Samsonite And Ace Hardware Give New E-Learning Strategies An A+

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This is Part 1 of a feature highlighting the strategies retailers are using to improve workforce management. Part 2 focuses on task management and will appear in the March 25 newsletter.

Savvy consumers are walking into stores already well-informed about products and competitive data, and expect sales associates to know even more. Advanced workforce management tools help retailers oblige these educated shoppers. New approaches to training sales associates, measuring knowledge retention and streamlining task management help retailers empower store employees to deliver a great customer experience.

Stores provide the instant gratification of taking a product home directly after purchase, but “it’s the store employee that can really make a difference to the in-store experience,” according to a Retail Systems Research (RSR) study, titled: WFM 2013: The Store Employee In The Customer Age. “While most retailers agree, most have only just tapped the surface of employee education and empowerment.”


As retailers work hard to reinvigorate the brick-and-mortar experience, “staffing the store with knowledgeable associates has become more important than ever,” said Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner at RSR, in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “In fact, in our most recent Store benchmark, retailers’ top operational challenges revolved around the employee: 44% of respondents cited the need to keep associates focused on selling and service, while 41% were challenged by helping employees respond to informed, smartphone-enabled shoppers.”

Furthermore, a white paper from Axsium Group, entitled: Focusing Your Workforce On The Moment Of Truth, revealed the significant impact employees have on the customer experience: As many as 75% of consumers surveyed said they would walk out of a store if they couldn’t access a knowledgeable associate.

The Axsium paper emphasized the effectiveness of e-learning in delivering customer experience training. While e-learning is nothing new, “it continues to improve at a rapid pace,” the report indicated. “Current e-learning solutions are rich, interactive, multimedia training environments that improve knowledge retention at significantly lower costs than traditional instructor-led training. [Their] videos, interactive presentations and self-assessments help consistently explain customer demographics, their journey, and the role of the associate in the customer experience.”

Samsonite and Ace Hardware are immersed in WFM strategies that have integrated e-learning at their core: Both leverage digital WFM tools that increase associate knowledge, test comprehension and identify improvements areas. The goal of both strategies is to provide consistent, knowledgeable customer experiences that increase conversions and average ticket value.  

Retailers must “reinvent their WFM tools for a digitally savvy workforce,” noted a study from IDC Retail Insights.The report indicated that many retail employees “are much more likely to interact with peers and employers if communications are digitally delivered to their mobile devices.” In addition, modern WFM tools engage employees and enable them to serve the customer better, “which, by the way, creates a more satisfying work environment.”

Best-in-Class organizations are “more than twice as likely to invest in mobile learning solutions, compared to All Others,” according to a November 2013 research report from Aberdeen Group, which focused on developing and engaging the 2013 employee.

Providing tablets to keep training and information current, thus allowing associates to sell better, “is absolutely the smart way to go,” said James Dion, President of Dionco, Inc. “Besides arming associates with the same tools customers are using while in a store, knowledge through training is one very important way retailers can differentiate themselves. Providing the technology that keeps associates current will make that differentiation happen.”

App-Based, Network-Free Video Learning  

Samsonite is moving digital learning out to the selling floor with associates through iPads that deliver non-streaming, app-based video training. Associates can access educational tools in real time without leaving the sales floor, when they are not busy with customers. The instant-on HD video content resides in the iPad app and can be retrieved at any time from the app, not downloaded from a network. With no downloading required, previous network-related challenges ― including slow and halting video streaming and buffering, and stores’ various available bandwidths ― are eliminated. Samsonite associates can click on/off bookmarked, two-minute WFM training segments that play immediately and smoothly, and efficiently increase Samsonite associates’ product/procedure knowledge.

The interactive, easy-to-modify video training app platform ― called QuizScore, from Multimedia Plus ― “provides our store teams with what we believe are the best training tools,” said Fred Peirce, Manager of Store Operations at Samsonite. “These include HD video content, an engaging interface, interactive quizzes ― overall, a more interactive training experience ― all without having to wait for video to ‘buffer.’”

