Amazon is buying Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. This may seem like a bit of a surprise given that the last 6-8 months have seen a sharp decline in the retail marketplace as dozens of retailers have begun to scale back their store numbers. Whole Foods has had its own share of challenges as its once-differentiating organic product options become increasingly mainstream. Nonetheless, the world’s largest online retailer is making a huge investment in brick and mortar, further signaling that a great omni-channel experience is now a powerful differentiator.

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I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to buy everything online. I still enjoy going to a place to search for and select particular items. Shopping isn’t just a utilitarian task. In the right context, it can be an enjoyable, brand-affirming experience. As Warby Parker CEO, Neil Blumenthal, put it, “I don’t think retail is dead. Mediocre retail experiences are dead.” By the way, Warby Parker, a company that rose to prominence in a crowded space via a shop-from-home model, plans to open 25 stores this year.

The rise of omni-channel presents workplace learning teams with an opportunity to renew their value to the business. As options increase and purchase decision making evolves, employee knowledge and capability must keep pace to provide a truly differentiating retail customer experience. Here are a few concepts you must keep in mind as you develop your L&D team’s ability to support a growing omni-channel strategy:

  1. Channel Awareness

There’s a good chance customers know what’s available on your website before they enter the store. They’ve come to the store for an experience or because they want to purchase something immediately. Your employees must be equally knowledgeable about your online offerings so they can further differentiate the store visit from the website purchase. In addition, stock-outs should be almost extinct in an omni-channel setting given the extended inventory reach. Employees must be comfortable shifting from the store to the online environment to provide customers with purchase options even if the store cannot fulfill the request immediately.

  1. Speed of Information

Retail moves at the speed of … well … retail! An omni-channel strategy provides the business with great flexibility when it comes to timely product and pricing offers. Therefore, it is critical that the organization have an equally flexible information strategy in place for employees. Manager huddles and bulletin boards just don’t cut it anymore. L&D must partner with the operation to build an engaging communication strategy that leverages technology to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the moment of need. This ensures the information will not only be consistent, but won’t be out of date by the time the employee learns about it.

  1. New Skill Requirements

    What it means to work in a grocery store has already changed noticeably in recent years as more fresh food offerings have been introduced. Amazon seems likely to capitalize on the growing shop-from-home grocery market through their acquisition of Whole Foods. As channels begin to blur and services such as Amazon Fresh change the way people buy and receive products, employees must also develop new skills. In the example of Whole Foods, employees may soon be expected to expand their role to include picking products, packaging pick-up orders and making home deliveries. L&D must be ready to rapidly deploy learning and support solutions to meet the needs of the business as these new skill sets are introduced across the omni-channel environment—without requiring the operation to pause for hours and hours of formal training.

  2. Shift from Product Knowledge to Consultation Skill

Why would I buy a shirt in the store when I can buy the same shirt from home via the mobile app? Well, what if I’m not quite sure if this shirt matches the rest of my outfit? What if I don’t want to bother with the hassle of shipping it back if it doesn’t fit? It’s no longer sufficient for employees to know product details and availability. Now, they must act as consultants to help customers solve the fundamental problem that is driving the purchase decision. Therefore, instead of holding costly, formal training events once in awhile, L&D must provide ongoing training to help employees develop their consultation skills. Social tools can also be leveraged to share ideas and techniques between stores. Microlearning principles can be applied to successfully fit continuous learning into the busy retail day without taking associates off the floor

We don’t know where the marriage of Amazon and Whole Foods will ultimately go. It’s pretty safe to assume that we’re about to see an evolution of the omni-channel retail story. What is clear is that customer experience is a critical chapter in this narrative, as it is expected to overcome price and product as key differentiators within the next 3 years. What you sell will always be important, but how you sell it and how people feel about the experience with your people is now what keeps stores open and thriving.

For more information on how L&D can help ensure omni-channel success, check out our eBook: How to Boost Associate Expertise to Deliver a Successful Omni-Channel Retailing Experience.

JD Dillon

Author: JD Dillon

JD Dillon, the principal learning strategist at Axonify, has spent 15 years designing and implementing learning and performance strategies for respected global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company, Kaplan, Brambles, and AMC Theatres. With his practical approach and ability to integrate science, technology, storytelling, and pure common sense, JD delivers modern solutions that enable employees, improve organizational performance, and drive business results. In his current role with Axonify, JD works with an award-winning team to boost employee knowledge and performance for leading organizations through the application of modern learning practices and cutting-edge technology.

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