December 3, 2021

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How to Build a Retail Employee Training Program (And Why You Should)

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An employee training and development program is designed to give your retail staff the hard and soft skills they need to do their job well. 

Without proper guidance and education, your retail employees can’t perform at the level you expect. You must communicate effectively, and it’s your responsibility to ensure they fully understand your expectations and their role in your shop.

In other words: the success of your business depends on your training and development program.

However, 32% of retail employees say they don’t receive any formal training. That’s a higher percentage of untrained staff than any other industry.

To help you overcome some of the challenges in creating an employee training and development program for your retail store, we talked to a number of experts, business owners, and retailers to get their best practices for staff training.

Table of Contents

What is employee training and development?

Employee training and development programs aim to give each team member the skills they need to perform a job to the best of their ability. They are intensive training programs usually given when a new employee joins a company, but continues as they progress in their role. 

Retailers can use staff training programs to fill knowledge gaps, teach staff how to use in-store equipment, and develop the soft skills they’ll need to communicate with customers effectively. 

Why is retail employee training important?

Employee training is critical to the success of your store as your employees will be the people on the front lines, spending the most time with your customers. Effective staff training can provide multiple benefits.

Increase revenue and productivity

Investing in an employee training program is exactly that: an investment. 

According to Brennan McEachran, CEO of Hypercontext, “When you invest in your employees, you’re lifting up the overall knowledge and talent of your entire organization. The growth of your employees goes hand in hand with the growth of your company.

“The sentiment of “I don’t want to invest in employees because when they leave it’s a waste of our money” is a terrible one to have as a leader. Think of employee training programs as a strategy to help with retention while also elevating your business. Just like you’d invest money into paid ads or conferences, investing in the intellectual talent of your team will help grow your business.”

Improve retention and morale

The retail industry is plagued by low staff retention.

The average staff turnover rate for retail stores is more than 60%. It’s estimated that retailers lose $19 billion in new staff costs as a result of high turnover.

The good news is that a training program can convince retail staff to stick around. Research found that one in three employees quit their jobs last year because they didn’t learn new skills or improve their performance. 

More autonomy and less oversight

How much more enjoyable is running a retail store when you don’t have to micromanage staff? 

With proper employee training and development programs, you can give people the skills and knowledge they need to complete day-to-day tasks. That gives staff more autonomy over the work they do, and you the extra time to focus on bigger-picture strategies and business development. 

How to build an employee training and development program

In order to effectively train your employees, you need to first build an efficient training and development program.

Choose staff that align with your culture

Company culture describes the values, beliefs, and attitudes your retail business has. Every employee needs to buy into company culture, not just to give consistent customer service, but so they feel like they’re working toward a bigger-picture vision. 

For example, Shopify’s company culture focuses on five core values:

  • People first
  • Autonomy rules
  • Conformity kills creativity
  • Propelled by ambition
  • Learn with the best

But developing a company culture starts long before your training program. It begins with choosing the right employees

The camaraderie of our team is at the forefront of our training process, as it sets the tone and energy of our company and leaks into every aspect of our work.

Alissa Crane, assistant manager, Dr Drone

Alissa continues, “When the core team is happy and everyone genuinely enjoys what they are doing, work performance and customer service run at their best. Therefore, before training begins, we believe our most essential and effective training technique is selecting employees that fit our company culture.” 

Align with business goals

What do you want to achieve with your retail business? 

Goals can range anywhere from opening 50+ global brick-and-mortar stores to giving in-store experiences that encourage customers to share their experience with friends and family.

Each of these goals would need a slightly different development program, depending on the role your retail staff have.

If you’re focusing on opening more stores, for example, you’d likely need to invest more time in teaching staff how to manage a store without your guidance. On the other hand, if you’re prioritizing customer experiences, you’ll need to train employees on what those look like (and how to deliver them).

Identify needs and gaps

A successful retail store balances many moving parts. It’s not uncommon for retailers to have staff who are experts in one skill, but not as strong in others. 

Identify any needs and gaps in your current team. Can they use your POS system? Are they well educated on the products they’re selling? How well can they design a visual merchandising display? Each of those tasks has different skills—some of which your team could be lacking.

