Retail Education: Training employees for greater success, productivity

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Sandeep Kumar
Sandeep Kumar
A multimedia journalist with over eleven years of experience in print and digital media, Sandeep Kumar is assistant editor with Images Group. Books, retail, sports and cinema are an inextricable part of his life.

The Indian retail industry is very vast and is considered to be a platform which has employment for all. Be it the educated, barely educated or the uneducated, the skilled or the unskilled, labours or managers, everyone can find some kind of employment in this industry. The reason for this endless employment opportunity is simple – the Indian retail industry has been on a continuous growth spree since its inception. With each passing day, plenty of retail space is being created, and along with this come employment opportunities.

There was a time, when making a career in the retail industry was considered an easy thing. Ideally, departmental stores, kiranas, local shops, factory outlets, warehouses, retail outlets etc. were the commonest areas of interest for an average individual seeking a job in retail. Store owners met and hired dozens of applicants seeking jobs, every single day.

India has the highest density of retail outlets in the world – for every 1,000 persons there are 15 retail outlets in the country. The overall size of the retail market here is estimated at Rs 15 lakh crore at present. Out of this, 4 percent of retail trade is conducted in the organised sector, while the remaining 96 percent is in the unorganised sector. Globalisation and economic liberalisation have opened new doors, pulling in retailers, brands and trends to the country.

In this robust sector, the demand for skilled retail associates is never ending. There is mostly always a shortage of trained, informed staff. It has been estimated that India will require around 15 million trained retail staffers by the year 2020 according to Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT).

However, it’s no longer as simple as just walking into a store, handing in your resume and walking out with a job. The complex
nature of the industry, the influx of foreign brands into India and the ushering in of a technology-led era have led to retailers seeking special requirements from candidates. The explosion of e-commerce on the Indian retail scene too has necessitated hiring of trained retail professionals.

Anurag Malik, Partner – People & Organization, Advisory Services, EY, explains this in a report titled ‘Future of Jobs in India: A 2022 Perspective’: “The new business models such as e-commerce and mobile based e-tailing are increasingly becoming popular in India across Tier I, II and III cities. The impact of this growth is already visible on the job market. E-commerce companies are creating new job profiles in logistics, warehousing, web and app design, system integration, customer service, big data and machine learning. Hence, the need of the hour is to acquire new skill set through training, learning and development, adopt technology and be market ready for the changing job roles in the retail sector.”

Times have changed and with it, the retail industry. The sector is facing challenges like never before, a major one being in attracting and retaining career staff . In fact, the retail industry in India is competing with other high growth sectors for skilled recruits – recruits who won’t simply stand in a store and sell, but who will also get involved with and contribute towards taking business forward. This demand for highly professional, skilled and trained employees has made ‘Retail Education’ a necessity in India.

What is Retail Education

The end game of all brick-and-mortar retailers is to attract shoppers, but every single person doesn’t always convert into a paying customer. Converting walk-in consumers into paying consumers is a task for retailers. According to a recent study by PwC, shoppers want human interaction when they go into a store.
They don’t want to use self-service technology or talk to robots. In fact, 59 percent of global respondents in the survey said they felt brands had lost touch with the human element of customer experience.

Take for example any Apple store. These stores don’t have a single till point in sight. Instead, there are retail associates moving around assisting and educating customers, with a mobile POS device in one hand.

This serves to do many things at once – it leads to a great consumer experience, which leads to increased sales. It also empowers the retail employee, who armed with knowledge, tech know-how and the freedom to move around and interact with consumers manages to work the shop floor better, interacting more with and engaging consumers and selling more, while delivering that crucial personal experience.

In order to build retail sales, retailers needs to create and fine-tune a retail sales training plan, assess employee associates, choose the best systems to help and inspect what the consumer expects. All this comes under the ambit of retail education. For some retailers, this knowledge comes with experience, while others need to hire professionals, qualified individuals with degree to take it forward.

One company which has been working out solutions for companies who feel the need to better train their retail employees is Yacobian Top-Line Solutions.

So, what does retail education entail? Briefly, retail education provides an aspiring employee the knowledge and training – through workshops – required to excel at the job. It also arms workers with requisite skills and information on latest technologies being used by the retail sector, so that they can get a head start in the industry.

