NRF recap: Consistent frontline performance is key to your 2021 retail strategy

2020 turned retail upside down. Stores became fulfillment centers, and associates became safety champions and rule enforcers. The ways we shop changed, with a host of new options like buy online, pickup in store (BOPIS) and same-day ship from store. Policies and procedures changed on a dime in response to public health requirements and market conditions.

This year at NRF, Retail’s Big Show, the discussion focused on getting out of this reactive crisis mode and laying the groundwork for the agile retailer of the future. This retailer of the future uses technology to optimize their operations and delight customers online, in-store and anywhere in between.

Retail associate helping customer using technology

One theme that emerged throughout the event was the importance of the frontline workforce—after all, your associates are the ones putting plans into action, day in and day out. Getting them engaged, informed and on board is a prerequisite to any big initiative you’re tackling this year.

In our session at NRF, we made the case for a frontline-forward mindset in 2021, and we brought along two retail leaders to show us how it’s done in real life. Here are the highlights from Axonify CEO Carol Leaman’s conversation with Jonathan Andrews, SVP of HR and Training at O’Reilly Auto Parts, and Mark Chrystal, Chief Analytics Officer at rue21.

The need for consistency sparks frontline transformation

For both organizations, the catalyst for investing in their frontline was a need for greater consistency across stores and locations.

“We’re spread out in 48 states, and we have over 80,000 team members,” says Andrews. “We were looking for a tool or platform to get consistency in our message and our communications, whether it be on our culture, whether it be product training, whether it be compliance-related risk and safety training. That was a big factor, trying to get consistency from coast to coast.“

For rue21, the numbers told the story:

“We were seeing some stores really performing well and then we were seeing other stores not performing. As we dug in, we realized it was actually about the store associates in those locations, more than anything else that was impacting our business in those locations. We identified a knowledge gap,” says Chrystal. “The top performing stores had these leaders and managers and associates that were extremely plugged in, and they were able to process the training we were giving them at the time. But we weren’t providing training that every associate could digest and take on board and learn from and benefit from.”

Training that fits the way the frontline learns

Both retailers found that old-school training methods (think binders and checklists) weren’t serving their associates. Their first priority was digitizing their training in a format that was accessible to all associates.

“There was too much for them to digest, and frankly because of the customer we serve, which is largely teenage to early 30s, we tend to hire associates that fit that model as well. And that is not how that age group wants to learn anymore,” explains Chrystal. “They absolutely want to be on a phone on an app.”

After eliminating paper and delivering bite-sized bursts of training through Axonify, rue21’s participation rates went from 15% to over 80%.

“Ninety-six percent of the training that we’re delivering is through a mobile device at this point. That’s where they want to consume it. It’s how they’re interacting, and it’s allowing us to reach our associates in a way that’s most convenient to them and and effectively puts that communication right in the palm of their hands.”

Frontline communications keep the workforce connected—and engaged

Frontline employees often don’t have a corporate email, and the nature of the job means they’re usually on the go. Reaching them has long been a struggle, managed with an imperfect web of bulletins, team huddles and word-of-mouth.

For O’Reilly Auto Parts, it was a priority to establish a direct line of communication with their frontline. They used Axonify to instantly communicate timely, consistent information to their frontline teams on the point of sale devices they use daily. This became even more crucial in the tumult of the pandemic.

“We’ve used broadcast messaging from our CEO to our local leaders just to thank our team members when they can’t get there and see them daily,” says Andrews. “It’s also been a real help with the safety protocols and reminders of the things that we’re expecting, whether it be as simple as a mask or making sure the temperature checking procedures are working flawlessly and consistently at a location.”

The investment in communications and training also go a long way towards keeping employees engaged and invested in their careers. The evidence of that is clear at O’Reilly.

“We’ve seen a 5 to 10% drop in our turnover since we introduced this platform,” says Andrews. “We certainly think the way we’re training today has helped deliver some of that result.”

Agile frontline training helps associates execute on new initiatives

For rue21, the ability to tweak training in real time gives them confidence when rolling out new initiatives, like their new ship-from-store program.

“Before, we’d have those big black binders being shipped out to stores to explain this change we want them to make. And now, really, at the push of a button we can alter that training on the fly and adjust what we want them to do—then see the response and measure the response,” says Chrystal. “That’s been an exciting development for us and gives us a lot of confidence in the technology that we’re rolling out to stores.”

It’s also emboldened them to take on some ambitious projects, like launching a loyalty program in the midst of the store re-opening process earlier this year.

“We decided in our infinite wisdom to also roll out a new loyalty program at the same time and have to educate all of our associates on how to deploy that. We used this technology to do it, and it was incredibly effective. The loyalty program has been a wild success. We’ve got almost 3 million customers enrolled on that loyalty program in only eight or nine months. And we just wouldn’t have been possible without this type of technology right in the palm of their hands.”

Let’s face it: retail strategies might be hashed out in the head office, but they live or die on the frontlines. See how better frontline training and communications help you ensure your people’s skills keep pace with your business goals.

More frontline-forward highlights from NRF

  • Hardware stores have been dealt a good hand this year, as the pandemic launched a flurry of home improvements. Lowe’s shares how they sharpened their focus on operational excellence to create a safe and exceptional experience for both associates and customers.
  • The next generation of retail employees is more diverse and tech-savvy than ever before. PetSmart shared their approach to empowering young talent across their organization.
  • Frontline employees aren’t just in it for the paycheck anymore—increasingly, values and purpose matter, too. Ulta Beauty and Home Depot share how they collaborate internally and externally to develop social responsibility initiatives that reflect what they stand for.

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.

Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.