Digital retail transformation can mean anything from “click and collect” curbside pickup to full-blown workplace automation and enterprise artificial intelligence.
With such a broad definition, a term can virtually lose its meaning.
In this article, we’ll be discussing a very specific slice of digital retail transformation: how we overhauled and modernized the communication and training infrastructures of two multinational retail brands that each have tens of thousands of store employees.
(Details have been anonymized for confidentiality reasons. But we’d be willing to bet you or your family own products from both brands.)
You’ll learn the real-world details of how we did it and the key insights and lessons that any retail brand should heed:
- The legacy retail training and communication problems these two brands were dealing with (and many others still are).
- A case study of a global sportswear brand’s digital transformation odyssey, including details on why generic digital solutions simply wouldn’t work for their business model.
- How Bigtincan’s custom-tailored digital training solution helped a multinational beauty retailer overcome a bottleneck for growth and sales productivity.
- The themes that emerge from our experience solving training and communication problems for big players on the retail stage.
First, let’s start with a closer look at the why, by examining some challenges and pain points that have plagued corporate-retail relations for decades.
An Overview of Legacy Retail Training and Communication Problems
Retail employee training procedures and headquarters-to-store communications have always had more than their share of inefficiencies.
Associate training at many retail stores, including (until recently) those of the major brands we cover in this article, commonly involves posting updates on a corkboard at the back of the store and reliance on weekly “team meetings.”
But this standard system doesn’t typically work well.
Just think about it: how many employees ignore the corkboard, skip the meetings, or just zone out?
Scale those scenarios up to hundreds or thousands of individual retail locations and consider the impact of subpar training methodologies on liability, product messaging, customer experience, and sales productivity, and you have a significant set of inefficiencies that are hurting profitability.
Or, for another example, think about retail training in a store with extremely high employee turnover.
One of the brands we’ll discuss shortly has an average annual attrition or turnover rate around 40% at the store level (largely due to their employee demographics). This is common in the retail industry, and some stores are even higher.
The quality of employee training tends to decrease in proportion to the number of new employees being onboarded, the other obligations of managers on duty, and during the times of year when customer demand is highest.
In other words, the times when employees should be performing at their peak are when they’re least likely to get the quality training they need to succeed.
Most of these problems with retail communication and training have existed for decades (or longer) because no one knew how to fix them.
Companies may have accepted these inefficiencies as unavoidable for a long time, but that’s no longer the case.
However, what’s not necessarily obvious is that basic digital solutions like computer-based training software, cloud-based file-sharing, and email, are inadequate to address these decades-old problems. We’ll explain why that is in a moment, in the first case study.
These case studies are anonymized for nondisclosure reasons, but still contain plenty of details to teach you how we approach and solve training and communication problems at scale.
Case Study #1: Global Sportswear Apparel and Lifestyle Brand
This sportswear apparel company has over a thousand brick and mortar physical stores worldwide and tens of thousands of retail workers.
The vast majority of their store employees are young, high school age to early 20s, which helps account for the average annual employee turnover rate of 40% we alluded to in the previous section.
On the front lines, the customer-facing employees are in what’s known as persona-driven positions, which essentially means roles that reflect the “lifestyle brand” nature of the company. As such, the company heavily incentivizes employees to consume and wear the brand — a calculated psychological strategy that fuels brand enthusiasm during associate-customer interactions.
Aside from basic, legally mandated compliance training, most of their retail training relates to running brand campaigns and product launches. They’re constantly introducing campaigns or promoting products, typically several at once, and it’s vital for employees to stay current.
The company was facing legacy issues with communication as well as in-store training and they knew it. That’s why Bigtincan eventually won a bid against 50 other service providers. But before we take a look at how we custom-tailored our solution, let’s take a look at the problems.
Global Sportswear Brand Retail Challenges
First off, associates at this company don’t have company email addresses.
With the sheer volume of employees and their attrition rate, direct email is unworkable as a mass communication tool. (Side note, cloud-based file sharing platforms like Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive also don’t work at that scale for various reasons, including the fact that young retail employees are unfamiliar with the user interface.)
Instead, communication typically followed a “chain of command” sequence: from corporate HQ to the store manager, then from the store manager to the team leader(s) on duty, and finally from the team leader to the associates.
But since associates didn’t have email addresses, the process entailed printing sheets of paper and tacking them on a back-room corkboard or placing them into a three-ring binder (depending on the store). Team leaders would direct their associates’ attention to the communique or training content during morning huddles or “pump up” sessions…at least in theory.