Justin Singer, the owner, manager, and trainer at Mekanix Calisthenics Gym, recommends identifying these needs and gaps during the recruitment process:

“I find the most important first step to training new employees is to document, in a very detailed fashion, all job requirements and what the job will be like before you even start looking for someone to fill the position.”

Justin adds, “You will end up doing this sooner or later, as every new employee wants to know their job description. You may as well do it before you even begin the recruiting process.

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Solicit feedback from staff

An employee training program isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it thing. As you start your training program, your staff might have ideas on how to improve the content, delivery, or format. 

Solicit feedback from staff members to see if they have any ideas on how to improve—especially if they have experience working on other retail stores. 

Have they taken part in an employee training program at a previous retail job? What did they like (and not like) about it? The answers could help you build a training program that convinces employees to work for you, rather than a competitor with limited training. 

Give constructive feedback

Feedback is a two-way street. A crucial part of your employee training and development program is to give (and receive) constructive feedback to people working through the course. 

Vicky Lirantonakis, co-owner, Best Dressed, explains:

“Since we want our employees to feel empowered, we encourage them to use their best judgement in all situations, and we give them feedback to help them improve or even to tell them we would’ve handled it the same way.”

Vicky goes on to explain, “We did this with our latest new hire, Chloe. When she had a question about how to handle a situation, we talked it out with her on the phone. Once she decided how she would like to handle it, we gave her feedback to let her know what we might have done differently. 

“The result was that she learned how owners of the company think and is better equipped to make decisions on her own, in the future.” 

Set and track measurable goals/milestones

Once you’ve got feedback from your retail staff, think about how you can incorporate goal-setting into each team member’s development program.

Let the employee know how you define success for the first 90 days of the job on day one. For example, you may expect them to be proficient in a certain computer system, to have produced a specific number of proposals, have a sales pipeline of a certain size, and so on.

Justin continues, “Take the time to go over everything with them when they start. Then schedule 30-, 60-, and 90-day checkpoint meetings on day one. I usually schedule each of these as lunches and let the new employee know this is a chance for us to touch base and see how things are going.

You can even use this as an opportunity to personalize your training program. 

If you have a new retail assistant, for example, their goal might be to give a short presentation to a co-worker on a product you stock to improve their knowledge. For experienced store managers looking for extra responsibility to manage another local store, that might be to increase foot traffic to their existing location by 20%. 

Popular types of employee training methods

  1. Instructor-led training
  2. E-learning and web-based training
  3. Hands-on and in-person training
  4. Lectures
  5. Group discussion and team-building activities
  6. Role playing
  7. Self-instruction
  8. Audiovisual learning
  9. Orientations
  10. Case studies
  11. Job rotations and shadowing
  12. Simulations
  13. Mentoring and coaching 

1. Instructor-led training

Instructor-led training happens when an existing team member teaches new hires how to do a specific task. It’s a good option if you’re teaching hard skills with a strict process—like stocking inventory, using your POS system, or processing returns.

2. E-learning/web-based training

Do you want staff to continue your training and development program outside of the store? 

There’s the option to upload training courses to an online learning platform like Teachable or Podia. Retailers can also lean on professional online training resources such as Shopify Compass

Each e-learning course can have different training modules for things that don’t need in-person tutoring. That could include information on improving product knowledge, understanding the psychology behind why people buy, and customer service best practices. 

Turning your development program into an online learning course makes it easily accessible. You can upload videos, transcripts, and audio clips to your program. However, because staff often need to complete them in their own time, they might struggle to find the time to concentrate on doing so. 

3. Hands-on or in-person training

Hands-on training is another method retailers can use to bring staff up to speed with best practices. Also known as experiential learning, it works by asking experienced employees to supervise new staff. 

This kind of training is conducted on the spot and is based on the unique needs of the employee. It incorporates real-life activities. Although this is a time-consuming and tiresome strategy, it can be beneficial if the right resources are available.

4. Lectures

Lectures have a bad reputation of being long and boring. That can be true. However, retailers can use this type of oral presentation to deliver important information to a bigger team. 

Lectures are used to deliver important information, answer questions, and have group discussions. You could use them to motivate staff to reach an upcoming goal, or to explain the strategy for a new pop-up store you’re opening in the local mall. 

Just remember to keep them short and sweet. Within an hour, people won’t remember 50% of the information you gave them.

