Eyes on the horizon: Leaders discuss what’s next for the retail frontline

Posted on: April 28, 2021Updated on: March 8, 2024By: Jordan Dilworth

Navigating the past year in retail has been a bit like walking on a tightrope. We’ve all been focused on putting one foot in front of the other, with a few wobbles along the way. In precarious situations, it’s tempting to keep your eyes glued to your feet. But keeping your head up and focusing on the horizon is the way to stay steady and balanced—and get to the other side in one piece.

That’s the metaphor Axonify CEO Carol Leaman used to kick off AxoniCom RETAIL. In keeping with that directive, the sessions that followed were all about what’s on the horizon. Leaders from Lowe’s, KFC Canada, Ulta Beauty, Eyemart Express and Dollar General shared learnings from the past year and shed light on how they are moving forward in 2021 and beyond.

Keep reading for three highlights from the AxoniCom RETAIL conversations.

1. Retail agility depends on providing learning where it’s needed, when it’s needed. 

Agility is key to enabling the retail frontline to deliver great customer experience amidst constant change.

Increasingly, traditional training delivery methods can’t match the pace of change. Gone are the days of sending people to the back room or gathering everyone in a conference room for training. The future is all about learning in the flow of work, where it can be referenced, practiced, applied and refined in real time, on a continuous basis.

This was one of the key aspects of the training transformation Lowe’s undertook over the past year.

“You learn best when you’re in the environment where you’ll be applying the learning,” said Jamie Furey, VP of Talent Management, Learning and Diversity at Lowe’s. “So we wanted to get learning out on the floor, around the products, around the customers, around the people that you work with. It was really important for us to have learning at the time of need, out on the floor.”

To make this possible, they looked at what, how and where associates learn. They conducted a huge content refresh to develop focused microlearning content in various formats to accommodate different learning styles. Then, they delivered this content in the flow of work, on the devices employees use daily

“This allowed us to have these different modalities served up at the fingertips of our associates, so they could learn about a product, then have a chance to apply it right away.”

2. Frontline communication is a two-way street.

A lot changed over the past year about how retailers communicate with their frontline. In our panel discussion with leaders from Ulta Beauty, Eyemart Express and KFC Canada, communication was a key topic, as they shared how they stepped up the frequency and quality of communication in order to keep their team safe, engaged and happy.

Gianna Venturi, Chief People Officer at Eyemart Express, noted that when associates were furloughed at the outset of the pandemic, leaders could no longer rely on managers to cascade messages down to the frontline. Instead, they changed their approach to communicate directly with associates—and they won’t be going back.

They embraced more informal communication tools, like selfie videos from leaders, which were a massive hit. And this approach had another unexpected benefit: It’s opened up communication in the opposite direction, from the frontline back to HQ.

They started getting phone calls and feedback directly from associates, which helps them ensure that company strategy is in lock-step with what’s really going on in stores.

“We no longer say, ‘Let your manager tell us what’s going on.’ You tell us what’s happening and what we can do to improve your lives and your work in our stores,” said Venturi. “We’re loving the opportunity to really connect directly with the frontline. It creates a whole new dynamic. It breaks down silos and helps us become more agile.”

3. Accountability is key to a culture of learning. 

Ah, the elusive ‘culture of learning.’ Everyone wants one, nobody knows exactly how to get there. But the leaders at AxoniCom RETAIL shared a few of the ingredients that have helped to embed learning in the DNA of their retail organizations. One that came up again and again was accountability.

Matthew Metzger, Director of Training and Development at Dollar General, stressed the need for accountability to the business. He noted that completion rates and satisfaction surveys are not enough to show how training moves the needle

“To find out if something really works, we need to hold ourselves, from a training perspective, accountable to the business, accountable to real metrics that are meaningful to the bottom line,” Metzger said. “Having a clear vision as to where we want to be helped us earn some confidence from other members of the business.”

Furey echoed that sentiment, noting that buy-in from leaders at all levels, from the C-suite to the store managers, is key to making training more than just a box-ticking exercise.

“People get really excited about training when other people notice that they’re doing it. When their boss asks them how it’s going… When they start seeing themselves get rewarded for doing their training… When they see that they’re actually getting a bit better at their job and their boss is noticing it too,” Furey said. “Those are key pieces of a learning culture.”

Jordan Dilworth

Jordan Dilworth has spent the majority of his marketing career working with some of the world’s leading brands and retail organizations across the apparel, footwear and beverage alcohol industries. Prior to Axonify, he was the head of North American Retail Marketing at Columbia Sportswear Company for 125 stores across the portfolio of brands and store formats. At Axonify, Jordan leads the Demand Marketing team with a focus on the Retail and Food & Beverage Industries.

Read More by Jordan Dilworth