Biggest Retail Training Barriers for Front-Line Employees

7th Feb 2023

Retail Landscape for 2023

Research released by time management software specialists Deputy has confirmed what those in the retail sector already knew. The sector has been hit hard by both Brexit and Coronavirus. Their global State of Shift Work report found that 62% of the UK shift workers surveyed reported that their company had difficulty hiring in the last 12 months, resulting in 46% having to work more shifts and 45% finding it harder to take time off. While this is only one study, there is evidence across the sector that front-line employees struggle with the required workload. As David Kelly, General Manager for EMEA at Deputy, said: “One of our key industries(retail) is caught in a vicious circle. When you’re struggling to recruit, it puts more pressure on your existing staff, which in turn can lead to burnout and the decision to leave the industry altogether.”

The past few years have been undeniably difficult for retail workers. The study shows how much they are still having to deal with daily. Many retail employees are experiencing unmanageable levels of stress. When this is paired with short-notice shift changes and more responsibility, then it is understandable why many are resigning and even leaving the industry altogether.

For retail employees to remain engaged in the most difficult times, you need to keep employees well-skilled and with a clear path to development within their careers.

What challenges do retailers face when training employees?

The fast-paced nature of retail can make effective training difficult. As many employees are on the shop floor or spend the majority of their time at work in customer-facing roles, dedicated time for training can be difficult. Without a genuine commitment to training, opportunities can easily be missed, customer experience suffers, and then, ultimately, sales are lost.

Retail sales training often doesn’t provide store associates and shop floor employees with what they need, and then, in turn, they cannot deliver the best possible experience for customers. Let’s explore the key challenges retailers face when it comes to training:

Challenge One: Pinpointing and focusing on front-line customer-focused skills

Customers remember a great in-store experience. Store associates need to be equipped with the skills to keep customers happy and meet their in-store needs. The most important elements of training in this area include the following:

Nurturing soft skills

You cannot underestimate the value of soft skills and training – it is these inherently human characteristics that drive customer service. Store employees must build and practice their soft skills, including communication, problem-solving and adaptability. The personal touch is a vital part of a successful retail career.

Continued professional development

Many retail employees have an induction and occasional mandatory training sessions. This is not enough and will not lead to motivated and committed employees. Store employees need regular access to learning so they can excel in their jobs and not fall behind in technological or industry changes. Learning and development does not have to mean hours out of the workplace filling in forms and ticking boxes. It can be on-the-job, purposeful and designed with their goals in mind.

Challenge Two: Finding convenient learning solutions for a deskless workforce

The retail sector employs a significant number of deskless employees. Almost all front-line retail workers spend little or no time behind a desk, which means expecting their learning to take place this way is futile. Mobile learning solutions and the opportunity to learn on the job through mentoring programmes can help ensure your sales associates are not left without access to the development programmes they need to perform at the level required.

Challenge Three: Retail training is often an isolated experience

Some of the best learning and development approaches are collaborative and allow individuals to share their knowledge. The traditional approach to retail training is often sitting an employee in front of a screen while they watch videos or complete multiple choice quizzes. This does not engage, motivate or drive employees to want to be better. The best learning and development experiences regularly incorporate team sessions, collaborative work and networking operations.

Challenge Four: Lack of flexibility to suit retail employees' lifestyles, shift patterns and needs

Retail is not a 9-5 environment. Businesses are open earlier and later than this, and employees are required to work a mixture of shifts that do not fit with the traditional approach to training.

Savvy retailers choose training programmes that are designed with flexibility and to agile principles that can flex to an ever changing retail environment.

Challenge Five: High street retailers are under significant pressure to adapt due to online growth

Online shopping has continued to grow steadily, with figures up 33% year over year in 2021.
To react to this, customer service in the physical store must be exceptional to keep customers returning. To deliver this, employees need specialist, industry-focused training. The top priority for high street stores is offering that high-end customer experience for shoppers who still like the try-before-you-buy experience. Notable retailers excelling in the online space are ASOS and Amazon, so the in-store experience has to be highly competitive.  

Challenge Six: Peak periods such as Christmas can result in a blackout period for learning and development

Retailers understandably struggle to set aside time for training during peak periods. The three months to Christmas often act as a blackout period for learning but also a time when employees can quickly fall behind in their skills development and require considerable catch-up.

