Retailers falling short at training frontline workers

Photo: RetailWire
Sep 19, 2019

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail TouchPoints website.

Thirty-one percent of all frontline retail employees say they do not receive any formal workplace training, according to the “2019 State of Frontline Employee Workplace Training Report” by Axonify. For those receiving training, as many as 27 percent say it isn’t effective because it is too boring and not engaging enough.

“Associates want interesting-looking, snack sized, Google-like access to the information that they’re seeking,” said Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify. “That’s entirely possible now without ever pulling the individual off the floor to do it.”

Ms. Leaman said research into how the brain finds and retains information shows that, in training sessions, the average person stops listening after 11 minutes. This “mental checkout” effect hampers retailers. Due to the overload of information presented, the average person only remembers seven to nine percent of what they learned 30 days after the classroom session took place.

Ms. Leaman encourages retailers to establish repetitive but digestible teaching habits via mobile quizzes and fun facts to ignite memory creation on the sales floor.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems within organizations trying to keep their employees is that they simply don’t think ahead. Only 41 percent of frontline workers across industries say their organization offers additional training designed to develop skills for the future, while 76 percent want such additional training. 

Retail employees rate their training as 55 percent effective, a shade below the 58 percent of manufacturing employees who did the same. Retailers rank well behind two industries in training effectiveness: Professional Sales (70 percent) and Finance and Insurance (67 percent).

“Historically speaking, retailers have lagged in terms of their applications of new technologies, new processes and things that are going to help them be much more competitive,” Ms. Leaman said. “Fortunately, I think it’s changing. They’re being dragged, whether they like it or not, into the present day in the modern world, both because of globally competitive factors and also the changing demographic of their customers and their workforce.” 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What advice do you have for improving the effectiveness of retail training? What’s the key to helping associates remember and bring lessons from training efforts to selling floors?

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18 Comments on "Retailers falling short at training frontline workers"

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Art Suriano
The problem for many retailers is the mindset that they have to have the training, but deep down they’d rather not. They think: it costs money, turnover is extremely high, and as long as we can keep investing in technology, we won’t need as many frontline store associates in the future. Most retailers won’t admit that, but when you look at how many of them have very little or no training materials at all, it’s not surprising. Many retailers still rely on the store manager to conduct the training, which many times can’t happen because the store manager is busy doing something else. Moreover, when it’s left to another associate to train a new co-worker (which is known as “buddy training”) you have even more issues with the co-worker sharing how they do things because it’s better than what corporate wants them to do. However, that causes tremendous inconsistencies. The last issue is that most store associates are task-driven because the tasks have become more important than customers. So until the culture at store level… Read more »
Gene Detroyer

Exactly! Every negative aspect of retail has to do with mindset. For more than 100 years, retailers have looked at today’s sales and not worried about next month, next year or the next five years. Training is investment and serious investment is something retailers rarely do.

Shep Hyken

Retail training, which includes technical training, product knowledge training and soft-skills training (customer service) is paramount to the success of a retailer. The retailer spends a lot of money and effort to get someone into a store. The moment the customer interacts with the employee is “judgement day.” Did the customer make the right decision to come into the store? The wrong answer means a potential lost sale that day or a customer that never comes back. The retailer can’t afford to not train their employees. And, to the point of the article, it needs to be done in a way that is engaging rather than painful. There are plenty of ways to do it right if the retailer takes the time and effort to do so. And one last point — training isn’t something you did. It’s something you do. It needs to be ongoing.

Bob Amster

Training in the retail industry has been treated – except in the high-end luxury sector – like going to the dentist. One of the most difficult things to do in retail is to communicate the company’s vision down to the lowest level of the organization. It requires a repeated effort and that requires a passion from the top. Although I do not like the coffee, Howard Schultz of Starbucks has been exemplary at driving the message all the way down the organization. In many sectors of retail in which the merchandise turns often (fast fashion), or innovation comes quickly (electronics), more training is required whether by the manufacturers of the product or by the retailer itself. Training employees in the culture of the company is strictly the company’s purview. Effective training is not so much a matter of having the tools or not, but in being consistent in doing it.

Cathy Hotka

Successful retailers know that an engaged workforce is essential. Associates need to understand the culture, they need technical training, and they should feel a sense of confidence and belonging. Invest in your people, or wonder why your turnover is so high.

Bob Phibbs

While I agree with this, as a retail sales trainer and virtual online retail sales vendor, I do believe your main training has to be done out of sight of others and distractions either one-on-one (which doesn’t scale) or using a good online system. You can do an all-hands-on-deck meeting, but make no mistake, that is not training — it is mere exposure to the concepts. It’s the difference between seeing Serena Williams at Wimbledon and afterward saying you can do it. You understand the game, but your body hasn’t gone through all the repetition to make the moves without error.

True training requires an excellent sales process, practice so they get quick wins, roleplaying so they can make mistakes without costing you sales, and accountability. After that, quizzes on phones and short games can help reinforce what was taught. Retail winners report renewed interest in employee retail sales training to improve conversions and add-on.

Jeff Weidauer

Retailers have looked at employees in general as a necessary, expensive evil. The promise of technology as a reliable replacement has made them throw money at anything if it offers the possibility of reducing headcount. Until this cost-driven perspective changes, and training is viewed as an investment in customer sales and loyalty, the status quo won’t improve.

