Training Retail Employees: Your Guide to Increasing Employee Engagement


If retail employees were honest, they might tell you they’re angry, bored, and ready to quit. Here, see for yourself:

Turnover rates emphasise this poor employee engagement in retail. “Typically, we see turnover rates at 1.4 times the rate of other industries,” reports AON. The rate has been accelerating during the pandemic. Retail turnover is now 1.5 times the general industry rate,” it adds.

But while it seems it’s limited what can be done about the pandemic, it’s not limited to what can be done by HR professionals in Retail. There’s a lot we can do to increase engagement and retention rates while training retail employees – starting with the onboarding process and throughout the employee lifecycle.

Plan a Retail Onboarding Process by Asking These Questions

As in any other industry, training and development in the retail industry need to be intentionally planned and executed to succeed.

Ask yourself and your team what would make a successful onboarding process for your company, and what your new employees need to thrive.

  • Customer service skills?
  • Sales skills?
  • Product knowledge?

At what level? What would qualify them to start working on the shop floor?

The good news is that they don’t need to know everything to start helping customers – and your company. “Experience is often the best teacher” anyway, according to eFront, which adds that “employees learn… by doing.” So you want them to get on the shop floor and learn there as well.

But some topics do require more in-depth training. Therefore, prioritise what’s crucial for them to know, then move on to what’s important yet not crucial, and leave the “nice to have” items for the end.

Once you’ve made your list:

  • Create a timeline to see how long your initial onboarding will last.
  • If it’s too long, consider breaking it down with practical in-store experience in between modules.
  • Consider micro training, which is a series of very short lessons. “Micro training is the most engaging training delivery method available. The microlearning experience is similar to checking your favourite social app on your smartphone, compared to the ‘serious study’ feel of regular training,” explains eLearning Industry.

Of course, if your retail onboarding process takes place during the pandemic, you need to decide whether you provide your entire training in-store or remotely or do a combination of both. This is where e-learning retail training platforms come in.

Leverage E-Learning Retail Training for More Productive Talent Development

The benefit of e-learning retail training is that it can happen whenever and wherever you want. You might have seen it referred to as “m-learning” as well, but for simplicity’s sake, we’re calling it e-learning today since many e-learning retail training platforms allow employees to learn from any device they please.

During the pandemic, it reduces unnecessary risk, but it’s efficient regardless, especially if you want employees to keep educating themselves and growing in their roles beyond the onboarding stage.

Training and development in the retail industry are a bit complex because employees are constantly on the go – sometimes juggling multiple customers and store logistics at once.

But there’s one thing most of us always have time for – checking our phone. “Americans now check their phones 96 times a day – that’s once every 10 minutes,” found a late 2019 study by Asurion. “That’s a 20% daily increase from a similar survey conducted by Asurion two years” earlier, it reported.

Therefore, micro training retail employees via their phones become an easy solution. If they’re unclear about a procedure, deal with a challenging customer situation or finish an interaction they feel they could have handled better, they can check a quick one-two minute lesson on their learning platform and get back to work.

If learning and professional development is a core value in your company, this will make it much easier to engage them in growth.

Employee Engagement in Retail Starts with Emotional Connections

As we’ve recently discussed here, employee engagement is critical for more creative, productive work. When employees are engaged, they see the company’s success aligned with their success, and they do a lot more than minimum viable work. And it shows on companies’ bottom lines.

Start working toward engagement during your retail onboarding process. There are many ways to engage new employees during this important phase (you can read a complete guide here), but one of the best ways is to connect with them emotionally.

To do that, share your company’s core values with employees like Ben & Jerry’s does in this three-minute video:

Plus, tell your employees:

  • Why the company does what it does
  • How you treat each other as a team
  • The deeper problems the company helps customers (and maybe the world) solve
  • How you see customer challenges and desires, and how customers see themselves

Understanding customers is especially important if you are training retail employees who’ll be serving customers day in and day out.

Training and Development in the Retail Industry Must Prioritise the Voice of the Customer

If you’ve overseen training and development in the retail industry for a while now, you know that the number one way to differentiate your company is by delivering exceptional customer experiences.

To do that, it’s important to explain what life’s like for customers when training retail employees.

Consider teaching your employees:

  • Why customers come to your company?
  • What challenges do they experience?
  • Any reason why they might be afraid or concerned to make this purchase or even show interest in the product?
  • How does that relate to the rest of their lives?
  • What is the rest of the industry teaching customers about themselves? What could your team do differently?
  • If anything was possible, what would your customers want? Who would they *really* want to be?

These aren’t always easy questions to answer, but when you do, you get at least two major benefits:

  • Customers grow to prefer your company emotionally. That’s important, because “functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that when evaluating brands, consumers primarily use emotions… rather than information,” reports Psychology Today.
  • Engagement in retail stores increases. By explaining customers’ humanity, you help employees connect with these customers – and your company – on a deeper level. And you see the result in your bottom line. As Retail Customer Experience reports, “retail employees who are engaged and motivated bring in 69% more revenue than those who are not.”

Make Time in Your Retail Onboarding Process to Teach Company Policies

After you make sure your employees are clear on your company values, it’s time to introduce the policies that were (hopefully) created based on these values.

They can be customer and store related policies, such as:

  • Your return policy
  • COVID safety protocols

And then can be in-company policies, such as:

  • How far in advance to ask for time off
  • What’s OK and not OK to post on social media regarding your company
  • Zero tolerance for sexual harassment

Give extra attention to that last one, because a large portion of your employees is at risk, according to 3,400 participants in a 2019 survey by the Australia Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), which is “the union for retail, fast food, and warehouse workers,” according to AHRC.

