that stock levels in the stores I visited were good at both the big box and specialty locations.

# stock people 5.44 .76
Stock levels



Good:  70%

Mix of full and empty shelves:  10%

Adequate:  10%

Overstocked:  10%

Good (68%)


Adequate (24%)

Mix of full and empty shelves (8%)


Though Target is mostly seen as a category killer or big box, I included my visit to their city store as part of the specialty store group. Of course, they had self-service in both. Cashiers were prominent, with an average of 5.33 in big box stores contrasted with 1.36 in specialty stores as they often roam the store rather than assume a fixed position.

And speaking of self-service, in the case of Lowe’s, this associate appears to stand guard at the self-checkout stations. 44% of big box stores and just the city Target location embracing self-checkout, with six stations from a specialty perspective.

Self-check-out/# stations 44% 4%
# people in line 7.44 1.76

Associates man self-checkout counters at Lowe’s.

Lock it up

With retail crime a force to be reckoned with, shoppers encounter the unpleasant reality of products that are locked up. I clearly remember six months ago when my daughter called from her preferred Target in Brooklyn to say so many of the products were under lock and key. It’s shocking, but a reality in today’s world.

It’s no wonder shoppers are given the option to press for customer service. Despite a lack of associates, this is the shopper’s only chance for service and hopefully satisfaction.

Customers must ring the bell for assistance at Walgreens










Security plays a heightened role for staff

Being alone in a store is no longer safe, and it’s not smart business. From my daughter, who works at a designer store in the Boerum Hill Brooklyn neighborhood, “We’re so understaffed. It’s just me and my manager, and she has to handle inventory issues downstairs. On a weekend like Father’s Day, a lot of people are out and about, so it’s busy,” she said.


“I feel nervous about being alone, and I told my manager this. It’s nerve wracking, you don’t know how people are going to behave. We have no security cameras, and we need a Ring system.”

If you’re her mother, the most candid and telling line was “It’s frustrating as we are paid to be sales associates not security guards.”

Security 30% (Nordstrom, Macy’s, Best Buy) 12% (Apple, City Target, Tiffany’s)
Locked up 20% (Office Depot, Best Buy) 16% (Walgreen’s Target, Apple, Tiffany’s)

The mobile device has changed the store experience

Mobile devices are changing physical stores, and I don’t mean being able to look up a QR code or pick up an order curbside. In the past, shoppers used to enjoy visiting with store associates. At one Free People store in my neighborhood, a store associate let me know that she enjoyed interacting with customers, but says the customer is no longer interested in most instances. Chalk that up to the mobile phone, as the world only seems to be interested in interacting with their devices. It’s a missed opportunity for all.

Every man for himself

We all live in a world where we now must act as our own store associates, and certainly our own advocates. As individuals, we must put ourselves in a position to find products, know how they work, be able to research online prior to a store visit and in some cases check ourselves out.


Investments in self-service

As I was going through this exercise, I couldn’t help but think that younger people might expect and accept more of a self-service environment. I for one don’t always need help, but I do appreciate the option.

To address staffing issues, retailers have embraced self-service in different ways. For The Home Depot, it might be pickup lockers following in the footsteps of UPS and Amazon. These make it simple for shoppers to pick up their orders with no associate interaction.

Order pick up lockers at Home Depot

Stores reconfigured for the times

The premise of this article asked the question: “will today’s store experience drive more shoppers online?”. I think it’s a mixed bag, and circumstances dictate results, as the chart below suggests.


I thought it would be insightful to share the results of two 2023 Digital Commerce 360 surveys about when shoppers choose to go to a physical store. It serves as a perfect segue into my channel decision model.

The “fix” 46%/60% want to see the product in person.


Depends on the store. The experience still prevails in some. Stock levels can also impact getting the fix one desires.
Customer service  

20%/16% want to get advice from in-store experts



Depends on the store. Some are staffed while others struggle. A good associate still has a role to play.

Shopper demographics may also factor into the decision.


47%/41% need products quickly


Immediacy favors stores, but enhanced logistics and more same-day delivery are enticing for some.


37%/40% don’t want to pay for shipping


Toss up and depends on if retailer if offering free shipping as there is often channel consistency.
Safety n/a Online but it depends on where you live.
Road test products  

36%/31% test the product in person


Stores though augmented reality is giving stores a run for their money in some categories like home.