5. Group discussion and team-building activities

Team-building activities are powerful ways to bring your retail team together—especially when combined with training. 

Research shows that inter-team socialization improves communication by more than 50%. Plus, more than half of employees say a strong sense of community convinces them to stay at a company longer than they anticipated.

So, how does this relate to your training program? If you’re teaching them to create a visual merchandising display, appeal to people’s competitive streaks by dividing your staff into teams. Give a reward to the team who makes the best storefront display. 

Or, put staff into groups of two and turn your store into a “minefield.” Have one wear a blindfold and the other guide them from the door to the checkout desk. It’ll put their communication skills to the test. 

6. Role playing

No two days are the same when you’re working in a retail store. But there are some common occurrences that retail staff should be trained to handle—especially when it comes to customer satisfaction.

Role playing happens when you act out a scenario. So, as part of your training program, have other team members act as difficult customers. This could be shoppers who:

  • Ask for a return
  • Complain about faulty products
  • Ask to speak with a manager (who is unavailable) 
  • Need convincing on a product’s price 
  • Ask for a discount

New salespeople need to know how to handle those objections (and customer complaints). Giving them a trial run via role playing will help them prepare for any difficult conversations in the future. 

7. Self-instruction

Ask a retail associate to explain why they do a certain task, and I’ll bet they struggle—despite doing it every day. It’s easy to teach a repeatable process. But helping staff understand why it needs to be done that way, not so much. 

Self-instruction is a training method that works using self-talk. Include it as part of your employee training and development program by asking staff to talk through the steps they’re doing, and why. (Bonus if you can tie this in with another method like mentorship.)

For example: if you have a retail associate who knows how to track inventory, ask them to walk through the process with new hires. Turning a mental to-do list into an explanation can help staff realize why it’s important. 

8. Audiovisual training 

It’s almost guaranteed that people on your team have different learning styles. Audiovisual training appeals to two of them—visual and auditory learners—using videos, slideshows, and audio files to teach.

You can tie audiovisual training into other delivery formats, like: 

  • Online video courses 
  • Lectures with presentations
  • DVDs and movies

Granted, you’ll cater to different learning styles. But it’s not too different from watching a TV or movie—an activity most people enjoy doing.

9. Orientations

Brought a new team member on board? An orientation, also known as an onboarding program, is the fastest way to introduce them to the team and explain their new responsibilities.

Orientations are usually delivered on a one-to-one basis. Staff typically have a mentor who helps them out during their first few days, along with an information packet that explains key information like:

  • How to clock in and out
  • The company culture
  • What their job responsibilities are
  • Who to ask if they need help
  • Where the bathroom is 

Remember: the first impression you make on new hires has a huge impact on how long they’ll stick around. Most new employees decide whether they feel “at home” in a new job during their first three weeks. Make sure your training investment doesn’t go to waste.

10. Case studies

Case studies are real-life stories of how your products have helped a customer solve a problem or meet their goals. They’re not just good sales assets; case studies are fantastic assets for training your team.

Let’s put that into practice and say one of your customers wrote a review. It explained how your workout equipment helped them lose 11 pounds. Chances are, losing weight is a pain point most of your other customers have. So, give that information to your sales team and use it to inspire your training program. 

Show them how to promote the case study to new shoppers who are on the fence about buying a treadmill. Have the salesperson who closed the original sale deliver mini-training on how they did it. It’s like giving staff a blueprint to make customers happy. 

11. Job rotations and shadowing

On-the-job training is a quick way to bring new team members up to speed in a certain role. Shadowing is a technique you can use to do this. It partners new employees (or those wanting to move into a different role) with a team member already doing it. 

The most popular shadowing partnership is with new sales associates. A new hire fresh out of college with no retail experience can follow an experienced assistant around the sales floor. They’ll learn how to organize stock, talk to customers, and take payment at the checkout desk

It’s also a great way to bring temporary staff who don’t necessarily need a lengthy onboarding process up-to-speed with their new responsibilities.

12. Simulations

Kinesthetic learners pick up new skills and information by doing something practical. Simulations give them a way to do that individually by simulating real-life situations they’ll likely handle in their role—like handling customer complaints—before it happens for real.

New technology is emerging that helps retailers train their staff with simulations. One of those technologies is augmented reality (AR)—a live video stream that overlays product information over items in your store.