The survey discovered that 46% of female SDA members were sexually harassed in the workplace, but so were 29% of the men (almost one in three). Most of the harassment happened by colleagues, but over one in three (36%) happened by a customer.

Source: AHRC

That said, “only 13% of SDA members had made a formal complaint or report about their most recent incident of workplace sexual harassment,” AHRC reports.

To ensure workplace safety and encourage employees to trust you enough to speak up when something like this happens, leave time in your training to clarify the steps that can be taken and the procedures you have in place to protect your team.

As with the rest of your policies, include it in your onboarding process, but continue reaffirming it from time to time through ongoing training.

Empower Both Practical and Soft Skills

Now that the foundation has been, it’s time to dive into role-specific material. Ideally, you’ll be training retail employees on both practical and soft skills.

First, your retail onboarding process needs to teach new employees the actual work they’ll do on the job. Among others, teach them how to:

  • Use software products your team uses
  • Handle products in the store and the warehouse

Next, include information about your products. Some of the questions you could answer:

  • What kind of products do you sell?
  • What differentiates your products from competitors’ products?
  • What information do employees need to know about each of your products?

For example, if you sell tents, employees need to know which tent fits which weather condition, how light it is to carry, and how easy it is to set up.

But to increase employee engagement in retail, and improve how they show up with customers, take it a step further, and teach them other information they need to know about camping and hiking in order to understand how to match customers with the right products.

This is where “softer” skills, like communication, come into play in training and development in the retail industry.

  • How do you ask questions in a non-intrusive way, so you know how to help a customer?
  • How do you transition from being too sales-oriented to coaching customers and supporting them in finding the best solution for them, so that they’ll feel good about the purchase when they get home, come back to the store the next time they need something, and tell their friends to do the same?

If the team that’s training retail employees doesn’t know how to do that yet, in the context of your specific customers, it’s OK to invest in their development too. It’s very helpful. The more your training team knows, the better the rest of your team can perform.

And as mentioned above, you don’t necessarily need to develop a full training program from scratch right away. Use e-learning retail training platforms to release micro-lessons (one minute, five minutes at a time) as you develop them.

Either way, once employees are up to speed, it’s time to play.

Training Retail Employees with Role Playing & In-Store Mentors Increases Retention and Performance

“Practice by doing… is one of the most effective methods of learning… moving information from short-term to long-term memory. Practice by doing makes the material more personal, and thus more meaningful to students. Practice by doing also leads to a more in-depth understanding of the material, greater retention, and better recall,” reports Education Corner.

Source: Education Corner

To help your employees enjoy these benefits, incorporate practice time into your retail onboarding process. Start with role-playing. Let new employees play out common scenarios among themselves, then discuss what they did well and what could be done better.

Don’t let people shame each other. Clarify that you’re giving them this safe space to make mistakes, so everyone can learn together before they meet actual customers.

And since they’re not needed at the store yet, you can use e-learning retail training platforms to do this remotely while the pandemic is still going on.

Then, once they’ve completed this part of the training, get them on the shop floor with mentors. They can practice real-life customer interactions, and have a mentor nearby to help, answer questions, and provide feedback.

Of course, some training and development in the retail industry is designated for employees who’ll be working behind the scenes or driving strategy at the office. Nonetheless, it’s highly recommended that training retail employees always includes the shop floor. It’s a keyway for folks on the upper floors to truly understand both customer and employee experience.

Keep Training Retail Employees After Your Onboarding Process Ends

Achieving employee engagement in retail isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Moreover, the industry’s high turnover rates make it easy for any company to stand out if it puts a real emphasis on employee experience and professional development.

That’s especially true for your shop floor employees, who are often among the least appreciated team members, despite being the ones who have the most interactions with customers. The customer experience they create is the experience customers connect with your brand. Yet, these employees often see their jobs as temporary and believe management thinks of them as easily replaceable.

To be that company that encourages them to step up their game, get invested in their success. Make sure training retail employees don’t stop once they’re fully onboarded. “According to a long-term research conducted at the Middlesex University for Work-Based Learning, 74% [of] participants assert that lack of training is the biggest hurdle in achieving their full potential at work,” reports Your Training Edge.

To help them, continue teaching them skills that will help them in their current roles, whether it’s to handle challenging customer interactions better or win a higher sales bonus. To get them excited, provided training modules that help them grow into future roles.

If they’re supposed to organise merchandise, teach them about merchandising psychology and strategies. If they’re great with people, allow them to explore account management and human resources. If the first promotion they could get is to a shift manager position, include modules on management.

You could upload modules to an e-learning retail training platform and let thousands of people accompany your fashion merchandiser for a day at their own pace. Check out this video about life as a trainee fashion merchandiser for inspiration:

You could also teach monthly in-person or Zoom workshops or do a combination of group and self-paced learning.

Test things out and adjust as you get feedback from employees and your data. Over time, your company will become proof that employee engagement in retail is possible.

It will become the place where employees want to work, and therefore, where customers want to shop.

If you need support in getting inspiration on how to improve employee engagement in your organisation, contact Atobi here. We’re always ready. ATOBI is the leading employee engagement app for retailers and telcos with gamified execution and communication features. We have a full-suite app that enables you to interact with your organisation through ONE channel.