Out with the old

In the retail environment, where high staff turnover can equate to high training costs, e-learning offers the opportunity to both slash training budgets and increase the effectiveness of training by offering a standardised level that can be rolled out across multiple sites. Liz Morrell reports.

e are a distributed, 24 hour business and for some of the programmes we offer, face to face methods would not work practically. E-learning allows us to open opportunities to all of our people consistently," says Jennifer Fernandes, reputation officer, human resources at McDonald\'s Restaurants which has created an extranet site for its staff members - ourlounge.co.uk.

Such benefits mean that e-learning is proving increasingly popular in the retail sector - especially when coupled with new EPoS and system roll-outs that are more compatible with the solutions on offer. "Interest has picked up in the last 12 months because new EPoS systems tend to be web-based," says Alistair Marshall, head of retail at Intellego, which provides solutions for the likes of B&Q (the retailer has been using e-learning since 2000).

The company utilises it for both compulsory learning and to support the development of employees. It has used it for everything from launching new projects and product knowledge to supporting systems changes. Indeed, e-learning is particularly useful for the latter, according to Marshall. "For a retail organisation doing an EPoS roll-out, e-learning to support that is one of the most cost effective and beneficial things you can do with it," he says.

"If you look at any larger FTSE 250 company all are doing some form of
e-learning. The attraction is a combination of cost savings and consistency of message," says Charles Gould, managing director at e-learning design specialists, Brightwave, whose clients include Ikea and Boots. "It\'s always been big in the US but retailers are starting to use more of it now," agrees Frances Riseley, practice manager at retail consulting and training company, Martec International.

The economies of scale offer huge savings over traditional training methods once the initial investment has been made and also overcome the logistical problems of traditional training - such as waiting for the next training date for new recruits or getting staff off the shopfloor. "Generally e-learning initiatives are head office initiatives and the store manager wants their people on the shopfloor so there is a challenge internally to get the buy-in of the store manager to release people off the shopfloor," says Marshall.

Effective training

"Working in retail presents many challenges to traditional training methods; in particular it is difficult to take individuals working in customer facing roles out of the store, or to train people in large groups," agrees Steve Coe, e-learning manager at Boots UK. "E-learning gives us the ability to deploy effective training to a large population quickly, efficiently and in a way that reduces time away from the customer. We are also able to track training activity, which helps us measure the impact that it has on the business," he says.

Boots UK launched e-learning to its staff in September of last year. Coe says it has proved immensely popular. "In the past year, the use of it has soared, with over 250,000 modules being completed - an average of just under four per store colleague," he says.

But getting staff comfortable with the concept can be a challenge in itself and the benefits need to be understood throughout the business, according to Marshall. "If it\'s seen as a head office initiative that\'s been pushed out to stores, then they are the projects that are likely to fail," he says.

At Boots, getting staff buy-in was vital. "The main challenge to overcome was to really understand how this could become part of our culture, particularly when our people had limited experience of using it and would require support to help their confidence grow," says Coe. "We introduced e-learning champions in stores to provide additional help and put into place a communications strategy that was leader-led."

He says staff have reacted incredibly well. "Store colleagues can plan and complete their training in manageable time slots, they learn new skills and it improves their confidence. From a business perspective we have also seen a clear, positive, correlation between e-learning completion and improved business performance, both in terms of customer service and employee satisfaction," he says.

Indeed, it has proved so popular with staff they have asked for more. "We have had a tremendous response," says Coe. "Our people enjoy completing e-learning and can see the benefit it has on them and the performance of their store. We are constantly being asked for additional modules and have an ongoing programme of development to expand the portfolio. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive - colleagues feel they have a valuable training tool that really helps them to develop their skills and knowledge and ultimately improve the service they give our customers," he says.

With almost a decade of experience in the market, B&Q has also ensured its stores are best set up to get the most from what\'s on offer. "All stores and support offices have a number of PC\'s set up for e-learning with regular feeds to ensure modules are up-to-date, therefore the facility is always available for employees to access and complete," says Mike Hawes, B&Q learning and development manager.

Staff are increasingly expecting learning to be technology-based. Henrietta Palmer, e-learning manager at TUI UK & Ireland, which includes the First Choice and Thomson stores, agrees: "Due to the average age of our retail employees, many have been using computers either for personal use or for learning for some time," she says.

The company dedicates a weekly timeslot to training. "Our shops shut down for a short period on one morning a week to allow for employee training. If e-learning is the chosen delivery method it is completed at the desktop. Employees are also able to access it during quiet periods," says Palmer.

However, to keep staff engaged content must be relevant and interesting rather than simply putting previously paper-based content online. "You have to ensure you can replicate the energy of a good classroom experience," says Gould. "It\'s about trying to make it more than just a series of screens that tell you stuff."

The training should be fun whatever the subject. "There is training for development and training for compliance - e.g. health and safety. The latter tends to be something people invest less in so the experience can be more tedious which can give e-learning a bad name," says Gould.

"It\'s about understanding your audience," says Marshall. "For retailers it needs to be snappy, succinct and relatively pacey in its delivery but you also need to consider that most retail staff don\'t use PC\'s as part of their job so it has to be very intuitive."

Interactive elements are vital to maintain interest and can bring a seemingly boring subject to life. At Ikea a Cluedo style game - \'The Missing Stock Mysteries\' - is included as part of the company\'s induction course to help
inform staff of how to handle and process stock using Ikea\'s stock management system.

Many retailers are also opting for the best of both worlds by mixing traditional training with e-learning. "Blended learning combines various types of learning with e-learning - such as one- to-ones, validation, workshops, self-development, books, on the job training and other methods," says Hawes.

TUI UK & Ireland does the same. "As well as the traditional approach where the user completes e-learning alone and is tracked formally, we use group e-learning (blended with face to face) where shop managers deliver scripts pre-prepared by our professional training team and e-learning is worked through as a group promoting discussion." says Palmer.

E-learning offers many advantages - particularly during the current recession when training budgets are amongst the first to be slashed. "People can think because retail is a face-to-face business you have to do face-to-face training
but sending someone from a store (for traditional training) is more expensive so retailers don\'t tend to do it. In reality, it\'s e-learning or nothing," says Marshall.
It is growing fast but making sure it is done properly is the key to realising the true benefits it can offer.

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