March 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

After success in stores, retailers take e-learning up the corporate ladder

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At Circuit City, the primary benefit of e-learning has been a reduction in time to qualify as a sales counselor, McKeever says. “It used to take 200 hours of training to be proficient as a sales counselor and now it’s taking only 64 hours and they come out at a higher level of proficiency,” he says. “The time to competency is much more efficient online.”

Even the vendors, while acknowledging that retailers focus on ROI these days, fudge the ROI on their products. “The hardest thing to do in calculating ROI is to isolate cause and effect,” says Jeff Marshall, strategic account director at San Francisco-based DigitalThink Inc., Circuit City’s e-learning vendor. He notes, however, that there’s clearly a benefit to having salespeople on the floor sooner and more often.

As for whether e-learning reduces turnover, Circuit City has been involved in too many re-structuring initiatives lately to really be able to tell, McKeever says. Among the changes: Circuit City has exited the appliance business, which affected store staffing, it’s changed its store format and it’s revamped its pay structure from commissions to salary. “There’s too much noise around what we’ve done, but I can say this: People are learning faster, they’re developing into managers faster and they like the way they learn,” he says.

Indeed, liking the method seems to be one of the most positive elements of e-learning. “The feedback from employees has been great,” Taylor says. “This training has been very well received.” Especially younger employees have been receptive to e-training, she says. “For Generation X and Y employees, continuing education is a motivator,” she says. “They understand that continuous learning is important to their career development.”

For that reason, e-training modules are often targeted toward a younger user. “18- to 24-year-olds grew up on this and they like that they are in control,” McKeever says. “This lines up well with the way people learn today.”

Competitive advantage

Some employees have taken to the method so well that they access the training modules at home. “That was a phenomenon that surprised us all,” says Kevin Dixon, director of business development for InsightU.

In fact, Circuit City has established a gatekeeper to prevent employees from logging on willy-nilly at home and taking classes. “We’ve had a lot of discussions about how much should go out,” McKeever says. “Associates can only accomplish so much before a good idea becomes a distraction.” Similarly, Staples requires employees who take e-learning classes at to obtain authorization. Employees who learn at home get paid for the time they spend in the course.

E-learning has proven so popular that Staples, for one, believes it provides a competitive advantage. “People ask about the training and the fact that we offer this and others don’t gives us an advantage in hiring,” Taylor says.

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