The organized retail sector has several unique characteristics. One of the more challenging and interesting ones as a learning technologist is the geographically distributed nature of the business. I like to think of retail businesses as trees. The retail stores serve as the leaves that absorb the much-needed sunlight (sales) and oxygen (inventory), and pass down the nutrients (cash flow) into the trunk (corporate P&L).
Despite the critical role of stores and their staff to ensure the survival and growth of the business, store associates have not had the same level of access to learning and development programs and technology available to corporate employees. E.g. LMS implemented at headquarters are typically not accessible by store associates, and are at best, accessible only to store managers. One may say this is not for the lack of willingness, but rather the lack of computers, classrooms and space makes it challenging to implement such programs. Moreover, the high-churn and seasonal hiring makes the business case for return-on-investment on such programs even more challenging.
Having spent a good part of 2013 implementing online learning for more efficient and effective onboarding and training of store associates, the turn of the year is an appropriate time to synthesize the reasons why it makes “so much” sense for stores to take advantage of next-generation learning technologies:
1. Younger workforce
Millennials currently comprise of roughly 35% of the workforce, but by 2014, are projected to be 47%. (Source: http://blog.socialcast.com/the-generation-gap-in-your-office/ . These ratios are likely to be even higher for the retail sector.
The millennial generation is characterized as wired, global, mobile, interdependent and all about autonomy and control. As retirement parties become more frequent, the rapid growth of younger employees in the workplace requires every retail organization to revisit their talent development programs.
The instructor led classroom sessions are just not going to be adequate, by themselves. The key to engaging and educating the younger staff is to flip the classroom – combine instructor led and experiential programs with self-paced bite sized online learning.
2. Increase in seasonal hiring
According to the National Retail Foundation, US retailers hired over 720,000 seasonal staff 2012, which was a 13 percent year-on-year increase from 2011. Given the short employment tenure of these hires, a cost-effective and time-efficient approach to onboarding and training these seasonal hires is a must.
MindTickle is a technology company on a mission to provide engaging and effective online learning programs, with a specific focus on the retail sector. MindTickle’s award-winning software platform enables retailers to deliver social and gamified onboarding programs for store associates on iPads and tablet devices. MindTickle’s best practice templates for new hire orientation, product training and sales training enables organizations to create engaging online training programs from existing videos, PPTs and documents. MindTickle data demonstrates that the introduction of online training programs saves an average of 4-10 payroll hours, and can cut down onboarding time for seasonal hires in half (when pre-boarding is employed).
3. Increasing affordability and availability of tablets/iPads at stores
As per a recent report, the sales of handheld point-of-sale (POS) devices such as iPads and Android based tablets is increase by 380% from 2013 to 2017. At the same time the shipments of traditional rugged handhelds are estimated to fall short of forecasts by up to 20% Source:http://www.ihlservices.com/ihl/product_detail.cfm?page=Store%20Automation&ProductID=83
The availability of these tablets at stores presents a very real opportunity. Retail organizations can extract a lot more value out of their investment in these devices by leveraging them for onboarding and training of store associates. Having observed the back-office of many retail stores, I see another huge advantage of tablet based learning – the portable form factor of these devices also makes lot of sense for the space constrained store back-office.
4. The need for agility and integrated experience for customers in-store and online
While a strong case exists for online learning at stores, the traditional approach to e-learning of creating rigid learning modules will not work. A technical limitation of the predominant (Flash) e-learning technology is that it doesn’t work on iPads. More importantly, in order to meet the fast-changing product lines and positioning, learning programs have to be designed with content agility as one of its core requirements.
The next-generation online learning platforms such as MindTickle offer a flexible cloud base solution with powerful content editing features that enables instructors to update content at will and in real-time, by clicking a few buttons on an intuitive web based interface. In the offline world, such agility would require huge investments in train-the-trainer programs every time the course content of the training programs is updated.
5. Ease of management and tracking
We all love the ease of online banking – one can track the account balance, pay the bills and even deposit cheques thus eliminating the need to visit a branch location for all practical purpose. When applied to learning, online learning offers ease of tracking learning completion and scores of each staff member. One can assign role based learning modules, send reminders and even certify the readiness of store associates for on-the-floor hands-on experience at the store once they have completed all their online onboarding modules.
While most of such tracking features have been available in traditional LMS systems, most of these systems have not been designed for the specific requirements of retail store environment. The next-generation cloud based learning platforms such as MindTickle offer visual dashboards and insightful analytics that can be filtered and managed at a store, region or market level.