Benefits of Retail Education

Training and development programs are not only important for boosting sales, but also help businesses run better, promote employee job satisfaction, and give both retailers and consumers a better insight into the business model.

Retailers who embrace the training route find an unexpected benefit: employees pushing back with questions, contributing insights, establishing new templates for success and creating their own dynamic networks of internal contacts for greater productivity.

Some of the benefits of retail education are:

Brand Image: Sales associates are the biggest brand ambassadors that a company can hire. Training them, empowering them with knowledge about the product only helps enhance the sales ratio of a brand/ company. While product knowledge is important, teaching your team how to sell is equally important. Associates must be able to communicate clearly with customers, connect with them on an emotional level, and have the ability to give them real-world examples of how a product can be used. Training them with better communication skills will help in generating happy and satisfied consumers which will automatically help in building a brand’s image.

Creates Better Sales Associates: When your associates are selling more, it’s not only a win-win situation for the company. Knowledgeable employees who are empowered to learn, grow, and achieve success will generally show more loyalty and commitment in the long run.

“We are training our staff to be more intuitive in their communication with their customers so that they are able to engage with them at an emotional level and understand what their needs are. This will empower them to serve the store’s customers in a more meaningful way,” adds Venkateshwar Kumar, CEO of Nilgiris.

“Since the last mile connect of all retail businesses happens by an associate, proper training, skilling and education can make a big difference. Impact on the brand and service happens at the point of contact. On the other hand, the curation of the product and services is done at the back office or the head office. Every function, therefore, has to be customer-centric so that the experience of buying and using the product is a seamless experience,” states Nagesh.

Purpose of Retail Training

The purpose of the retail education/ training is to focus and build a roadmap to the future, to overcome adverse situations in the business successfully and also to strategize to avoid such situations. Another reason is to decode reasons behind businesses losing consumers and ways in which they can upgrade themselves and retain consumers. A good retail sales training strategy should include the following:

– A customer journey map that includes the path he takes from a brand’s company website to his front door, from the first engagement of the shopper by an associate to the close of the sale, from the delivery of the product to the follow-up and re-engagement.

– Specific on-boarding materials and training that answer a new employee’s top questions. A good idea is to use a poll to shortlist FAQs by employees prior to their start date so retailers are ready to address concerns.

– Product knowledge training on the retailer’s top 25 most popular products – What is the brand known for? What are the opportunities to add-on? It’s important that retailers address all these queries so that employees have the ability to compare and contrast, know what competitors offer, and how to overcome common obstacles.

Means of Retail Training

Retail training is all about studying consumer behavior and work according to it. It covers step-by-step engagement plans adopted by retailers for better functioning, and ultimately enhanced consumer experience and increased sales. This behavioral training includes:

– Greeting shoppers as you would favourite friends coming to your house.

– To find that one specific in common which most consumers like and use it as a medium of contact between employees and customers.

– Do not ask too many questions. Instead, let consumers speak and tell you what it is exactly that they’re looking for.

– Do not rush in for an up sell or add-on additional product. Wait for the right time till the customer wants to explore further.

– Train staff to deal with a sudden rush of shoppers in stores and help them understand that customers aren’t indecisive. It is imperative that retail associates appreciate the fact that consumers want to be treated special at stores where they are paying hard-earned money for a product or service.

What Retailers Want

The success of a retail education/ training program doesn’t just rely on teaching methods. It also hinges on inherent attitudes and values of the staff. As Bruce Nordstrom, former chairman of international retailer Nordstrom puts it: “We can hire nice people and teach them to sell, but we can’t hire salespeople and teach them to be nice.” Therefore, it is advisable to hire trainable individuals with the right attitude. It is an easier – and of course intelligent – move to hire and train a positive person, who’s open to learning, than it is to change someone’s default mindset, attitude and disposition.

“At IKEA India, we recruit by values. It is more about understanding the person whom we are interviewing. We like to understand personal values of a candidate and how these come out in typical behaviour in everyday life. I like to listen to the ‘real stuff ’, like stories about how they have created togetherness and made things simpler. We believe that it is only together that we can achieve what we are achieving. It also means it does not matter where you come from, whether you have a degree or not – we all believe in the same values,” says Anna Carin Månsson, Country HR Manager, IKEA India.