Tools like Blippar overlay product information (like availability and colorways) on an item in the store. It’s a great tool for educating retail associates about new products.

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13. Mentoring and coaching

Direct mentoring of new retail staff can take time, but it’s a great way to bring them up to speed—especially if they’ve never worked in retail before. 

Mentoring works by partnering newer team members with experienced staff in a role they aspire to be in. Their mentor gives them guidance and feedback and shows them the ropes.

Last year, we overhauled our onboarding program and threw out all of the standard documentation we had used for years. We found that when we dumped documentation on new hires, many failed to prioritize the information or were simply overwhelmed.

Alex explains, “We now use a mentorship-based onboarding program as a means of facilitating information transfer and training. I have seen a reduction in turnover since we started this new approach.” 

How to choose the right staff-training method

So now that you’re familiar with the various employee training methods available, how do you choose the right one for your business?

What are the objectives of your training program?

Earlier, we touched on the fact that every training program should tie into business goals. Think about this when choosing the methods you’ll be using to deliver your training. 

Let’s put this into practice. The objective for your training program is to show staff what stellar customer service looks like. 

Hold group discussions to talk about instances where customers have had incredible in-store experiences. The sales associate who delivered that experience can explain what they did. Other members in the team can quiz them to hear about why (and how) they did it. 

Role playing a new customer entering the store gives them a chance to practice what they’ve learned, too. 

When developing a training program for employees, it’s critical to establish meaningful goals and objectives that go above and beyond the norm. Companies must consider what kind of business impact they hope to accomplish through training

Tanya continues, “Creating the correct training initiatives will not only satisfy employees but will also affect the bottom line, by reviewing what is occurring within the organization and identifying chances for improvement.” 

Who is the intended audience?

When developing an employee training program, inclusivity is crucial. You need to make sure that each team member is able to access, understand, and use the training materials you’re giving them. Otherwise, they’re going to waste. 

Inclusivity might mean including captions for videos in your online course. Or holding in-person training during the middle of a school day because most of your team members are parents. Gabriel Dungan, CEO and Founder of ViscoSoft, explains:

Ease of delivery means that employees can easily access lessons via online training, or for in-person training, they don’t need to travel to attend a workshop, or if they do, it’s at a nearby location.

“We offer training in multiple ways—formal trainer-led sessions (in-person or remote), self-paced online learning, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, and mentoring.

“Some training is done company-wide, but most training is done individually. This ties in to the ease-of-access key point, as well as relevance, with employees choosing what they want to learn.”

It’s also worth thinking about the learning styles your employees prefer. Some will be kinesthetic learners who pick up new things by doing them. Others can be auditory learners who absorb new information through lectures. You won’t know unless you ask. 

How can you track success?

Monitoring the success of your employee training program is crucial. It’ll help you understand your team’s preferred learning style and discover new training ideas to improve engagement.

For each training method you’re thinking of including in your development program, think about how you’ll measure its success. Here are some examples: 

  • If you’re delivering instructor-led training on how to manage inventory, track order accuracy over the next few weeks. 
  • If you’re using lectures to deliver team-wide training, send out surveys asking people what they thought—and whether they learned anything new. 
  • If you’re using case studies, ask staff to report back when they’ve replicated it (either successfully or unsuccessfully).

How can you iterate and improve?

Any employee training program is a work in progress. Regardless of which training method you’re using, bear in mind that you probably won’t get it perfect the first time round. And that’s OK. 

Use your staff feedback to fine tune your training program. For example, if you find that new hires feel intimidated when they shadow an existing employee, make sure your orientation training reinforces the fact they can always ask for help. 

Training is an ongoing process. Even at the highest level at our company, we’re still learning and unpacking new ways to excel.

Don’t let retail sales training fall on the back burner

As you can see, there’s more to retail training than educating staff on company policies.

Give mini-training sessions on how to use your order management system. Role play customer interactions. Train sales staff on the tactics it takes to turn first-time store visitors into repeat customers.

The more you can set your staff up for success, the bigger the impact on your bottom line.

Put training on easy mode with Shopify POS

Keep your most-used apps, discounts, and products at your staff’s fingertips to speed up checkout and make training a breeze. Also, leverage custom staff permissions to delegate with peace of mind and motivate staff to grow with increased responsibilities.

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