Here are some of the problems that came up in interviews or problems we observed firsthand:
- Communication was slow, especially when it had to travel up and down the chain of command repeatedly.
- No channels existed for any type of feedback, surveys, or polling. No measures of learning success.
- There was zero feedback available on whether training content was interesting or useful.
- No accountability for training: HQ had to take team leaders’ or managers’ word that the training had even been administered.
Memorably, compliance training took place on a lone, aged Windows computer at the back of each store. Stressed store managers and team leaders frequently encouraged new hires to “just click through” mandatory compliance slides as quickly as possible.
There was a lot of friction in the system. It was barely working.
BigTinCan’s Training and Communication Solution
When Bigtincan entered the picture, we offered our easy to custom-tailor app that could run on employees’ personal mobile devices as well as in-store devices. The idea was a one-stop shop for training and communication.
Our app is highly flexible and customizable by default, but we knew this company needed some additional features to address their pain points.
Here’s how Bigtincan solved the problems from the previous section:
- Previously, new product updates or campaign launches were delivered “manually” during morning huddles or weekly team meetings, but our app instead offers frictionless micro-lessons (based on the concept of microlearning with lessons of 15 minutes or less) so associates can learn at their own pace.
- Instead of bits and pieces of info trickling down slowly, a live feed feature on the training app updates employees in real time to ensure everyone’s on the same page about brand campaigns and product updates.
- Along with receiving constant refreshes and updates in bite-sized chunks, employees can also exceed customer expectations by looking up any answers to their questions instantaneously in the app.
- Managers and corporate have constant access to training stats and follow-through so there’s no more back-and-forth about training participation or accountability.
- The app’s communication functionality removed any need for email by offering a direct line between management and employees within the app itself.
The Bigtincan Learning app can be customized to show text, video, or any other files needed for the optimal training experience.
Admins can also assign courses and tasks on a group or individual basis.
Another unique consideration related to the company’s novel approach to fostering brand enthusiasm among associates.
Earlier, we mentioned that the company encourages employees to showcase and enjoy their lifestyle products. We knew that the app had to reflect that rather than feeling “corporate” and boring.
The Bigtincan Learning app is customizable to showcase your company’s brand theme and insignia across all platforms.
As an executive confided to me, the internal branding is essential because the brand is the equity of the company, period. It’s what makes the difference between a $100 pair of sweatpants versus a $15 pair of sweatpants.
Our solution was to incorporate the type of imagery and style you would normally find in an advertisement directly into the app — virtually the opposite of generic apps, visually speaking. In other words, our app has production value that helps associates feel excited and proud of their role to represent the brand.
To sum up, we custom-tailored the Bigtincan Learning app to offer a heavily branded experience that focused on daily content updates; frictionless training in chunks of 15 minutes or smaller (even as short as 1 to 2 minutes in some cases), accountability metrics for training participation that are visible to managers as well as corporate headquarters; and company-wide communication optimization.
The end results are a better customer experience, increased sales productivity, and ultimately a huge competitive advantage. Employees can focus on customer engagement and helping customers through their buying journey, while decision-makers at the company receive real-time feedback on what’s working and when to pivot.
Case Study #2: Multinational Personal Care and Beauty Retailer
The company featured in this second case study has over 2,000 retail stores worldwide and tens of thousands of store employees. They carry thousands of personal care and beauty brands along with their own private label.
Aside from cashiers, the company assigns associates dedicated roles as product specialists to work on optimizing the customer experience.
When a customer walks into any section of the store, there’s an associate there who specializes in customer-centric product education and helping the customer find the perfect fit within their niche.
For example, makeup requires employees to understand how to color match (the product to the skin tone of the shopper) and conduct tutorials, while fragrances require a working understanding of hundreds of different products and how to describe their nuances to new customers.
This retail model necessitates extensive training for employees.
Multinational Beauty Retailer Problems
Clearly, this retailer already understood the advantages of placing training first and prioritizing customer experience.
But, by the same token, the legacy approach the company took to training and employee education represented a serious bottleneck for growth and sales productivity.
Store managers were in a teaching role (in addition to all their other tasks, of course) for employees in all niches. If they had other priorities to keep the store running that day or week, training would take a back seat.
The managers would take regular e-learning courses that consisted of slides and PDFs administered via the store’s lone desktop PC (in, you guessed it, the back room). The quality of these media were severely restricted by poor connectivity, discussed more in-depth below.
