April 30, 2002, 12:00 AM

Readin’, ‘Ritin’ & Retailin’

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But participants caution not to lose sight of the ultimate goal of all retailers: Serving the customer. More knowledgeable sales personnel attracts customers, they say. “It’s all about driving a better customer experience,” Well says. “Customers will want to come to us because we have better people; they’re more capable, more knowledgeable and understand the customer’s needs better.”


The web makes such benefits available in ways that were not possible before, participants say. One advantage of web-based learning over traditional methods, say retailers, is that a corporation can develop one package that all employees learn from. And that provides consistency in training. “We have 927 stores and when you rely on the store manager to provide the education, you get 927 varieties of knowledge transfer,” says Susan Miller, director of training and development for Famous Footwear, a division of Brown Shoe Corp. That is a particular problem when turnover at the store manager level itself is 40%. Famous is implementing an e-learning platform from Docent, upgrading a system that has been in place for two and a half years.

Another advantage is that the web format requires certain content and approach to teaching that make education more acceptable to employees. And so they are more likely to use the opportunity and to retain what they’ve learned. “Store associates don’t want to read so you have to give them something that’s more fun, easy to get into and interactive,” Miller says.

Employees retain more of what they learn because they can do it at their own speed and when they want, Wells says. “Retention is better because the education process is interactive,” he says. “It’s no different from surfing on the Internet. You can follow links to where you want to go, so you’re engaged in the learning process. You’re not a passive learner.”

Famous Footwear’s training program, dubbed “Steps to Success,” offers four levels of education. Steps 1 and 2 are for sales personnel in stores. Step 1 deals with orientation and corporate history and presents success stories for motivation. Step 2 has 19 modules and goes into operations more deeply, including such topics as how to use the cash register, what’s available in the different departments and loss prevention. Each segment of Steps 1 and 2 is no longer than 20 minutes and each presents material in a bulleted fashion, with no more than five bullets to a page. “Steps One and Two talk to you,” Miller says. “There’s not a lot of reading and it’s interactive.”

More floor time

An employee who completes the segments can print a test that the manager administers to determine that the employee has absorbed the material. Since Famous Footwear is just implementing the program with Docent, it has not measured effectiveness yet, Miller says.

Circuit City offers 138 different courses in six phases, starting with orientation. Since it implemented its e-learning program in the fall of 2000, 90,000 employees have enrolled in 1.8 million courses. Circuit City saw a spike in usage in February ahead of a certification program, Wells says.

In addition to being more acceptable to employees, web-based training can be more acceptable to store managers as well. “Managers are always in the training mode,” Gartner DataQuest`s Roster says. “But they’re also expected to execute corporate strategy, get product on the shelves, make sure the store is secure and, by the way, train X number of associates every month. This can make their jobs easier.” Furthermore, he notes, the sound-bite nature of the training means sales personnel will spend less time off the floor taking training; more selling makes managers happier.

Web training also is ultimately cheaper to maintain and operate than more traditional methods. “One of the best things about the web is that updating information should be easier and faster,” Miller says. “Retail changes so fast that printing new books and getting them out to everybody gets costly.”

Attention from the big guys

E-learning participants like Docent and Sun provide the technology infrastructure and rely on others for the content. The National Retail Federation hopes to offer a broad range of training material to members and plans to peer-review content before offering it. “We’d like to provide members some guidance, some filtering of content,” Mance says. “By using the peer review approach, we’ll be picking out the best of breed.”

Companies like DigitalThink of San Francisco provide infrastructure and content or design of the presentation. In Circuit City’s agreement with DigitalThink, Circuit City creates the content based on its objectives, then DigitalThink puts it into the appropriate format for presentation to the employees. Bellevue, WA-based Click2learn also provides infrastructure and content.

When planning its program, the NRF Foundation, which already offers education programs for retailers, believed that, in Mance’s words, “we’d be the training department for the little guys.” But planners were surprised to learn that large retailers are interested as well. “We didn’t think the big guys would come in,” Gilbert says, “but they are interested in the NRF review and stamp of approval.”

But while the NRF’s survey last year revealed that retailers are interested, not many have adopted alternative forms of education outside of corporate headquarters. The problems often are lack of facilities or resources and the lack of bandwidth or sophisticated equipment to handle web access. “The percent of stores that have web access is disappointingly low,” says David Mandelkern, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Docent.

But that may be changing as retailers are focusing this year on replacing POS systems. “All the retailers we talk to have new POS systems as their one, two and three top priorities for the coming year,” says Craig Laviano, director of retail learning solutions for DigitalThink. “They’re making huge investments in infrastructure.” Thus the bandwidth may get into the stores and the e-learning systems can ride along on it.

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