Modern Training, Ongoing Development

Retail employee development isn’t working on the frontline—here’s how to fix it

Posted on: June 21, 2023Updated on: April 17, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

The most prominent professional development challenges frontline associates and managers face are less about the training tactics and more about the need for support structures to see through the development efforts they put into motion. 

We partnered with RedThread Research on a recent report to look at the current state of the frontline workforce and uncovered common barriers to employee development and some actionable solutions that retailers can apply today.

Retail Store Associate Development

Make development an internal priority

Development might be a success factor for your stores on paper, but is it a priority in practice? 43% of retail workers see adequate training and upskilling as a top driver of success and happiness at work, but nearly one-third still don’t have access to it.

The deprioritization of associate and manager development can be an unintentional byproduct of limited time, access to or enthusiasm for training. But if the business wants to stay competitive and ready to impress shoppers, retailers need to invest long-term in their associates by encouraging and enabling them to continually learn and grow—even if they plan to remain in their current roles.  

Four ways to help prioritize retail employee development:

  1. Show “what’s in it for me”: Do your teams know the personal value of developing their skills? Upskilling can help employees earn more money, claim better shifts, work at better locations and make coverage easier when colleagues are out sick. Make sure they buy into the opportunity by clearly showing the potential benefits.
  2. Stress that development doesn’t always mean time off work: Challenge the belief that learning has to happen off the floor. Development can and should occur in the flow of work if there’s a healthy learning culture in your stores.
  3. Simplify what you’re asking from retail associates: When development opportunities do require time away from daily tasks, RedThread’s report revealed that leaders should be simplifying processes and using different learning methods to shorten the time they’re asking employees to be away from their assigned duties. 
  4. Encourage people to follow their interests: Ask employees about their interests and support development in those areas, even if it’s not directly related to their current roles. This shows an authentic investment in their success and offers encouragement to continue learning.

Offer visibility into career advancement opportunities

The path to a successful career isn’t always a linear one. While most employees can easily trace their managers or store leaders’ paths, there are many who aren’t aware of cross-functional, lateral or less obvious advancement options. 

This lack of visibility can create a false perception that there isn’t room for advancement with your company, and employees may leave to find that growth elsewhere

The report surfaced several opportunities leaders have to increase awareness around career advancement opportunities:

  1. Map the range of possible career paths: Leaders should always look for the widest range of career paths available to their employees—and record this information to inspire their teams. One retailer already doing this is Walmart, paving a “path for everyone” to move up and around the company into in-demand roles.
  2. Communicate widely and on multiple channels: Share information about advancement opportunities through various methods, like email newsletters, career conversations with mentors, recurring Grow Your Career events, stand-ups, town halls and other regular meetings.
  3. Spotlight different individuals’ paths: Publish videos and other updates that highlight the unique career paths of your former or legacy employees, or invite them into your stores to host meetings with an opportunity to tell their stories. Adding a face to the narrative to show how career journeys may be more of a twisty path than a straight line will help to inspire teams

 “We’re mapping career paths so [employees] understand that once you get to a particular point, things open up to you. That’s the picture we’re trying to portray.”

Joe Dunlap, Global Director of Training and Development, CJK Group

Help managers support associate growth and advancement

Managers currently shoulder a heavy burden between relying on ill-suited or outdated systems, acting as the intermediary between HQ and the frontline and accomplishing their own tasks. In fact, 54% of retail managers report feeling burned out on a daily basis.

So, while managers should play an essential role in providing retail teams with the feedback, coaching and support they need to do their best work, they have to be unburdened so they can play an active role in their direct reports’ growth and development.

Here are four recommendations to allow managers to properly support associate development: 

  1. Provide resources and templates: Give managers the information, templates and other support resources they need to have better, more intentional development conversations with their teams.
  2. Take stuff off managers’ plates: Review and evaluate tasks and determine where time and energy could be freed up for coaching conversations. Automating tasks wherever possible and removing unnecessary approval or administrative steps is a great place to start.
  3. Provide many coaching options to employees: If the manager-as-coach approach stretches your managers too thin, take some of the onus off them by providing external and internal coaching opportunities, encouraging peer-to-peer mentorship and experimenting with appropriate tech to support retail associate development. 
  4. Enable connection: Being connected to the right people and information in an organization is vital for associate development. Some organizations help workers connect—without relying on their managers—through meet-and-greets during onboarding, job rotations or special assignments, mentoring and coaching and enabling associates to give and receive feedback.

Effectively addressing growth barriers for retail employees

Great things can happen when retailers build development opportunities that take into account the day-to-day realities of associates and managers. But the barriers and challenges workers are up against won’t disappear with new training tech and tools alone. Retailers committed to short- and long-term investment in their employees’ growth need to make it a priority in their stores every day and position learning, and development as accessible, achievable and encouraged.

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.