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How Investing in Safety Can Boost Your Retail Startup’s Sales From Day One


Minyang Jiang


Retail is the ultimate customer service trade. The best retailers have spent years perfecting the subtle art of adhering to that famous mantra: “the customer is always right”. But is the customer always safe? A dangerous sales floor can be just as off-putting as a rude staff member, especially when your retail business is still in the startup phase.

Investing in safety is not only smart and ethical, but also profitable. OSHA states that American businesses spend $170 billion a year because of unsafe work practices. Spending money on safety has the opposite effect; they argue that businesses can save $4-$6 for every $1 spent on safety.

Despite this, too many businesses put safety on the backburner when first starting out. They see it as something that they could do, rather than something that they should do. In fact, business journalist David Wolinsky found that some startups are even unaware that safety regulations apply to their business.

Learn from the safety mistakes of big retailers

Of course, safety does apply to your business, and it will always catch up with you eventually, no matter how big you are. Retail giant Walmart was forced to upgrade safety standards in over 2,800 outlets after complaints from employees about safety. The oversight meant they had to pay out $190,000 in fines, but the costs didn’t stop there. The price of upgrading safety standards in nearly 3,000 stores is an added quantifiable cost, but the cost to their reputation among employees, customers, and investors is much harder to quantify.

This question of reputation can snowball as well. USA Today followed up their coverage of Walmart’s safety hazards with a story about lack of food safety in Tesco stores. Last year, Forbes broke a story claiming that concerns about food safety affect 40% of customers. Walmart, among other big retailers, was named as one of the companies where concerns about food safety are affecting profits. Bad reputations are hard things to turn around, and when two big news outlets run multiple stories about safety concerns in your business, it can’t be good for business.

Even when there is no lawsuit, reputations can suffer due to allegations alone. Online retailer Amazon responded to criticisms of unsafe working conditions after the New York Times and Mental Floss ran with stories about unsafe working conditions in their offices and warehouses respectively. Over in the UK, The Guardian compared working conditions in Sports Direct’s warehouse to “the gulag”. Both Amazon and Sports Direct deny these claims, as they have every right to, and even though no cases have been brought against either company, the accusations of a dangerous workplace are bad enough. The lesson to be learned from this is that employees, customers, and investors don’t expect retailers to just be doing the bare minimum when it comes to safety. They expect more, as well they should.

Use safety training to create a positive culture of safety in your business

As a startup, you have a chance to nip dangerous working conditions in the bud. By investing in safety early, you can create a culture and a mindset of safety which will make your employees stronger assets to your business. Safety training is a great way to achieve this. Safer employees are more knowledgeable, more efficient, and less likely to be involved in accidents. This increased efficiency helps to motivate employees but it also saves you money in terms of healthy employees, working equipment, and no lawsuits. Even the training itself has the benefit of motivating your employees.

All of this might feel strange if your startup retail outlet consists of just five people, but both the law and the logic still apply. In the US, safety regulations for startups vary from state to state, but there are many places where safety law applies to businesses made up of just one person. As for the logic, becoming a big business is all about thinking like a big business. If you and your employees act as if you are a multinational corporation, then you have made the first steps to becoming one. Business journalist Patrick Hull argues that successful startups need structure to survive. Safety regulations give you exactly that: structure and certainty. When so much in the world of retail is uncertain, in an era of where online retail is becoming more and more prominent, the rigidity of safety is the ballast that startups can rely on in their early years.

Recognize that sales floor safety and warehouse safety can be different

Some elements of safety training are unique to the sales floor, such as crime and customer safety. In the same way, some elements of safety training are unique to the warehouse, such as pallet racking inspections and forklift safety. Safety is about recognizing nuance; one size does not fit all in this context. Different employees will need to be enrolled in different training programs. Of course, some employees might want to take part in multiple programs, and this should be encouraged. If your employees are passionate about work safety, it’s because they are passionate about your startup. And if your employees aren’t passionate about safety, there are ways to change that attitude.

Know that safety and service are offline shopping’s ace in the hole

Making your retail startup a safer place to work is the first step to making it a well-oiled money-making machine. A clean warehouse is a safe warehouse; a clean shop floor is a safe shop floor. If you can make your business clean and safe, from the warehouse all the way to the product your well-trained staff hands the customer, it really shows. The offline marketplace is still a profitable place, and customers value being able to see the service that results from a carefully maintained outlet.

Of course, for online businesses, safety is still vital. If your startup consists of nothing more than a warehouse full of people getting online orders together, the safety of your employees can still be a selling point. It’s a way to distance yourself from the unsavory practices of some big companies’ warehouses, something which the media loves to report on.

Life can be tough for startups, and competition in the retail sector is fierce, so why not take every advantage you can? It’s so circular that it’s obvious, but investing in safety is always a safe investment.

Author bio: Justin O’Sullivan is a safety writer and entrepreneur. As the proud owner of Storage Equipment Experts, he’s been providing SEMA-approved racking inspections and rack inspection training for startups, small to medium sized enterprises, and multinational businesses for many years. Beyond that, he’s been offering advice on all things safety to readers of publications in the UK, the US, and South Africa.