Workplace culture.” This phrase is easy to throw around at HR meetings or interviews, but actually understanding the concept and building a strong culture in your organization is whole other story.

So to help you better understand the topic, and, more importantly, enable you to improve the culture in your company, we caught up with Retail Culture Consultant Beth Boyd.

Beth helps retailers drive employee engagement and workplace happiness through building a culture that retains and recognizes top performers and attracts top talent. She’s also the Founder & Editor-In-Chief of the Excellence In Retail Blog, a resource that covers topics such as retail leadership, workplace culture, and training and development.

In addition, Beth is a retailer herself, and she owns a pop-up retail apparel concept in high traffic tourist locations in the Northeast market.

Read on below to see what she has to say about retail workplace culture and what merchants can do to improve.

Recognize what culture is… and what it isn’t.

It’s difficult to take meaningful action on something if you don’t have a solid definition of what it is, so before jumping into tactics, let’s first define what organizational culture is, exactly.

According to Beth, organizational culture “is not only the ‘what’ of the organization, but the ‘why’ and everyone is invested in it — both as individuals and collaboratively.”

In other words, culture is a shared purpose and passion for the organization’s vision and values. People who are part of the team have “a cohesive interest in achieving its goals and objectives.”

Beth also clarifies what organizational or workplace culture is not. “Retailers need to understand that ‘what got you here, won’t get you there,’” she says. “Culture is fluid — it’s also not as cut & dry as most retail executives believe. It’s more than pay, benefits, flexibility; these things are nice but they’re not everything — not even close.”

Ensure that your mission, vision, and values are concrete.

Now that we have a bit of an understanding of what culture is, what can retailers do to promote a strong workplace culture?

Beth’s advice is to start by ensuring that your company’s mission, vision, and values are concrete. “Mission statements and values need to be real things that organizations speak to and hire to. They are not — nor will they ever be — lived or ever even referenced to if they are simply a poster on the wall or a page in a manual/handbook.”

Put it simply, your mission, vision, and values shouldn’t live in a handbook. They must be brought to life by your team. That’s why it’s so important to hire employees who embody the things that your company stands for.

“People who share a passion for the vision and values of the organization and who are compelled by its purpose… will make a tremendous difference,” she adds. This is especially true when it comes to leadership positions.

“Executives who live and work with the organization’s vision & values and who make decisions are aligned with those things are easy and inspiring to follow,” shares Beth. “When there is a disconnect between the actions and words of a retail organization, that’s when things start to crumble.”

How can you determine if you’re hiring people who believe in your values? Beth suggests asking interview candidates to explain “if and how they share the organizational values.” If the interviewees can’t articulate some of those common values, it’s best to move on.

Be transparent.

Beth emphasizes that importance of transparency when creating a strong retail workplace culture.

Doing this starts with hiring.

“Bring transparency to the hiring process,” she advises. According to Beth, retail companies can do this by including testimonials from existing employees and even allowing candidates to ask questions to the people they will be working with.

Once employees are on board, keep them in the loop with the company’s priorities and desired results. Don’t just tell them to do something — communicate why they need to do it.

“Retail — especially at the field level — needs transparency. [Employees] need to understand the goals and objectives of the initiatives they are being asked to embrace to and the priorities of those aims.”

Conduct stay interviews.

She also recommends that retailers conduct stay interviews, which are one-on-one touch base sessions with employees. “During these [stay interviews], topics such as performance are discussed, and their thoughts and feedback on work are collected.”

You should also use these meetings as opportunities to plan a career path for your staff.

According to Beth, instituting these programs in her workplace lowered field turnover from 67% to 22% in the first year.

Learn from other retailers.

When asked to give examples of retailers with great workplace cultures, Beth named three companies: The Container Store, REI, and Nordstrom. We did some research on what makes their organizational cultures so great and found insights that every retailer can learn from. Check them out:

The Container Store (TCS) – TCS is known for their “people first” culture. Founder Kip Tindell famously said, “We put employees first, radically… if you take care of them, they will take care of your customer better than anybody else.”

TCS has demonstrated this time and time again. Not only does the company pay employees 50 to 100 percent above industry average, but they also offer more training. According to TCS, “first year, full-time employees receive 263 hours of formal training compared to industry average of 8 hours.”

It’s not just about perks, though. TCS genuinely loves their employees, and they’re not afraid to show it. They’re committed to hiring people who meet their values because they believe that great people stick around when they’re surrounded by other great workers.

Because of this, TCS is consistently part of “Top Places to Work” lists and their turnover rate is less than 10% — a low figure, especially in retail where the average turnover rate is 70%.

Recreational Equipment Inc (REI) – Much like other companies that are loved by employees, REI also offers competitive pay and great benefits.

What’s more, REI makes sure that workers have the time and resources to enjoy the great outdoors… and company merchandise. Fortune reports that the retailer “gives employees two annual ‘Yay Days’: paid-time-off to go outside and use the outdoor gear they sell for such activities as hiking, biking, climbing, camping and skiing.”

REI employees are also incentivized to stay with the company and contribute to its success. According to Fortune, “REI funded $60 million in its incentive plan and profit-sharing contributions, including giving every eligible employee an automatic 5% company retirement contribution into their 401(k) and an additional 7% profit-sharing contribution.”

Nordstrom – Nordstrom is known for its culture of empowering staff members. As Mary Porter, the company’s Director of Talent Acquisition told the NRF, “every Nordstrom employee (whether they work on the sales floor or in a support position) is focused on making people feel good, and our culture is centered on creating an environment where our people feel supported and empowered to do just that.”

One of the ways Nordstrom does this is by encouraging their staff to work as if they’re operating their own business and “do what they feel is right to build lasting relationships with their customers.”

Nordstrom demonstrates this through things like having no fixed return policy. Rather than giving employees rules on how to accept and process returns, the retailer encourages them to do what they think is best.

“We don’t actually have a return policy for purchases made at Nordstrom stores or at,” they state on their website. “We handle returns on a case-by-case basis with the ultimate objective of satisfying the customer. We stand behind our goods and services and want customers to be satisfied with them. We’ll always do our best to take care of customers—our philosophy is to deal with them fairly and reasonably; we hope they will be fair and reasonable with us as well.”

In other words, Nordstrom leaves each return situation up to the employee and encourages them to use their judgment and focus on satisfying the customer.

Your turn.

How would you describe the workplace culture in your stores? Share your thoughts in the comments.