3 retail training challenges impacting productivity in 2023
With the launch of our Deskless Report: Retail Edition earlier this year, vital insights around the state of retail training have emerged. Retail leaders take note: associates and management are onboarding, skilling and learning using outdated systems and technologies, which significantly impacts how retail businesses perform.
Even though 43% of associates said access to adequate training and upskilling is one of their top success drivers, 31% of associates say they don’t have access to it. Retail is missing out on driving employee engagement and maximizing productivity, thanks to outdated training methods (associates and managers would agree, with 37% of retail managers and 25% of associates saying that lack of training impacts their day-to-day work).
But enabling the frontline with personalized, adaptive learning also impacts how potential new candidates perceive a business. Our State of the Frontline Experience Report found that 76% of frontline workers believe employers who prioritize future skill development are more attractive, and 32% say that more training would motivate them to stay in their current role, meaning that improved training methods will positively impact employee retention.
So what are the current challenges in retail training? Let’s explore three of the most prevalent hurdles:
1. Retail training isn’t scaling up—and that leads to inconsistencies
Retail training often focuses on two key areas: onboarding (does the associate understand the company well enough to do their job?) and compliance (is the associate safe and legally protected at work?). Once these two questions are answered, associates head onto the shop floor with high expectations about performance. What happens next? How can associates continue to explore training and deepen their knowledge?
Training programs in retail organizations still tend toward using “old school” systems built for deskbound workforces, if at all. The Deskless Report found that only 30% of retail associates and managers said they use a learning management system. The real training is unstructured and happens informally.
“In retail organizations, where standardization of SOPs and operational efficiency is top-of-mind, leaning too hard on informal and unstructured training can be a problem,” explains the report. “This approach leads to inconsistencies that can be detrimental to large-scale retail workforces, if more agile training methods, like in-the-moment training and knowledge transfers, aren’t approached systematically.”
Leaning too hard on informal training creates knowledge gaps which, in turn, frontline managers need to fill, taking them away from other operations and adding to their ever-growing workload.
Furthermore, employee development is sometimes limited to high-potential workers and top performers—meaning that a core demographic of associates are left to fend for themselves. The State of the Frontline Experience Report found that over 35% of employees say they only receive training during big job changes like transfers and promotions, and 20% rarely or never receive additional training. This not only creates more inconsistencies across departments, associates and stores, it means that retailers are missing out on the immense value of upskilling as a driver of productivity and employee retention.
2. Managers are at capacity—but are expected to shoulder the training load
Retail managers are overstretched and overworked. Taking care of day-to-day operational duties, including listening to and bubbling up frontline feedback to corporate and relaying cultural, product, and promotional initiatives while trying to stay afloat, is taking a toll. 54% of retail managers feel burned out on a daily basis—the highest instance of burnout across all industries polled for The Deskless Report.
So why are we overburdening managers with onboarding, upskilling and ad-hoc training? As one manager at a National retail chain interviewed for the report put it: “There’s a blurred line between managers and their roles. We’re expected to take on roles we’ve never been trained for or that we don’t really have experience in—so it’s been a little bit overwhelming.”
Placing too much emphasis on managers to take charge of training is a huge problem for such a high-turnover industry, as managers have to cover the same ground repeatedly. The solution is to enable managers and the frontline with a learning management system that cuts down onboarding time and delivers faster training on the fly that’s scalable and repeatable.
3. Upskilling is overlooked, undervalued and underutilized
Upskilling is a long-term investment that retailers make in increasing knowledge and skills that help employees advance in their careers. Yet, this essential strategy to help engage and retain employees is neglected. A staggering 40% of associates don’t feel like their organization invests in upskilling and professional development, which is a core issue because 43% of associates ranked “adequate training and upskilling” as a top driver of success and happiness at work.
Upskilling is a hot topic. LinkedIn’s 2023 Workplace Learning Report found that 41% of leaders are implementing large-scale upskilling or reskilling programs—an increase of 10% YOY. And 46% of L&D pros said upskilling and reskilling was a top focus area this year. But looking specifically at the retail industry, upskilling is another potentially untapped opportunity for organizations looking to engage, empower and enable associates. During periods of heightened turnover, retailers can sometimes see upskilling as a potential negative ROI, with the fear that too much investment in associates will be wasted when they move on. However, upskilling provides two strong benefits, particularly during labor shortages:
Protection against manager turnover: Retail managers are experiencing burnout which puts this cohort at risk of increased turnover and is costly to replace. If retailers focus on upskilling associates, they’re putting their best foot forward by enabling a steady upstream of employee growth and ensuring there’s less operational disruption when managers move on or up. There’s also additional coverage for when managers are dealing with escalations or time-sensitive tasks because associates are ready to carry out some of the managerial responsibilities.
Helps associates see retail as a career, not a job: Training, development and upskilling are critical drivers of employee happiness and success. But only 44% of frontline associates feel optimistic about their career prospects. Upskilling remedies this by providing employees with opportunities to grow their careers and move up the chain of command while helping mitigate turnover and build long-term relationships—especially with hard-to-replace high performers.
What does the future of retail associate training look like?
Revitalizing training for the frontline works with, not against, the industry’s volatile nature. For example, retail stores typically have high turnover and staff and require repeatable onboarding programs. If retailers embrace automation and trigger-based systems, these can reduce the manager overload that middle managers experience while also improving consistency across locations and regions.
So how can retailers’ learning strategies be updated to better reflect the changing needs of their associates? This might mean moving training and skills development into the workflow, so they slide seamlessly into the day-to-day retail experience. It might mean leveraging microlearning to focus on bite-sized retainable training completed in minutes, and providing access to on-demand training and job aids employees can access in the moment of need. Or it might mean a focus on transferable skills versus creating training programs that align with specific roles.
As retailers rethink the concept of training and how it lives within the frontline enablement ecosystem, the lines between traditional HR-focused L&D and more operationally focused, on-the-job training, upskilling and knowledge transfer need to blur and create a new, holistic training ecosystem that’s systematic—and scalable—to a retail workforce of thousands.