Improving the effectiveness of training will require three basic steps:

  1. Change the corporate mindset about employee value and training;
  2. Use successful training programs (Professional Sales, Finance, etc) for models;
  3. Make the investment, not just on day one, but repeatedly over time.
Dave Bruno

Ineffective store associate training should be regarded as an existential crisis. Engaging store experiences are our number one defense against Amazon, and our associates are the most critical part of the store experience. Investments in technology that keep associates engaged, informed and empowered should be of the utmost urgency. Full stop.

Georganne Bender

What advice do I have for improving the effectiveness of retail training? How about actually doing it?

Retail has spent so much time talking about online and BOPIS and AI and whatever happens to be this week’s buzzword that we forget to focus on a critical element of the in-store experience: the front line employee.

Rich and I train plenty of frontline employees every year on sales, customer service, and merchandising, encouraging store owners and managers about the importance of continuing the training when we leave. Some do and some don’t. The ones that set up a training schedule and offer a library of training materials, come out ahead service-wise. The best continue with daily 10 minute “jog your memory” meetings that continually reinforce how to better do your job. Look, in today’s market, with all the focus on the in-store experience, if they want to be successful retailers can’t afford to not train their people. Training should be as mandatory as turning on the lights.

Rich Kizer
There is an old retail saying: “Why should I spend the time and money training my retail staff, they’ll just leave anyway?” My response: “Well, what if they decide to stay, then what?” I know that training systems are abundant on all subjects retail, and many are good. But the best training I have seen in more than 40 years of retail is associate-to-associates. The staff works and trains together. New associates always get a “buddy” to team with, and are told that this “buddy” can answer any questions they have, and will help train them on how the retailer maintains its standards of excellence. We worked with a wonderful store in the state of Washington that has 15 minute “jog” (jog your memory) meetings every morning where goals, news, etc. about the store are shared. Every associate brings a new item to tell everyone about it. By the way, this is a wonderfully successful store. I wonder why. So training is important, no doubt. But retailers should also use their best to train the… Read more »
Steve Montgomery

The underlying issue is that employees are seen as an expense rather than an asset. Assets are something you invest in and expenses are something you control. Assets are maintained, which in terms of employees means you continue to provide training and education. This includes in areas beyond the tasks they have to perform.

Stephen Rector

If a retailer isn’t focused on customer facing training, they are in a world of trouble. To expect customer loyalty to your brand without strong customer service is a failing proposition. For those retailers that are looking to improve their retail training, look to social media for ways to improve. Forget a lot of written materials, training must be mobile and visual, especially video.

Paula Rosenblum
Our data has shown something similar. I think more than 65 percent of existing workers receive less than 30 hours PER YEAR in training. We didn’t ask about effectiveness, since we were querying more corporate types. Let’s face it. Training and retaining and in-store workforce is a big ask for retailers. The business model for the past 100 years has been a large workforce of mostly part-time, transient people. There’s a wastefulness to it – think how many had our first job in retail and went on to become industry leaders in other industries – but it’s what drove profits. Retailers don’t have a choice anymore. They have to put attention, training and money into their in-store workforce. And the way to get that money is to optimize non-selling functions using technologies. That’s one of RSR’s mantras. It was true 10 years ago when our partner Steve Rowen started saying that a store manager engaging with a consumer with a smartphone is like bringing a knife to a gun fight, and it’s even more true… Read more »
Ron Margulis

I had a long conversation about this topic with another writer at Groceryshop this week and the starkest disparity we could think of is the training of employees at Wegmans and Walmart. Wegmans associates are chipper, engaged, passionate and educated on product and the store. Walmart associates, well, they’re not. Wegmans sends store employees to symposiums on things like olive oil and cooking seafood. Walmart, not so much. Wegmans encourages and rewards input on product assortment and merchandising from staff members. Walmart may do a little of this, but almost all direction for the store comes from Bentonville. I understand the scale of the two enterprises is drastically different. But that shouldn’t mean Walmart can’t try to improve the way associates are trained and engaged.

Cynthia Holcomb

In the first few days, a new employee knows exactly, without having to think about it, the “invisible” culture of the store. What is expected, not by the manager, but those truly in charge — associate colleagues. Manager lip service versus the political reality of the few who dominate the invisible culture of the store. Humanness at play — the survival of the fittest, with the meekest just minding their business to get along and go home.

Lessons and training are good and well-intended by management. Unfortunately, in reality, the invisible “pecking order” common to human nature, controls and dictates the underbelly of happiness or angst of associates on the retail floor. Akin at times to a soap opera.

Paco Underhill

Easiest thing to change in retail is the physical design of the store. Hardest is the operating culture. The management team that doesn’t spend time on the front lines, loses. In all too many places, you find the desk farthest from the front door and that’s where the person in charge sits.

Ralph Jacobson

This is obviously nothing new to the business. However, I do believe that store management exhibiting the “shadow of the leader” mentality is a great way to consistently show new (and seasoned) store staff the facets of the job that management deems important.

Ken Morris

The turnover on the retail sales floor is over 100%. Training is in many cases almost non-existent. Training should be monitored and as a service (as in TaaS, where you pay a monthly fee and training is ongoing). The monitoring should be exception based where training opportunities are identified via pattern matching where the exception is matched against a control group to identify anomalies and course correct. Two companies come to mind that I have worked with that provide these services and those are Dashe Thomson for TaaS and Blue Day who provide software for monitoring, exception identification and course correction. This combination is a winner for retailers and restaurants.

" The store model has to change. And that's a really big ask."
"In reality, the invisible “pecking order” common to human nature, controls and dictates the underbelly of happiness or angst of associates..."
"Easiest thing to change in retail is the physical design of the store. Hardest is the operating culture."

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