The Future of Store Associate Training: Why retailers need a better approach

There are big changes happening in retail, and that was especially obvious at the NRF Retail Big Show we attended recently in New York City. As one of the few learning technology companies in attendance, it was the perfect opportunity for the Axonify team to address one of the most pressing issues facing retailers today: how to enable their frontline associates with the right knowledge to drive better results.

This challenge really isn’t any different from the other organizations we deal with across a range of industries. In every situation, companies are struggling to give employees training that sticks, keeps up with the pace of business, and drives real bottom-line impact: whether it’s better customer service, increased sales, reduced safety incidents and more.

But retailers, in particular, are seeing firsthand how their associates can make or break a sale, depending on their level of expertise. That’s because customers are more knowledgeable than ever before—often having more information that store associates, whose job it is to help them. According to RetailNext, 72% of shoppers perform research before heading into a store, and two-thirds check prices on their smartphones while in-store. So, it should be no surprise that, 71% of shoppers feel that the retail associate is neither knowledgeable nor helpful. When 85% of shoppers still prefer to shop at a physical store, and they rank store associate knowledge as the single most important factor to making the store shopping experience better, it’s clear that the store associate remains retailers’ secret weapon to success.

Retailers are eager to correct the knowledge imbalance. In fact, they’re spending more than $130 Billion per year on training, which is an average of $702 per associate every year. But, when turnover rates tend to be high, this is a lot of money to waste if it doesn’t produce results. So what’s the best way to get associates up to speed so they can provide the high level of service customers expect?

This was the topic we addressed to the packed room at our NRF panel discussion, “The Future of Store Associate Training.” We brought with us three speakers who could personally attest to the impact they saw after changing their approach to training.

Chad McIntosh, VP, LP, and Risk Management at Bloomingdale’s, talked about the struggle he had trying to communicate and improve safety knowledge across the workforce. Posters, scrums, and other traditional ways of doing things were having zero impact. He told the story of how he had spent all of this money on loss prevention posters and then watched as employees walked right by them without so much as a glance.

“Why am I spending all of this money on wallpaper?” he said.

That was the tipping point for him. He knew there needed to be a better way—and there was. He said Bloomingdale’s has so far saved more than $10 million after implementing Axonify.

Anita Johnson, Director, People Development at Altar’d State, provided another unique perspective. Where Bloomingdale’s is an iconic brand with a rich history, Altar’d State is a relatively young women’s fashion boutique retailer that’s grown rapidly in the past 7 years. Being a hip, up-and-coming brand, Altar’d State’s associates are appropriately a younger workforce—presenting Anita with a unique training challenge. She told the audience that the company didn’t have the money to invest in big LMS solutions, and that she needed a way to provide continuous and ongoing training to a mobile and more tech-savvy associate base, which an LMS would not be able to support.

Altar’d State implemented Axonify last July, and Anita talked about the success the company’s seen, the ease of use with the platform, and the great feedback she’s received from the associates.

Finally, Michael Patrick, Founder and President of Mohr Retail Training and Consulting, a company that provides training to retail businesses, told the story of how his customer base demanded a continued reinforcement tool to be combined with his in-classroom training. He knew that one-and-done training isn’t enough, and he was right.

We are on the cusp, in the retail environment, of the transformation of retailers. Though in many cases they tend to be hard-to-move organizations, the changes in the industry and especially in the way consumers are now behaving has forced their hand. And while it’s been slow going, I think we’re going to see a rapid acceleration as things continue. As they move forward, I believe the key to maintaining market share and sales with brick and mortar stores will come from enabling their associates to know more, who will have the knowledge they need to perform better.

Carol isn’t your typical leader. She’s driving a revolutionary approach to employee knowledge, but she’s also a doors-open, come-see-me-anytime kind of executive. Carol doesn’t just talk the talk—she definitely walks the walk. You can read more from her on Training Industry Magazine, ATD, CLO and as a regular contributor for Fortune.

Looking for more information? We’d love to talk.