Digital Transformation Of The Retail Workforce Experience: The Right And Wrong Ways To Do It

Digital Transformation Of The Retail Workforce Experience: The Right And Wrong Ways To Do It
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Summary: Retailers today have innovated in eCommerce and customer experience technology, but is this enough to stay competitive as the economy faces major threats? It’s time to reimagine the retail workforce and to empower them with modern eLearning and performance enablement tools.

Sales Floor eLearning And Performance Enablement

As an industry, retail is in a particularly sensitive position at the moment. This includes big-box and large retailers, some of whom are revising their revenues downward even now, following inventory backlogs and sluggish consumer spending. The chief threat is the possibility of a significant downturn as interest rates rise and the chance of a massive, recessionary deflation increases in turn, as described by a thought leader in the New York Times [1].

As a reaction to higher borrowing costs and decreased investments, companies might begin to induce "labor market slack," creating unemployment in a very fragile economy. Meanwhile, consumers, themselves dealing with the fallout of a recession, might decrease their spending on goods. Having to do more with less, how are retailers to respond? What kinds of eLearning and performance enablement tools will help them account for such a market [2]?

Digital Transformation For The Frontline Workforce: A Solution?

Up until now, retailers have focused largely on automating and digitizing both corporate operations and customer experiences. Anyone who works in an office will know that digital platforms have become core to their daily work lives, while on the consumer side, customer data is endlessly analyzed and the customer experience increasingly automated. Think of proposed "VR" shopping for consumers and self-service kiosks, for example.

While up to 80% of purchases are still made in brick-and-mortar stores, it is time for retailers to adopt technology enabling their frontline workforce. These are the individuals and teams who are directly responsible for moving inventory, retaining customers, and making high-impact sales—and it’s time to empower the large sales force for success. Yes, this is counterintuitive: corporate workers can easily access software and apps at their desks, while the frontline associates of large retailers cannot freely use software applications while on the job. Even if such software were accessible through their mobile devices, you don’t necessarily want your frontline employees standing around on their phones. Ironically, you might imagine, technology meant to increase productivity might end up dragging it down.

Yet this is a new era, one with new innovations, disruptions, and realities, which means that retailers must think outside the box. While retailers invest in online eCommerce, they’re leaving their most valuable resources—the people who sell their products—stranded on the sales floor without the data and automation that are powering the rest of the retail industry. The whole of the shopping experience, from the supply chain [3] to the buyer’s journey [4], has been transformed and enriched with modern technology, except the workforce itself. So, if you’re a retailer, what kind of workforce performance enablement tools should you look for, and how might your frontline use such technology? What does a use case actually look like?

Wield Retail Performance Enablement Tools, In The Right Way

Retail training is notoriously sensitive [5], if not often downright bad ("Most retail employees receive no training," writes Retail Dive). Clearly, this can result in consequences for stores, as untrained or poorly trained employees push customers away. The solution here is to find a way to provide smart L&D tools to retail employees, technology which has helped so many enterprises in industries that range from direct selling to partner enablement and beyond. Such tools automate training, ensure knowledge absorption, and track performance. This leads to a consistently high-performing workforce.

The challenge is how to do so for the retail workforce, for the reasons we discussed earlier—associates don’t necessarily have a lot of spare time for learning about the best customer service practices or diving deeper into current incentives and promotions to drive personal sales. The answer here, in the main, lies in the problem of system architecture. Though that sounds complex, it really just refers to how the platform they’re using has been built, designed, and integrated: how and what kind of learning gets delivered to them; how dynamic it is, how adaptive, and how focused on driving key metrics.

Learning has to be as smartly relevant and as targeted to each individual employee as possible and must be available on demand for them to use—the problem with so much training and development, of course, being that it simply spits out employees without helping them improve continuously; without staying with them every step of the way as long as they are with the company. Without these elements, it’s hard to enable employees to learn, develop, and start selling more merchandise more effectively.

If you can find eLearning and performance enablement tools that retail employees want to and do actively use, the results for your retail business will be significant, in that such tools are built to drive sales and customer retention en masse, across the workforce. Let’s break it down into two parts: technology that’s relevant and automatically targeted for each retail employee, and technology that is available on demand when they want it.

1. Relevant And Targeted

The key challenge here is to ensure that when employees have downtime on the sales floor (which often doesn’t last long at all, particularly in the holiday season) they’re accessing learning that’s going to quickly provide eLearning that corresponds to a unique need of theirs, not some kind of information that everyone on the sales floor is getting at once. If I’m an associate making the minimum wage, why would I click on such a notification?

What you want to look for is a platform that enriches and personalizes the learning experience as much as possible, using multiple data flows. That way, the moment the employee receives a notification from their eLearning app on their mobile device, they will see that it’s exactly what they need at that point in time, for instance, how to sell a particular inventory item they have been struggling to move, but that will help them earn a large commission during a week when they’re underselling. They have a few minutes free; they’ll open the training, which has adaptively been presented to them to reinforce product knowledge. It’s relevant to their immediate knowledge gaps and personalized for their needs in terms of both learning and sales performance.

This is one direction in which eLearning and performance enablement technology can move: from the technology toward the employee, with the app proactively triggering relevant learning using past and present performance data. Yet no performance enablement app is complete unless it allows the employee to train and learn on demand.

2. On-Demand Availability

No technology can completely automate the human experience. Humans are spontaneous; they will always have needs and desires that technology cannot sense. For instance, the iPhone—one of the smartest technologies in existence—has a nasty habit of showing people pictures they don’t necessarily want to see.

For retail, the key here is to use a platform that enables on-demand learning, training, and upskilling. The employee’s app should let them search topics at the moment they want to find them. That way, if this or that employee suddenly wants a refresher on the advantages of purchasing a specific model of sofa, they can search it in the app’s topic library and find a deep dive designed by corporate HQ for the benefit of employees such as themselves. They can become an "expert" on whichever products, sales strategies, customer retention methods, and other information they feel will help them upskill.

In other words, your app should be able to intelligently surface relevant and targeted training that is fully integrated with each individual’s performance data. Yet it’s just as important that the employee be able to upskill as they wish. The app should then be able to read this data, draw conclusions, and update its approach to relevant and targeted learning based on what it itself learns from their on-demand training. This would be truly smart performance enablement technology for retail, learning about the employee even as they learn.

Retailers Must Digitally Transform The Workforce To Stay Competitive

For retailers today, with so many threats in evidence, the need to innovate on the sales floor is real. It’s happened before—for instance, Walmart developed a whole new paradigm for sales associates by treating them as part of a culture and a family. Like we’ve described, the clearest and most effective way to innovate the workforce is by adopting digital transformation strategies like those that have worked so well for corporate and customer populations, such as eLearning and performance enablement tools. These tools, however, have to make the learning experience as relevant and as targeted as possible to each individual retail employee by harnessing sales data, and it should be able to learn from the employee themselves as they search for on-demand upskilling. Otherwise, employees cannot grow in the way they need to in order to combat the complex challenges of retail today.


[1] The First Global Deflation Has Begun, and It’s Unclear Just How Painful It Will Be

[2] eLearning Technologies That Boost Employee Performance

[3] How Supply Chain Automation is Changing the Landscape


[5] Retailers Losing Customers Over Employee Experiences and Training

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