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How Wakefern unlocks the competitive advantage of their frontline workforce

In the competitive world of grocery, the bar is always being raised on customer experience. To get ahead, retailer-owned cooperative Wakefern Food Corporation knew they needed to invest in their frontline.

“We wanted to make sure we were really focusing on the customer experience,” says Kati Shields, Manager of Retail Training and Initiatives at Wakefern. “And we knew the best way to retain customers and grow our business was to improve our customer experience, so we had to have better trained and more skilled associates in our stores.”

Wakefern’s 51 member companies operate over 350 retail supermarkets across the United States, under brands like ShopRite, Price Rite and The Fresh Grocer. They employ over 70,000 people. But their existing training program wasn’t meeting the needs of this diverse, dispersed workforce.

“The old school process of sitting somebody down in front of a terminal for eight hours is not practical. First of all, they’re not retaining that information,” says Jessica Gasser, Wakefern’s VP of Human Resources, Retail Operations. “The associate population doesn’t have the attention span for it either. You’re checking it off to say you did it, but it’s not even meaningful.”

Wakefern partnered with Axonify to deliver personalized training and communications in the flow of work. Instead of spending 20 hours in the classroom up front, associates can log in every shift for 3 – 5 minutes of training to reinforce their knowledge and build their skills. And it’s all available on the devices associates use every day, like handhelds and even their own smartphones.

“ We knew the best way to retain customers and grow our business was to improve our customer experience, so we had to have better trained and more skilled associates in our stores.” - Kati Shields, Manager, Retail Training and Initiatives, Wakefern Food Corporation

“Axonify was a huge opportunity for the organization to make that leap into using mobile devices, and shift away from some old ways of thinking that ‘I can’t trust an employee to have a phone on the sales floor,’” says Gasser. “It really was a very powerful moment for the organization to provide that connection for our associates and make it easy for them.”

Male Wakefern produce employee

Proving the value of ongoing reinforcement training

They started by rolling out Axonify to a subset of stores to prove the business impact of ongoing training. They saw 63% participation rates, with associates logging in an average of 11 times a month to train—yielding a 31% knowledge lift on training topics.

“The most impactful metric that we got out of the proof of concept was the knowledge lift on the topics we delivered. That’s really where we were able to show an ROI for the training,” says Shields. “To show our stakeholders where associates were scoring initially on that refresher content, and the knowledge lift after they engaged with the reinforcement training every shift, was key.”

Next up? Rolling Axonify out to their entire associate population.

“We’ve transitioned all of our new hire training to Axonify and reduced our seat time by more than 50%,” says Gasser. “It’s a diff erent way of approaching training. It’s more engaging, and it combines on-the-job training with targeted microlearning that meets the needs of the organization at that moment. We’re able to tailor training to individual knowledge gaps and ensure the right people get the right information at the right time.”

“It’s a different way of approaching training. We’re able to tailor training to individual knowledge gaps and ensure the right people get the right information at the right time.”

Jessica Gasser, VP of Human Resources, Retail Operations, Wakefern Food Corporation

One place to go for training, updates and job aids

Associates now have one place to go for all the information they need to perform their best, whether that’s an update from the business, a quick hit of training or a job aid.

“The Axonify platform has really helped our organization reach our associate population consistently across all shifts and engage them with videos, questions and content, but also with broadcast messages,” says Gasser. “That is so powerful because it helps to take the pressure off of a store manager. It allows department managers to cascade that communication down to their second and third shift employees so they know what the push item is, what the focus is.”

This only became more critical during the pandemic, as protocols and processes changed rapidly and associates took on new responsibilities to help the business adapt.

“Axonify allows us to be agile and dynamic with the training and the content, so that it’s refreshed properly and it’s aligned to our strategic approach. We can push content out, not just chain-wide or store-wide, but co-op wide. That’s a huge advantage when you need to move very quickly in response to what’s happening in the marketplace and be competitive.”

Wakefern produce employee
Wakefern employee with device

Equipping the frontline to deliver standout customer experiences

The Wakefern team also uses Axonify to get associates on board and ready to execute on their key strategic objectives.

“The most comprehensive plans can be developed in a boardroom, but they will never be fully realized unless the employees are a part of that process,” says Gasser. “Our frontline associates are engaged in understanding what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re going about doing it.”

For example, they rolled out training to ensure associates are well-versed in everything that goes into delivering fresh, high-quality produce to customers, a key differentiator for Wakefern.

“Many of the eff orts that are made in logistics, procurement, receiving, ordering, handling, crisping and trimming are a direct result of having this platform available to us to leverage training in a more engaging and fun manner,” says Gasser.

When associates have the knowledge and skills they need, they can deliver the kind of customer experiences that set their stores apart from the competition.

“We’ve seen that translate into results,” notes Gasser. “Not just in metrics like knowledge gain on technical topics, but we’ve also seen it in direct ROI for customer satisfaction in our register receipt surveys as it relates to produce.”

Investing in associates’ ongoing growth and development

Engaging associates with ongoing training and communications has also helped to reduce turnover, a critical concern for grocers in a tight labour market. The Wakefern team consistently sees a correlation between high participation in training and high employee engagement and retention.

Contests and other gamification aspects of the Axonify platform build team spirit and keep associates engaged, but it’s the investment in associates’ growth and development that has the most significant impact.

“I think associates today generally want to contribute to the organization, and they also want to learn new things. They don’t want to stay stagnant,” says Gasser.

With Axonify, associates keep building their skills a little bit every shift. They also have the opportunity to pursue cross-training in other departments and learn about others’ careers at Wakefern through broadcast messaging spotlights of newly promoted associates sharing their career journey in short videos. This helps associates see opportunities for growth in their store or the larger organization.

“I see that there’s a huge opportunity for career-pathing and job rotation for associates in our industry,” says Gasser. “As the business is shifting in some capacity, and technology is introduced more and more into the ways we do everything, I think it provides tremendous opportunities for associates to learn and grow, contribute and use skills that are very relevant to the population today at all age levels.”

No matter what changes lie ahead, they’re confident their frontline workforce will be engaged, informed and ready to perform.