Why is it vital to train existing employees

Continuous opportunities to learn and develop should be something all retail employees have access to. The nature of the retail industry is changing, and there is a recognisable skill mismatch in the retail labour market.

Furthermore, the Great Resignation phenomenon is as relevant to the retail sector as any other, if not more so. The pressure on retail employees as key workers throughout the pandemic has evidently taken its toll, with a number of people working in retail steadily dropping. With historic highs in the number of job vacancies, employees have more choices than before, and if a role isn’t delivering what they want, they can seek an improved one easily. Holding onto your best retail employees requires a commitment to offering them something back, with learning and development opportunities high on the list of things employees look for in a good employer.

Why should retailers focus on skills gaps?

Workforce skills gaps are often the reason employees are overstretched, under pressure and find it difficult to fully fulfil their duties. A 2022 survey of CEOs by Deloitte found labour and skills shortages were the second most cited external factor disrupting their business strategy.

Overcoming skills gaps in retail involves identifying where the gaps lie but also finding the right methods for training and skills development. Skills should always be aligned with business goals, and investing in recognisable skills gaps within your team will lead to tangible results on the shop floor. PwC report 77% of employees are willing to retrain and learn new skills. Employees are ready to learn, so employers simply need to provide them with the opportunity to do so. Focusing on closing skills gaps and upskilling your existing workforce is cost-effective and allows you to retain promising talent rather than investing more in expensive recruitment drives.

Where to start? Upskilling leaders and managers

To develop high-performing front-line retail employees, you need high-performing, capable and motivational leaders and managers. Upskilling your management teams is the first step in developing organisational change. McKinsey’s report, Rethink capabilities to emerge stronger from COVID-19, shows leadership plays a critical role in the success of any skills gap programme. Their survey found  65% of respondents believe executives should participate in learning and development courses as trainers, facilitators, or learners. If managers are actively engaged and involved with training, it doesn’t give your employees much incentive or impetus to get fully involved.

With a competent and highly-skilled management team, companies are positioned to lead change. In the retail industry, where transformative change is vital to remain competitive for many businesses, upskilling the leaders of the future is vital.

Driving transformational change in retail

Leaders in retail recognise 2023 is set to be a further year of challenges for businesses. The cost of living crisis is dominating almost all news and conversation. This is the third strike for an industry still coming to terms with Brexit and the impact of Coronavirus. The inflationary economic climate is an added challenge in a weakening labour market, so it is more vital than any previous time that retailers maximise the potential of their existing workforce and give them the skills to grow and thrive.

Corndel’s Leadership and Management programmes centre on your business needs and the needs of the individual employee to develop their skill set to benefit both organisational and individual growth.

Our Level 3 programme introduces the necessary steps for transformational change, while Level 5 delves deeper and supports the delivery of change management for retail supervisors and managers. Our Level 6 Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship in Applied Business Management, delivered by Corndel College London, is specifically designed to provide a highly personalised degree experience that builds essential digital, management and professional skills. Our range of programmes also includes The Imperial College and Corndel Executive Development Programme, a Level 7 apprenticeship programme delivered in partnership with Imperial College to ensure the perfect blend of academic prowess and exceptional standards of vocational training experience.

Corndel has worked with many retail clients, such as John Lewis Partnership, who wanted to give their leaders the strategic and commercial skills needed to succeed and progress in management. Working with us guaranteed this, including giving their Partners access to theory and masterclasses led by Imperial College Business School.

Suzanne Massingham, Leadership Progression Specialist at John Lewis Partnership, explained:

"This programme will support our leaders to develop the skills that they need to stretch and challenge them in their existing roles, as well as prepare them for more senior roles in the future. We have a clear Partnership Plan, and we need to build leadership capability to deliver the plan with what we know we need now and the capabilities we have identified for the future. The programme's uniqueness is one thing that drew the Partnership to Corndel. The 12-month blended online learning with Executive Coach support for our senior leaders of the future was far more aligned with how our Partners want to learn. This style of learning will help with the application and embedding of the learning in a really practical way."
Suzanne Massingham, Leadership Progression Specialist at John Lewis Partnership

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