Sometimes intensive associate training, such as during onboarding, took place one-on-one. But because the store manager acted as a conduit to all training, the only way to scale was by doing group sessions.
Role play is an essential part of the learning process for this company, but results were all over the place. Learning outcomes largely depended on the skill and willingness of each manager, and there were no metrics for corporate to understand what was going on at any given store — let alone correlate training with real-world outcomes.
The main reason the company conducted their training that way was because of internet bandwidth issues. Mall stores have limited bandwidth, so streaming 4K, 1080p, or even 720p video was out of the question.
Record-keeping around training was another pain point. Employees were supposed to sign sheets, but sometimes forgot to, or there were suspicions that signatures were collected when training wasn’t completed.
Bigtincan’s Training Solution
Our training solution for this multinational beauty brand was a fully custom-tailored, branded, themed app that worked on employees’ personal devices as well as on in-store devices.
We began by taking into account the chief problems that came up during our audit:
- Managers as sole touchpoints for all training was an inefficiency that often created holdups in other areas of the business.
- The total lack of training accountability bred complacency and indifference, when training should actually be a top priority.
- The inability of training content creators to understand the effectiveness of their training meant that training content couldn’t evolve or improve in meaningful ways.
- Connectivity issues at the store level prevented a modern, high-quality training experience.
The company was receptive to our proposal for a distributed approach to training that would remove the bottleneck effect of relying on overworked managers as exclusive training providers.
With our solution, any employee can pick up any device at any time, open the training app, enter their ID number, and receive individualized niche training based on microlearning concepts.
We answered training record-keeping problems with a fix that not only provided accountability, but also made associates proud of their training accomplishments. Employees now have training profiles that include certifications and badges for achievements, which are also visible to managers and corporate.
Because there’s still a need for face-to-face roleplay learning (or more often webinar roleplay during the COVID pandemic), we also incorporated instructor-led training (ILT) and events that require attendance to be registered directly into the system and provide employees with badging or certification for attending.
All training analytics were then tracked for instructor-led training and digital learning courses and made readily available in Bigtincan Learning. This was especially helpful for corporate leadership because they were able to track and fully understand how all training was being leveraged and impacting outcomes.
Last but not least, our solution had to address the speed and connectivity issues faced by most mall retail stores.
Fortunately, due to deep experience in retail, we had a solution ready for stores in bandwidth-constrained environments. Instead of constantly downloading new content to the Bigtincan app during the day, we used the back office PCs as media servers or “edge servers” overnight.
In other words, as the mall internet speeds up every night from 12am-4am when stores are offline, our software gets to work downloading new videos, documents, courseware, and other assets to every mobile device.
That training content is available for associate use during the day, without the terrible user experience due to slow internet buffering, and the system maintains a minimalist daytime connection to the cloud to update employee training actions and completion rates in real-time.
Understanding the Lessons That Emerge
To recap, retail stores have always faced specific challenges around training and communication, which companies muddled through until recently.
Digital transformation in retail offers opportunities to solve these problems, but most providers offer generic solutions that don’t address the companies’ defining needs (such as heavily branded content or personalized experiences during training) or ignore their biggest challenges.
The best way to address retail sector inefficiencies at scale is by using new technologies to unify communication and training in one-stop mobile apps for retail associates.
(We also offer options to integrate customer data, pricing, inventory management, e-commerce, and online shopping into apps.)
These retail training and communication apps facilitate never-before-seen approaches to solving decades-old challenges:
- Personalized experiences using microlearning for associate training integrate into their workflow and enhance employee performance rather than serving as a distraction or afterthought.
- Digitalization of daily updates and communication from corporate headquarters to associates overcomes the inadequacies of email and other legacy solutions.
- Tracking and metrics ensure accountability of employees to managers and corporate supervisors for training adherence and meeting performance standards.
- Real-time insights offer feedback on how training affects key outcomes such as customer behavior, customer retention, and operational efficiency.
- Over time, “big data” allows us to leverage machine learning algorithms to automate the pacing and distribution of training and other variables.
And when you address training inefficiencies with digital technologies, customer experience ratings and sales productivity skyrocket.
No one is doing what Bigtincan does, as our track record of working with global brands in areas like sportswear, beauty, yoga, and high-end luxury jewelry shows. Instead of transactional, generic software, we deliver transformative, fully customizable, one-stop solutions.
Book a demo to learn more and see how Bigtincan could work at your company.