Building a Learning Culture in Retail: Strategies for Learning Leaders

Building a Learning Culture in Retail: Strategies for Learning Leaders


Absorb LMS


In a rapidly evolving retail landscape, one of the most effective ways that businesses can stay relevant with consumers is by creating a learning culture that empowers both their workforce and their partners. As competition increases, employees need to be able to adapt quickly to changing consumer preferences, emerging technologies, and industry trends, all while delivering exceptional customer service. From onboarding to employee development and partner training, a robust learning culture helps businesses create an agile environment, promoting ongoing skill and knowledge acquisition while allowing retail workers to adapt to new challenges with ease.

In this piece, we’ll discuss some of the ways that employee training can transform the customer experience and outline some strategies for fostering a learning culture in your retail business.

Why a Learning Culture Matters in Retail

One of the biggest changes facing the retail sector is the shifting priorities of consumers since the pandemic, specifically with regards to brand loyalty.

  • According to Exploding Topics, 57% of Gen Z Americans say they are less loyal to brands now than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Microsoft recently reported that66% of 18-34 year-olds say their customer service expectations have risen in the last year.
  • Newsweek found that 54 percent of American consumers would stop using a brand after just one bad experience.
  • Customer experience (CX) platform Netomi found that 39% of consumers have less patience today than they did before the pandemic.

Price was listed as the number one factor in their decisions, but a sizeable 61% of global consumers also report having cut ties with a brand over poor customer service. Clearly customer experience plays an important role, and one that’s only grown in importance in the years since the pandemic.

Much of this change in expectations could be down to the changes brought about by the pandemic, as retailers saw a sizeable shift towards online shopping—for instance, 9 out of the top 10 global ecommerce companies experienced double-digit revenue growth in 2020.1 But there’s also technology to consider; consumers expect the same seamless, consistent experience whether they’re online or in-store. Anything less than that can be jarring.

But if the challenges of retaining customers are greater than ever, then so too are the rewards. Time and time again, research has shown that loyalty doesn’t just mean repeat purchases; one study found existing customers were 50% more likely to try new products and spend 31% more, on average, compared to new customers.2 Elsewhere, a study by Bain & Company and Harvard Business School found that increasing customer retention rates by 5% could increase profits by anywhere between 25% to 95%.3

It’s no secret that in physical retail, your employees are your brand. They’re the main point of contact for consumers interacting with your business, and they set the tone for how your customers feel about the experience you offer. In order for your workforce to perform to the best of their ability, they need to develop in-depth knowledge of your product offering, a strong grasp of industry trends, and good awareness of compliance standards, not to mention the soft skills required to deliver good customer service. To make things more challenging, in retail these are all things that are constantly evolving. As such, it’s vitally important that your employees are given the tools and content to stay informed about the things that matter to your business. This is where learning and development comes in.

By developing a robust culture of learning within your retail organization, your business can not only build a more agile, resilient workforce, but you can also retain that workforce for longer. A 2018 LinkedIn Learning report showed that 94% of employees are more likely to stay at a company that invests in their career development. And if, as we established earlier, your employees are your brand, it makes sense for your business to keep hold of the people you've worked so hard to develop.

Strategies for Building a Learning Culture in Retail

In order to foster a learning culture in your retail business, you’ll need people within your organization who are able to set the tone for the rest of your workforce, articulating a clear vision of continuous development. We refer to these people as “learning leaders” and they play a vital role in ensuring that learning and development becomes part of the culture in your business, not just a mandatory workshop every few months.

By aligning learning initiatives with your organization's strategic goals, learning leaders ensure that employee development isn't just encouraged, but directly contributes to the company's progress. They inspire your workforce to pursue personal and professional growth as an integral part of their career journey, ultimately contributing to the longevity of your workforce and the satisfaction of your customers.

By aligning learning initiatives with your organization's strategic goals, learning leaders ensure that employee development isn't just encouraged, but directly contributes to the company's progress. They inspire your workforce to pursue personal and professional growth as an integral part of their career journey, ultimately contributing to the longevity of your workforce and the satisfaction of your customers.

One method of countering this is through mobile and micro-learning. Breaking content up into smaller, mobile-friendly modules allows employees to access training in short bursts when it suits them. A survey from the Brandon Hall Group found that microlearning increased by 40% during the pandemic. Microlearning has also been shown to have a positive impact on knowledge retention4 and performance in the long-term.

Content can be tailored to the learning needs of both groups and individuals and with today's AI-powered learning management systems, quizzes and assessments can even adapt to different learning styles and abilities on the fly to deliver a more engaging, personalized learning experience. To make things more appealing to the workforce, learning leaders can employ gamification techniques—game-like elements such as badges, leaderboards and rewards—to keep the process enjoyable.

