NRF 2021: How rue21 and O’Reilly Auto use Measurable, Bite-Size Training to Support Frontline Workers

Frontline employees were thrust into the spotlight by the unique conditions of the coronavirus pandemic — in large part due to their vital roles in omnichannel fulfillment and maintaining safety precautions — and retailers need to let lessons learned from this period inform their strategy going forward. O’Reilly Auto Parts and rue21 discussed why better communication is key to handling the evolution of frontline retailing in the Why Frontline Forward is 2021’s Winning Strategy panel during Chapter 1 of NRF 2021.

The session, which was moderated by executives from Axonify, assessed the challenges retailers face in training and maintaining their associates, who will be more indispensable than ever during retail’s great reopening. Two of the most important takeaways for frontline communications were:

  • Training is about outcomes, not inputs: Having huge, comprehensive training documents might seem good on paper, but they’re ineffective unless associates can actually learn from them. Smaller, easily digestible lessons can drive better outcomes.
  • Consistency is key across the enterprise: Communication between the frontline and home office shouldn’t end after onboarding — it should be an ongoing engagement. Keeping associates in the loop makes them feel welcome and sets high standards, even across nationwide chains.

When it Comes to Training Programs, Comprehensive Doesn’t Always Mean Effective

Frontline associates are the face of a retailer, and a store’s success or failure rides on their ability to both keep stores running smoothly and make shoppers feel welcome. The requirements for meeting either goal varies from retailer to retailer and changes over time, making strong ongoing education and communication paramount — a lesson rue21 learned during an audit of its fleet’s performance.

“We were seeing some stores really performing well and then we were seeing other stores really not performing well,” said Mark Chrystal, Chief Analytics Officer at rue21 during the session. “As we dug in, we realized it was the store associates, more than anything else, that were impacting our business in those locations. We identified a knowledge gap. The top-performing stores had these leaders and managers and associates that were extremely plugged in, and they were able to process the training we were giving them at the time, but we weren’t providing training that everybody could digest.”


The training program at rue21 was undeniably robust: the program for store managers alone included a comprehensive 400-page training document. However, Chrystal estimated that only 15% of associates truly absorbed the lessons as they were presented. “We felt in the home office we were doing a good job and we were checking all the boxes, but you could just see the performance and the uptake wasn’t happening in the stores,” he said.

The solution wasn’t to throw out the all-inclusive training. Rather, rue21 changed how it was presented, eliminating old-fashioned physical binders, some of which hadn’t changed much in decades, with lessons that could be accessed electronically. This not only let associates study in bit-sized chunks; it also made it easier for leaders to monitor knowledge level growth to ensure the lessons were absorbed and taken to heart. This approach helped even veteran associates adopt to the new standards of post-COVID retailing.

“We’ve taken a fundamentally different approach and we effectively eliminated all paper from our training now, which has been a big win,” said Chrystal. “We’ve seen, since that shift, just massive adoption. Now we’re in the high 80s in terms of the percentage of engagement across our many thousands of associates with training, and we’ll be able to actively monitor to see their knowledge level growth. It’s been terrific.”

Staying in Touch Creates a Unified Experience Across the Chain

From new sanitation procedures to encouraging messages expressing thankfulness, communication between the home office and frontline workers took on even greater importance during the pandemic. This was particularly true for large retailers like O’Reilly Auto Parts, which has more than 5,000 locations that all need to provide a single, unified experience.

“I think a reason we invested so heavily in our frontline is we’re spread out in 48 states and we have over 80,000 team members,” said Jonathan Andrews, SVP, HR & Training at O’Reilly Auto Parts. “We were looking for a tool platform where we could get a consistency in our message and our communications, whether it be on our culture, product training or compliance-related risk safety training. That was a big factor, trying to have consistency from coast to coast, and certainly with any other acquisitions we take on.”

Cross-company messaging can involve all departments. For example, O’Reilly Auto Parts’ marketing department has become more involved in the process. It shares information about proprietary brands with team members, to ensure they’re pushing sales in the proper “good, better, best” format to match each brand’s price point. This helps associates themselves understand the use cases and benefits of each item, which is particularly valuable for workers who aren’t car enthusiasts themselves.

The other secret to consistency is constant communication. Whether updating training protocols or simply thanking associates for a job well done, a regular line of communication between the home office and frontline workers will keep both sides of the business on the same page and ensure operations are running at peak efficiency.

“Focusing back on this year, what we’ve learned to meet the future challenges is timely communications,” said Andrews. “You can’t overwhelm, you have to be concise, but you have to have that constant communication with your teams. That’s something through COVID, through right now, that we’ll continue to utilize to meet future challenges.”

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