Retail today moves fast. From the latest mobile device, smart appliance, or wearable wellness tracker, it’s growing more difficult for retailers to keep up with the market’s pace.
Consumers also have more access to these products than ever—and each new release offers a renewed promise to make their life better. While this ease of information empowers people, it makes it increasingly difficult to choose what’s best for their needs.
That’s why 90% of sales still happen in stores (as of 2019) even as most consumers research products online. No matter where they browse, people value retail expertise and guidance when making a purchase.
But with the growing e-commerce world, many retailers try to compete by leveraging lower prices and better promotions. This unsustainable race to the bottom doesn’t just jeopardize profits. It also overlooks a store’s most competitive advantage: delivering an exceptional customer experience.
Yet 31% of all retail employees report having no formal sales associate training, according to a study by Axonify. Without consistent engagement, they become just a passive part of the sales process.
But you don’t get highly trained associates from one-off sessions and new-hire handbooks. It’s about nurturing skill sets over time, reinforcing what they learn as it’s put to use on the floor.
Greater engagement leads to better sales, but it goes beyond that. Consistent associate training builds:
- A reliable standard of quality in the customer experience
- A deep understanding of products, recommendations, competitors, and trends
- Soft skills that improve associates’ customer understanding, boosting sales averages and upselling
- Employee satisfaction, with less turnover and costly recruitment
- Customer relationships that generate a loyalty feedback loop
This makes investing in your staff the most sustainable marketing strategy for retailers—with increasing key performance indicators (KPIs) as a natural result. This guide unpacks the value of highly trained retail associates and best practices to design a program that works.
How Sales Associate Training Benefits Retailers
Retail employees are the first face-to-face connection a customer has with your business. The training you offer ensures that they’re equipped to represent your brand and its products.
But associates are more than just a living, breathing product catalog. They have the power to impact consumer confidence throughout the shopping experience.
More Informed Sales Representatives
A survey from New Tulip Retail found that 79% of shoppers said knowledgeable store associates are important. But respondents claim retailers are not meeting their expectations. More than 80% believe they’re more informed about products than the sales associates they encounter.
As a result, buyers turn to online-only sources like Amazon. This is despite the majority wanting physical retail locations to be a part of their shopping journey. Regular training helps bridge this gap. Your associates gain the tools to be the trusted advisers that customers expect.
But today’s changing COVID-19 restrictions make traditional, classroom-style retail training more difficult—if not impossible. According to McKinsey, between 50% and 100% of in-person programs around the world were canceled in 2020. Businesses can’t afford to keep pushing pause on workplace development as we move into 2021.
Before the pandemic, more companies began adopting digital training platforms for their ability to support a strategic training design. But today, they’re key to overcoming logistical challenges.
These virtual tools integrate training right into your employees’ workflow. With mobile accessibility, employees can refer to product sales sheets, promotional terms, and training updates on the fly.
Being able to access materials right on their phone or tablet empowers retail workers to deliver a better customer experience. They have instant access to details that help them:
- Assist customers quickly
- Overcome objections
- Make relevant add-on recommendations based on your store’s data
This not only enhances the shopper’s experience with added value, but it also gets them to the register and out the door faster. In the COVID-19 era, people want to spend as little time in the store as possible. They’ll leave if they can’t get answers fast.
Best Buy saw this heightened employee engagement in action. After rolling out consistent virtual training programs, the retailer has seen its Net Promoter Score for customer satisfaction skyrocket.
An Engaging Customer Experience
Training ensures your associates develop a deep knowledge of your products. But the best programs are about creating a culture of continuous learning.
This philosophy builds interpersonal skills that help associates identify consumers’ pain points and connect them with the right solution. Knowledge is just a part of this good customer experience. Soft skills—like empathy and patience—allow associates to better understand a customer. This unravels their wants, needs, and concerns, revealing the best path to a sale.
One-off training sessions can introduce these interpersonal skills, but their mastery requires consistent practice. Best-in-class training programs focus on the process behind skill development. Using frequent, easily digestible training modules, employees practice, refresh, and advance their skills over time.
For a retail business, this leads to better knowledge retention and improved results. With this approach, your associates not only have real-time information to expertly field customer questions. They also build their proficiency in:
- Creative problem-solving to customize recommendations and pre-empt concerns
- Soft skills to identify a customer’s specific problem, so they can provide the solution
- Adapting to unexpected situations
- Recognizing buying patterns and opportunities for upselling
Take it from Dollar General, ranked as having the top retail training program by Training Magazine. The company’s focus on employee development has fueled increasing returns on investment, with:
- 9% net profit growth in a year
- 12,000 store managers promoted from within
- Historically high employee engagement scores
Improved Employee Satisfaction
Effective retail training doesn’t just meet customers’ expectations. It wins associate buy-in. Recent research shows that the majority of employees want to receive more training and skill development. But 43% say one-off, event-based training misses the mark.
