Despite the fact retailers are spending $130 billion per year on store associate training, with associates averaging 53.8 hours a year, 71 percent of consumers don't view store associates as knowledgeable or helpful.
That doesn't bode well as 85 percent of shoppers prefer a physical store and rank store associate insight as the single biggest factor in the shopping experience.
Yet some retailers, including Bloomingdales and Altar'd State, are succeeding when it comes to crafting associate training strategies and finding the pay-offs are much more expansive beyond boosting learning.
Why associate training is a critical need
Today's shopper, said Carol Leaman, president and CEO of Axonify, an employee knowledge platform, is extremely smart – 72 percent are conducting product research before heading to a store.
That's just one reason training is key to brand success and driving customer loyalty, said Leaman. Yet many retailers are overlooking their biggest 'secret weapon' to better sales, she explained during a panel session she moderated at the recent NRF Big Show, held at the Javits Convention Center in New York.
The NRF talk, "The Future of Store Associate Training," featured Anita Johnson, director, people development for fashion retailer Altar'd State,; Chad McIntosh, VP, LP and risk management at Bloomingdale's and Michael Patrick, founder and president of MOHR Retail Training and Consulting, which is an Axonify partner.
Axonify develops and maintains MOHR Retail training programs' web-based microlearning "Plus" reinforcement modules. Both retailers, as well as other big brands including Wal-Mart, are using Axonify's gamification microlearning approach. The platform uses short 'bursts' of training during an associate's workday.
Employees can interact via the training, an aspect which motivates participation and engagement. The system's algorithms tailor a specific path for each associate and training can be conducted on a wide variety of devices.
Many retailers, said Leaman, are spending big bucks for little return on training investment and associates are not gaining any wins either. Of associates receiving training, 58 percent did not view it as effective and 57 percent called it boring, she stated.
“This is having a huge impact to the business,” she added, as it leads to associate disengagement and a 66 percent turnover factor.
"Not a good scenario as store associates'knowledge will power the retail store of the future," she said.
How Bloomie's is tackling store associate training
Five years ago, Bloomingdale's training related to risk management was very traditional and pretty much a poster campaign. In addition there was no mechanism for tracking effectiveness, noted McIntosh during the panel.
The retailer tapped Axonify's technology and the ROI is well beyond millions in savings in claims and loss. There's been a 23 percent reduction in safety incidents; 87 percent of associates report the platform has boosted their confidence on the job and 86 percent state the gamification aspect has increased their participating on learning.
In a case study McIntosh cites Axonify as "the most innovative program" he's seen in his retail career as the system helps to not only educate but make associates more aware — which leads to a safer store environment.
"It was all about changing behavior and helping us determine where we needed to focus," he said during the NRF talk. "We're seeing a knowledge lift and that's critical to our success and we're measuring all our processes."
In addition training is no longer an isolated event happening once a week, as it starts with the employee log in for the day. So far there's been 90 percent participation, he said.
"It's about changing the culture of process," he said.
The key to transforming training, he noted, is getting upper management support and finding "champions" within the management team to drive involvement.
Since 2010 Bloomingdales has saved $10 million in reduced claim costs — an average of $2.2 million a year.
"There's also been a big time savings on the associate level due to less emails and less client-related issues," he said. "You need to find a better way, a better tool, because your associates want it."
How a new training approach is paying off for Altar’d State
Fashion retailer Altar'd State debuted its first shop in 2009 and now boasts over 70 fashion boutiques in 22 states.
The growth, explained Johnson, ignited a need for more effective associate training. Given its workforce is 90 percent millennials, a gamification approach was a good fit, she shared during the panel talk.
"We needed to balance the growth and training," she said. "The goal was to engage the workforce and given them challenges and create a common language."
Associates attend the company's 'Altar’d State University' and the bite-size learning approach has proven successful.
"We're using more visual content as that's how associates seem to best absorb information," Johnson said.
Associates hit the learning app for five minutes before each shift and either answer questions or view a short video.
"It's also measuring learning growth, and provides a checks and balances," she noted. "We pride ourselves in providing a customer experience so it's important to monitor and track," she added.
Johnson recommends retailers striving to boost training to first evaluate what's in place.
"You need to take an honest and careful assessment of current training and determine if what you’re doing is working," she advised.
Want to learn more about retail customer experience innovations, and hear insight from retailers making it happen? Register for the ICX Association’s annual Interactive Customer Experience Summit happening June 5-7 at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Dallas. Check out the agenda, register here.
/ Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.