“The next core value we stress on is simplicity. We try to keep things simple. We have a simple and flat structure at IKEA, a simple way of talking to each other, a simple way of behaving. Simplicity allows us to focus on our tasks, on the right things,” she adds.

“At IKEA, we always go for the new and improved, so modern thinking, bringing in innovation, and thinking differently, is also at the core of our value. We believe equality works better and we are committed to hire 50 percent women co-workers at all levels,” she further states.

IKEA invests in the development of co-workers by offering a variety of internal training programs –for those who want to learn something new and grow. IKEA also encourages co-workers to create a development plan and co-workers help to set their goals for the coming year and the future with their managers.

“We have co-workers from DISHA programme, and recently, we have in-house assemblers, forklift drivers and Urban Clap carpenters who have been given trainings in their respective functions. IKEA has contributed to the training of the carpenters on UrbanClap’s platform, thereby, skilling them to become professional IKEA assemblers,” says Månsson.

According to BS Nagesh, attitude, life journey, alignment to the purpose of serving the customer are critical traits required in a retail associate.

“The rest of the learnings are acquired learning which can be done in a classroom or through education program Since retail deals with large number of people as employees and customer, empathy to human beings is very important lesson to be learnt or understood,” he says, highlighting the hiring practices at TRRAIN.

The Pros & Cons of Retail Training

Retail training is a small duration thing. As the retail trends change every now and then, retailers aim to keep their staff/ employees updated to the basic things revolving around the trend. However, there are brands that hire professional with degrees and experience gained from the foreign and Indian universities. The types of retail sales training are as follows:

– In-Person Retail Sales Training: This training works in two ways. First, a dedicated on-staff trainer, hired by the company/ brand goes around the stores conducting training sessions. Second, an external trainer comes to company gatherings at stores or regions to conduct workshops, which could be a two-three day event. This type of training has the benefit of face-to-face training which helps associates excel at their work. It also helps in understand how individuals learn, understand and then implement what they’re being taught. Face-to-face training is usually very effective because it can immediately be corrected, explained and associates can be acknowledged.

The flipside is that it can be difficult to keep the attention of so many people during a training session. If found uninteresting, most associates lose interest and do not pay attention to what the trainer is saying. If too much information is given, associates tend to forget the key notes, so a trainer must be articulate, able to hold interest using anecdotes and present his material in a well-thought out manner. Also, associates should be able to train at any location and in any language of choice.

– Online Retail Sales Training: Online training is another trendy method of keeping associates up to date. This training can be given anywhere in the world, due to its flexible nature – both in terms of location and timing. Associates are encouraged to ask questions online and they receive answers in real time. The best online training programs have comprehensive tracking and reporting tools, allowing management to see how their employees are faring at an ‘at-a-glance’ basis. Management can also view names of employees who have been certified by completing their training.

However, for the functioning of the online medium, there is a requirement of digital devices – mainly laptops, a working Internet connection, and also an environment to gather all the equipment required for a workshop, in a comfortable and safe place.

– Retail Training Degree from a University/ College: This approach is gaining maximum eyeballs in the retail industry. Many universities and colleges in India have introduced full courses on different aspects of retail training since today’s modern and tech-savvy retailers are looking for associates who are pre-trained and do not need any guidance in the initial stages. It is actually an easy way to pick up the associates via college campus procedure and hire them at different stores and locations in India. Some bigger brands have started taking advantage of these courses, sending their best staff to attend them for small durations. Employees trained at these universities can then impart their learnings to other staff members.

“At TRRAIN, we offer many courses for front-end associates, but rarely have I met a retailer who wants to do a continuous training so that standards are maintained. Due to high attrition rates,
retail training has to be a continuous process with all modules done through the year. The Indian retail market, on the grounds of retail education, has still a long way to go. Challenge is the compensation paid to the first few levels in the retail business is so low that parents and students do not get an ROI on their investment. As you go up the ladder, the industry is at par or above many service industries in terms of the compensation. What we require is to crack the code at the entry level up to the store manager of a shop or a chain of stores,” concludes Nagesh.

(With inputs from Charu Lamba)

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