Training to win: 8 mistakes to avoid when onboarding retail employees

Posted on: February 9, 2023Updated on: May 14, 2024By: Madison Arrotta

Starting a new job should be an exciting time and employers have a unique opportunity to leverage this anticipation and translate it into long-term success. This is particularly true when it comes to onboarding. After all, these are the individuals who will be serving your customers and are also, in a way, your customers.  

Giving new team members a memorable, positive first impression of your retail organization is, of course, not as simple as offering a firm handshake and a warm smile. And the results of a solid, or sub-par, onboarding program are just as impactful. Gallup’s oft-cited 2018 study revealed that only 12% of employees felt organizations were doing a great job with onboarding, leaving a LOT of room for improvement. But where to start?

Retail grocery manager onboarding new associate

What is onboarding for retail?

Let’s back up a bit and define what we mean by onboarding retail employees. It includes familiarizing your new hire with optimal working processes at your organization, building rapport with your new team members and getting them excited about working at your business and living the brand values. 

In the most basic form, a straightforward onboarding process can be divided into four phases: preboarding, onboarding and welcoming new employees, training and transitioning to the new role. Though the specific ways these phases are approached and play out will ultimately depend on your industry and the roles you’re filling.  

With this in mind, we’ve uncovered the most common mistakes to avoid when onboarding your future dream team and why doing it right is well worth the investment. 

8. Wasting positive momentum

One of the biggest onboarding mistakes is not leveraging the unique excitement of starting a new job. Building on positive momentum can have a big business impact. 

A common thread for all high-performing teams, in business and sports alike, is creating a competitive edge by leveraging psychological momentum. In short, success breeds success and heightens feelings of control, confidence and competence. Harnessing this momentum can change behaviors in a way that’s experienced as a “psychological force that enables one to perform at a level not ordinarily possible.” 

Not ordinarily possible. Sounds pretty remarkable and a genuine opportunity for retail companies to lean and bolster this positive momentum when onboarding associates. It’s important to infuse positivity and quick wins into onboarding sessions so employees are not only excited to come to work but reassured that they made the right decision and eager for the opportunities at their disposal beyond day one.

7. Lack of brand connection

When creating your onboarding process, ensure it matches your brand values, tone, and mission statement. In fact, imagine your most crucial customer going through your onboarding process. Do they feel: 

  • Safe, supported and free to show up to work as themselves
  • Excited about the organization’s work and the impact they’ll have 
  • Keen to learn and grow

Safety and accessibility are pivotal here. You can’t expect an employee to give it their all if they don’t feel supported at work and connected to what the organization stands for. A 2022 study found that new hires want to work for companies that share their values and are willing to walk away if that proves untrue so it’s also part retention strategy.

6. Failing to set SMART goals

In 2022, there was more than a 75.8% turnover rate for all hourly in-store positions. What’s more, researchers identified a connection between goal-setting and employee satisfaction.

It’s no surprise to hear how important it is to set benchmarks for new employees throughout their early days at an organization. They’ll have motivation and security—important tools to measure their performance. And using the SMART goal philosophy (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound) is key here.

Consider the following examples of a SMART goal vs a non-SMART one: Priya will double her sales next quarter; Priya will increase her sales. 

As you can see, the missing measurable and timebound elements are crucial to keeping employees on track and enthusiastic about milestones while also providing clarity about expectations. Avoid being vague about what success looks like and make sure realistic timelines are set out and clearly communicated during onboarding so there’s a roadmap to follow.

5. Inability to foster connection

Humans are social creatures; we thrive when we feel a sense of belonging. To achieve this when onboarding retail employees, there have to be conditions in place where a genuine connection is possible. This is why many onboarding or training sessions start with icebreaker activities. Leading sessions with vulnerability and genuine empathy can help create a social dynamic where others feel safe to be themselves and make an effort to connect on a deeper level with their new teammates and leaders, which again is tied to retention and longevity with a company.

4. Relying too heavily on floor managers for training

More than half (54%) of retail managers feel burned out on a daily basis, according to our recent findings in The Deskless Report: Retail Edition 2023. Relying too heavily on managers to provide the necessary onboarding training not only puts undue burden on them, it also puts employee retention at risk. So, what’s the solution? 

Leveraging the right tech can both unburden managers and empower employees to feel confident that they’re properly prepared do their jobs and have the support systems to keep growing in their roles. It’s also important to note that the same report revealed that 67% of all respondents—from HQ to the frontline—believe investing in new technologies for workers improves the overall success of their organization. Taking a digital-first approach to onboarding that’s scalable and trackable, as opposed to relying on ad-hoc and in-person solutions that are difficult to measure, can unlock significant benefits to both leaders and the frontline associates who bring the learning to life.

3. Not enough structure

Like most things in business, having a winning onboarding process is part art and part science. While there’s room for creativity and fun, there also has to be structure. Unsurprisingly, 54% of organizations with a formal onboarding process experience greater new hire productivity and employee retention. 

Following onboarding best practices will ensure you effectively engage employees without missing any key product education or process details. You can create your own retail employee onboarding playbook by studying what works for other successful organizations and customize it for your own specific KPIs. 

2. Overwhelming employees

Information overload can be detrimental to the onboarding process. Throwing too much new learning, or work, at an inexperienced employee can make them feel overwhelmed and confused. And trying to interpret a crushing amount of information is a recipe for disengagement.

A slow and focused onboarding strategy for retail employees is the optimal way to prevent confusion, overwhelm and costly mistakes. Though many HR experts agree that an ideal onboarding process takes about three months, the learning shouldn’t stop there. Prioritizing continuous learning in short bursts that trade the deluge of information for what’s necessary to get new hires up to speed—quickly—and then offering up reinforcement training so employees get refreshed on what they’ve learned in the first few weeks, will help them master the skills they need to thrive. You can further support a steady onboarding cadence by following a 30-60-90 plan.

1. Lack of purpose: why am I here?

Don’t leave your employees without a clear purpose. As Simon Sinek explains in his best-selling book, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, “Why’ is probably the most important message that an organization or individual can communicate as this is what inspires others to action.” 

When onboarding retail employees, tie their performance and presence to a bigger cause that your store or organization represents for consumers. If you’re an outdoor equipment store, for example, you might share that your team helps curious people of all ages and backgrounds find safe equipment to take them on life’s most invigorating adventures. If you’re a retailer geared towards fitness apparel, explain to your associates that shoppers should be made to feel that the brand supports them on their journey towards movement and achieving their fitness goals—whatever they may be.

We all want an exciting mission to drive us forward when we get up in the morning. With onboarding, it’s integral to light that spark and motivate employees and sharing an inspiring story of purpose can do just that.

Striking the optimal onboarding balance

Ultimately, onboarding retail employees comes down to helping your new hires do their best work at your organization from day one and beyond. Keeping onboarding sessions structured, engaging and purpose-driven will help give your team everything they need to thrive in their new workplace. 

Madison Arrotta

As a tenured content marketer and digital storyteller, Madison writes for creative agencies, technology companies, financial institutions and uses SEO, UX and a quick wit to help organizations attract and convert the leads of their dreams.

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