As your employees develop and grow within your organization, it’s only logical to take steps to ensure that knowledge is passed on to newer employees as well. Mentoring is another great strategy to reinforce the learning culture in your retail business, and it’s an extremely effective one too. Research by ZipDo found that mentoring programs increased productivity, morale and engagement, but also had positive effects on workplace diversity and employee retention.

Retail Learning Culture in Action

You don't need to look far to find examples of retail brands thriving thanks to a strong learning culture. Apple's retail training program is renowned for cultivating a highly knowledgeable and customer-focused workforce. With a strong emphasis on product expertise and customer service, Apple's training not only imparts technical knowledge but also instills the company's philosophy, ensuring that customers receive personalized, informed assistance and support in Apple stores. Training also helps the tech giant retain a staggering 90% of its employees.5

US shoe retailer, Zappos are well known for their unconventional approach to onboarding new employees, famously offering trainees $2,000 to quit on the first day. But beyond the attention-grabbing stunts, the program places a strong emphasis on creating a unique and exceptional customer experience, letting employees embrace their individuality and creativity while imbuing them with a problem-solving approach to customer care.

On a recent episode of our Return on Intelligence Podcast, Brian Paige and Cathy Campbell from The Aaron’s Company shared some of their thoughts on creating a successful retail learning culture. Aaron’s Black Belt program mixes online and instructor-led training with a special emphasis on the “demonstration of skills” in a one-on-one setting with managers.

“Essentially, the demonstration of skill really builds the store culture because it starts from the top down,” says Campbell. “It’s designed so that if a team member doesn't know something the first time, that's a coaching opportunity.”

Paige was careful to stress the need for patience in the early days of instilling a learning culture in an organization. “It takes time, it's incremental, and it takes a long time to get folks on board. It's not a culture that happens overnight. It has to start with senior-level leaders and it has to be developed.”

Adapting to retail industry trends and technology

In the retail sector, a strong learning culture can also play a pivotal role in the adoption of new technology and industry best practices. A culture of learning allows businesses to create an environment where employees are encouraged to stay updated on the latest retail industry trends and innovations, and are prepared to adapt to evolving technologies and industry standards.

Technology adaptation in retail can have a positive impact on everything from optimizing inventory to delivering better customer experiences. By providing access to learning resources, training, and a supportive atmosphere for experimentation, employees have the opportunity to become more comfortable with integrating new tools and practices into their day-to-day work.

A learning culture can also help to position your business as a thought leader in your sector, giving senior staff the confidence to voice their thoughts and opinions both inside and outside your organization. When your employees are engaged and informed on the changes happening in your business, and when they’re empowered to share what they’ve learned, you may even find that industry peers start to look to your team for their thoughts on the latest developments in retail.

Meeting customer and partner learning expectations

A well-crafted learning culture also fosters a deep understanding of retail customer expectations and preferences throughout your workforce, driving higher standards across the business. When employees are educated in customer-centric approaches, they can adapt swiftly to evolving consumer demands and generate better customer satisfaction and loyalty.

A culture of learning doesn't stop with your own workforce either, partner training has proved to be an effective strategy for making sure retail partners are armed with the same product knowledge and brand awareness as your in-house employees. On another recent episode of our Return on Intelligence Podcast, Devin Hastie—Director of Commercial Learning at Anheuser-Busch—shared some fascinating insight on the brewing company’s innovative partner learning program, BrewU.

Through BrewU, Anheuser-Busch trains around 400 wholesalers across North America on how best to sell and promote their products. The platform, which is powered by Absorb LMS, engages learners through a range of self-led, web-based content. “With the Absorb platform, we have the ability to change Brew U to be more of a certification,” says Hastie. “Think of that as certifying people on skills or speed to competency... They get feedback from their managers, they get coaching from their leaders, we started to offer skills and capabilities badges... They get a personalized learning journey that helps them in their job.”

When both your employees and retail partners are equipped with the skills and insights developed through a robust learning culture, they’re able to answer inquiries, and address concerns with confidence and efficiency. This not only streamlines the customer experience but also instills a sense of trust and credibility, as customers are more likely to have their needs met and problems solved promptly.

Creating a learning culture within a Retail LMS

In today’s retail landscape, adapting to shifting consumer priorities, emerging technology, and industry trends is vital to the success of your business. When even one poor experience can drive customers away, customer experience plays a central role in shaping your brand sentiment. A robust learning culture empowers employees to remain agile and responsive, enhancing the customer experience and improving the working lives of your retail team. By aligning learning initiatives with your company's strategic goals, you can start to create a cohesive brand experience that makes both your employees, and your consumers, advocates for your brand.

Absorb LMS offers a comprehensive platform to create, deliver, and manage tailored learning content in a way that makes learning a central part of the culture in your retail business. With support for microlearning, personalization, and gamification, as well as compliance training and mentorship programs, our system tracks employee progress and provides valuable data-driven insights to help you monitor the development of your team.

If you’d like to find out more about how your business can create a learning culture that drives retail success, get in touch with a member of our team or arrange a demo today.


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