With the holidays concluded, the retail industry is winding down from its busiest time of year. Inevitably, this period includes a great deal of employee turnover: Thousands of workers who came in a couple of months ago have now left to go back to school, return to home life or take another job, and thousands more will sign up for a brief stint in late fall this year.
Yet, throughout the year, retail organizations will be challenged by hiring and retention much more than other industries. It’s no longer just that “good help is hard to find.” It’s that good help is hard to find — and keep. Being able to recruit, train and retain high-quality retail professionals is critical, especially given the time and resources involved with onboarding.
As it is with any other business, organizations in the retail sector should develop engaging, relevant and performance-based learning programs for their employees if they want to keep them. Ensuring that each sales associate is properly trained can have a positive effect on the bottom line and improve employee proficiency and morale.
The Role of Training in Retention
When it comes to retaining talent, not all retailers are created equal. By virtue of the specialized products they sell or the unique culture of the enterprise, some will be able to naturally attract and keep certain kinds of workers. Home Depot is an example of such an organization.
“The nature of our business is that people who like home improvement tend to work in our [associate] positions, and the jobs are very much about problem solving, and it’s kind of a more engaging retail job than others,” said Leslie Joyce, vice president and CLO of Home Depot. “The second piece is that we have a culture and an approach to customer service that keeps our associates really, really loyal. We call them orange-blooded. They are a part of something bigger than just selling things. They are a part of making people’s homes better.”
However, most retailers face the issue of workforce churn on a regular basis. How they deal with it from a learning perspective can vary greatly.
To improve her company’s head count, Sharon Smart, director of training at specialty bedding retailer Mattress Giant, helped revamp the company’s learning strategy to counter the detrimental effects of a rapidly changing workforce. Before 2005, Mattress Giant’s turnover rate was more than 300 percent, but with the recently designed program, the turnover rate is around 75 percent and has been as low as 55 percent.
“A large turnover in our business is absolutely not a benefit,” Smart said. “We worked really hard to bring that down, and part of that was changing out [our] executive team, and we were changing out our sales management team. We were kind of going out with the old and in with the new. What we find is with higher turnover, and it’s probably the same with everyone, is that it’s hard to interview enough people to fill enough seats to cover a schedule. It just adversely affects so many other parts of the business.”
There is obviously a monetary loss to turnover, but what a company can’t put a price on is the loss they suffer when employees walk out the door and take their knowledge and experience with them.
Getting Them Early
One way to keep employees from walking out the door is by offering them plenty of learning opportunities early in their tenure. Apart from teaching them basic work tasks, this accomplishes two things: It shows the employees that they’re valued and exhibits the company’s culture.
To avoid this loss and to lower turnover, Mattress Giant’s 700 sales associates go through a three-week training program when they begin their position — two weeks are spent in the classroom and one week is spent in a mentoring environment.
“That gives them the opportunity to learn in a sheltered environment, but then get out for a week into a store to see how it opens and closes and how it really operates,” Smart said. “Then we bring them back in the third week just to advance their skill set a little further. It gives them some time to really get to know the business before they get out into the real world.”
Prior to this redesign, sales associates completed one week of training, and it was mostly based on the company’s products. Now one-third of the training is computer skills, one-third is product knowledge, and one-third is sales strategies.
“Depending on what type of retailer you are, you have a very wide range of people that work for you, and [at] different times of the year, your turnover may be higher. I think the difference is, especially with us, we took the training that was already going on a step further,” Smart said. “They already had training. It occupied what it needed to occupy for the time. [But] we are living in a different time when it comes to the people we are hiring, and the program has to change with that.”
Mattress Giant’s training doesn’t end after three weeks on the job, though, as there are monthly district sales manager meetings, three-hour mini-sessions when new products are launched, and every year all of the sales associates participate in a short training segment.
Another company that provides its workers with multiple learning opportunities within the first few weeks of employment is Vans, a division of VF Outdoor Inc. and a leading action-sports lifestyle company. In previous years, Vans distributed a lot of its new-hire information via face-to-face narrative. Yet, knowledge absorption depended heavily on the person who was conducting the orientation, and there was no real consistency in learning delivery. An associate training under a store manager who had been in the company for a few years and really understood the culture, brand and heritage might get detailed anecdotes from the field, and thus would have a deeper understanding of what the company is about than an associate training under a less experienced manager.