Associates want impactful training embedded into their retailer’s culture, not a one-size-fits-all approach. It needs to be relevant, personalized, and easy to access.
If a retailer doesn’t deliver on this type of training, 40% of associates quit within a year—and it costs an average of $3,328 to replace each one. Investing in associate development reduces this recruitment budget, while also:
- Helping to attract better talent
- Diversifying expertise, future-proofing operations
- Motivating seasonal and part-time workers
Best Practices for Retail Associate Training
Highly trained retail associates return your investment in them—if the program meets their needs. Effective learning requires more than a transfer of information. It works to reinforce that knowledge, developing sustained changes in employee performance.
This means training:
- Is offered frequently
- Builds in opportunities for recall and practice
- Is easy to access and complete—fitting into associates’ schedules
- Incorporates follow-up and collaboration
- Is relevant to the employee’s role and desired progression
Ahead of COVID-19 restrictions, remote training options were already gaining traction. Used strategically, the platform’s functionality aligns with training best practices like repetition and recall, deepening classroom-based training retention.
Pandemic restrictions accelerated this digital shift as companies were forced to adapt. But even when business as usual resumes, Gartner predicts there will be more emphasis on virtual platforms moving forward. Remote capabilities support more resilient operations, helping businesses course-correct quickly when faced with uncertain change.
Whether your associate training goes fully digital or supplements in-person learning, better outcomes rely on your program’s design.
Provide Accessible, Consistent Training
Virtual retail training still allows for live, remote sessions. But flexible, self-paced learning offers more opportunity to deepen what associates learn.
This type of learning is convenient and user-friendly—employees can access training content from their laptop or mobile device at any time to:
- Complete training when it’s most convenient
- Review material as needed
- Find answers instantly when on the floor
- Access content like refresher videos, strengthening expertise
Surveys also show that self-guided training is the most preferred style among employees. Winning associate buy-in encourages them to engage, which is crucial for a training program to net results on the floor.
This approach is habit-forming as well, lowering the risk of knowledge gaps in times of frequent change. With associates more regularly engaged, it’s easier to communicate time-sensitive information like:
- New product releases
- Policy updates
- COVID-19 restrictions
Fuel Progress with Microlearning
Long-winded, one-off training sessions don’t help associates retain the information they need to do their jobs well. To start with, most people stop listening to a presentation after about 10 minutes. This happens even faster if they don’t find the information relevant.
But even if your training day nets more engagement, retention suffers without consistency. Psychologists refer to what’s called the “Forgetting Curve”—which suggests that 50% to 80% of what people learn in a one-hour sitting vanishes by the next day.
Virtual learning helps plug this memory leak by avoiding information overload. Learning in small doses with plenty of recall exercises leads to better skill development.
Broken down into easily digestible portions, content also becomes more relevant to everyday, on-the-job situations. As for its impact? Data shows that new employees trained in this style are 34% more likely to hit sales targets.
New Balance tested this theory with its retailers. The brand released a program of short training modules three times a year to stores carrying its products. Those retailers whose associates completed the training—such as Dick’s Sporting Goods—saw New Balance sales increase by up to 10%.
Foster Associate Development
Managing turnover is costly. But an in-and-out flow of associates can also impact quality, morale, and consumer confidence.
Employee retention makes for better business. The retailers that excel are those that offer clear paths for associates to evolve and grow.
Research shows that nine in 10 employees are more motivated and engaged in their role when they’re learning something new on the job. Meet this request—improving both their performance and loyalty—with:
- Cross-training modules setting associates up for career progression
- Materials that address knowledge or performance gaps
- Subject-matter expertise for niche product lines
Consistent microlearning serves this objective. Standardized modules ensure associates get the right training at the right time, and tools like quizzes and digital notifications keep the knowledge fresh. But from there, you can customize learning tracks that encourage advancement.
You can even blend self-paced modules with expert-led training sessions from brand advocacy experts, bringing new perspectives and collaboration. Virtual training allows employees to attend live training or access content when they want.
But the value of an excellent retail training program isn’t just about what your employees learn. It’s about how they put their skills to use on the job.
Monitoring is crucial to motivate associates, recognize development, and spot knowledge gaps. With a best-in-class digital platform integrated into your program, associates and managers can track progress in real time—and you can measure its impact.
Digital training data reports reflect your program’s success in improving KPIs. When they’re viewed against figures like sales averages, items per transaction, and employee and customer satisfaction, you see what’s working well—and where to make changes that net better results.