Because Samsonite stores maintain different levels of Internet services and speeds, “we needed to assure that an upgraded training experience would be the same for everyone,” Peirce explained. “The non-streaming approach to video training offers us the opportunity to provide best-in-class, ready-to-play, consistent video content for each associate, without the need for streaming. With no load times required for associates taking the training, there is very quick turnaround from the time they start a segment to completion. Our store teams are excited about this new training approach, and employee engagement is up.”

The QuizScore platform includes tracking software that allows Samsonite to measure training effectiveness. Managers can determine where employees need improvement and how best to refine programs by regional, district and store levels. The cloud-based database enables managers to access immediate results of associate learning and development from any location.

“Our management team is excited that, through QuizScore, they can track associate development within their respective areas,” said Peirce, which allows “instant visibility” to training progress across the board.

“As a retailer, and as consumers, we continue to see a strong movement to be more mobile, tech-savvy and informed,” added Rob Cooper, VP and GM of Retail and E-Commerce at Samsonite. “We knew that these marketplace trends needed to be adapted to our associates’ in-store experiences as well. In today’s retail store environment, it’s become ever more clear that we must be cognizant of how our brand appears not only to our customers, but also our associates. With that thought in mind, we wanted to re-create our training with updated training content and video relevant to our business today.”

E-Learning Boosts Skill Level And Sales At Ace Hardware

Ace Hardware associates are kept current through a 10-step program designed to enhance the customer experience at the store level. Called Helpful 101, the chain-wide program provides an online, interactive associate e-learning platform focused on two competencies: Creating a great customer experience and building sales. The digital WFM tool was developed through a partnership with Cinecraft Productions, an e-learning development and video production company.

Helpful 101 is a role-base course with video scenarios, simulations, games,expert coaching sessions and online assessments.The program includes exercises that associates take to the selling floor to reinforce what they have learned online. Consumers evaluate associates’ helpfulness and product knowledge viaonline surveys providing real-time feedback. Each associate must complete a follow-up digital learning course every two years.

Helpful 101 has “more than paid off” for Andy Carlson, an owner of two Ace Hardware stores in Denver, Colo. After implementing the Helpful 101 WFM tool, Carlson has seen “an increase in the overall skill level of our associates,” he told Retail TouchPoints. “Associates completing the e-learning course do a better job of helping customers, which increases conversion rates as well as the average ticket, because customers leave with everything they need for their projects ― and maybe some sale items, too.”

Carlson and his management team evaluate all consumer feedback on associates and the customer experiences provided; if necessary, managers take direct action to change processes and re-educate associates. 

Knowledgeable associates are key to distinguishing Ace Hardware, Carlson stated: “Our primary differentiator versus other home improvement retailers ― especially those online ― is our ability to provide helpful customer service. Home improvement projects can be difficult: Customers need tips and tricks for the products we sell to help them complete their projects.” Based on Helpful 101 results, “we leverage our most experienced associates in each discipline to provide the best advice possible to every customer.”

Though it is too early to attribute sales increases solely to Helpful 101, “we have seen increased year-over-year sales and gross margins every month in the last four months since implementing the Helpful 101 curriculum,” Carlson said. The WFM approach “guarantees consistent service for every customer, every time. It is part of our associates’ job requirements: They must be certified as ‘Helpful’ to continue working in our stores. During March 2014, we will be integrating Helpful 101 into the hiring process with an online interviewing component. This will enable us to accurately gauge a candidate’s helpfulness before we hire them onto our team.”

Helpful 101 is “comprehensive, repeatable and measurable,” Carlson said, “and a cool tool to get into the hands of all of our associates. When you combine this WFM system with the passion of local retailers and their strong desire to serve their communities, you really have a great formula for success.”

Part 2 of the WFM feature will focus on task management. It will appear in the March 25 newsletter.


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