To provide associates with a foundational understanding of the company’s culture and heritage, Vans recently launched a DVD in all of its retail stores as part of new-hire orientation. As part of the onboarding process for all employees, the 13-minute piece offers a look back over highlights from the company’s history. This visual representation helps to convey an authenticity that is valuable to sustaining the brand, said Vans Director of Human Resources Amy Stern.
“The most important thing to each and every associate is that every customer’s experience is to be a positive one,” Stern explained. “When the company was founded 40 years ago, founder Paul Van Doren instilled in retail employees this concept of ‘tell a friend.’ We want everyone to have a positive experience at Vans, so they’ll go out and tell a friend and keep the momentum going. Another piece is having that product knowledge to truly understand who your customer is, what their needs are and knowing our products well enough to know what’s a good fit for them and what they are truly looking for. The customer-service component is a very big part of ensuring their experience is positive.”
In addition, Vans’ employees are required to complete the company’s customer service and training program, usually within the first 90 days of employment. Titled SKATE, the program’s material centers on culture, product knowledge and how employees create the Vans’ customer experience. Everyone from associates up through store managers must complete the program and attain certification.
The certification is linked to Vans’ Secret Shop program to ensure SKATE principles also are delivered in the store when no one’s watching. Once employees have been observed displaying all the different steps of the program, they earn a SKATE pin.
“Store managers conduct the SKATE assessment as part of the certification process for their associates, but that also happens regularly throughout the year, as the store and district managers ensure what we’ve rolled out is working and [employees] are performing all the different steps of the program,” Stern said. “Next year, we’re looking to potentially launch a short DVD to complement the written SKATE materials and the in-person training, for consistency. Then we’ll have visual demonstrations and examples that people can model and customize to their own style.”
Use Technology in Moderation
Because retail companies are typically dispersed, technologies such as DVDs, CD-ROMs or e-learning are very attractive modalities. And when used correctly, they are effective tools for learning delivery. Yet, learning executives in the retail space shouldn’t go overboard with d-learning, e-learning or m-learning.
For instance, Home Depot’s online training platform, which was launched about six years ago, constitutes about 30 percent of the learning and development at the organization.
“The positive parts of it are consistency of message and knowledge, the accessibility, and it is adaptive to the learner’s knowledge level so they can move at their own pace — either slower or faster, depending on what they know,” Joyce said.
However, she added that the company isn’t planning to expand its virtual offerings anytime soon.
“To be honest, we are rethinking our entire e-learning strategy because what we’re finding is that e-learning does not work as well for many of the things that we want associates to know,” she said. “When we put together blended solutions, the e-learning piece gets done and the blended piece does not. We have learned that our associates learn best by doing, and so our challenge now is to figure out how to do that at our scale.”
“We get very high marks from our learners on e-learning, so they like it and they believe that it helps them do their job,” she added. “But given a preference, the vast majority of them would prefer to do things one-on-one or in small groups so they can do things hands-on. I think we do have an overreliance on e-learning, and so we will back off of that to some degree.”
Mattress Giant doesn’t have an online training platform at present, but they are hoping to put one in place by the end of next year. Smart explained that the company was making somewhat cautious forays into e-learning.
“We are working in that general direction,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is put a learning management system (LMS) out into the field that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles because then you have a product out there that’s not as exciting as it could be, and in a year or two years, you’re going to have to go and pay all the additional money to upgrade it anyway.”
Mattress Giant recently did a pilot program that gave employees a chance to explore a couple of online modules, which was well received.
“They were pretty excited about it, and we had a general consensus across the board that ‘Hey, we want this,’” Smart said. “[But] we will never go away from the classroom training format, because as sales associates, they need that interaction with other people, and you just don’t get that on a computer.”
Share and Share Alike
Learning strategies for retail have not been shared across the organization like they have in other industries. Smart said practitioners in this sector shouldn’t be so hush-hush, and companies should benchmark with their peers. For her part, she is a member of the Dallas Area Retail Trainers group, which has been an invaluable resource for her.
“Trying to find out what everyone else was doing was really a significant challenge,” she said. “If you are looking to start a new program or revise your program, talk to those people that you know in the business. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call a director of another retail company. Find out what they’re doing and the quickest way they went about getting to that point. That insight is priceless.”
In that spirit, Home Depot’s Joyce offered a few pieces of advice on learning strategy for her professional colleagues.
“It really has to be done from the outside in, meaning that the learning strategy should be directly related to the customer experience. The second piece is [that] I think the learning strategy needs to really reflect the complexities of the retail environment, meaning scale and scope. Third, you really have to exploit all the different learning methodologies that exist.”