How to Create a Culture of Learning for Retail Teams

May 18, 2021 2:51:16 PM

Training & learning | Employee experience | Retail

Any credible business strategist understands the importance of company culture in 2021. As young people stream into the workforce they have made it clear that it’s not just about salary any more, they want to work somewhere where they feel they would fit in and be able to progress. In fact, 47% of active job seekers cite company culture as their main motivation for looking for new employment.

Yet when someone mentions ‘workplace culture’ in relation to retail, learning might not be the first thing that comes to mind. This is a problem, because learning is a critical factor in the new generation of employees’ ideal workplace culture. 59% of millennials report that opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them when applying for a job. 

But simply providing training opportunities is not enough to truly create a culture of learning within a business. This post will explore what a learning culture is, why it is valuable, and how retailers can create it within their company.


What is learning culture

Company culture is shared values, characteristics and behaviours amongst members of the same workplace. When a company has a learning culture, its company culture is underpinned by a framework that embeds continuous learning into processes at every level of the organization.

This includes embedding learning at:

  • The individual level - for example, individual learning, self-reflection and performance reviews. 
  • The team level - such as peer reviews, collaborative learning activities and creating incentives for teams who complete the most learning.
  • The organizational level - this includes shaping strategy and processes around knowledge gained from learning and key decision makers demonstrating willingness to learn and adapt.

Creating a learning culture shifts the goalposts for employees, moving the focus from performance to growth. Performance-focused culture breeds unhealthy competition and creates a high pressure environment. Instead, a growth-focused approach rewards employees who are eager to learn and improve, not just the ones who sell the most or complete the most tasks.

"Creating a learning culture shifts the goalposts for employees, moving the focus from performance to growth."


Where are retailers going wrong?

Only 47% of UK employees agree that their job offers good opportunities to develop their skills. It’s clear that employees are lacking a culture of learning, and stats from across the industry can indicate why this may be the case for retail employees:

Learning is infrequent

40% of frontline employees are trained once a year or less. The most basic level of creating a culture of learning is providing employees with regular training, yet our survey of 1,000 frontline workers uncovered that this largely is not happening. Of those trained a maximum of once per year, 48% reported that they feel under-recognized by their employers, highlighting a connection between training and employee fulfilment. Unfulfilled employees are less productive, provide worse customer service, and are more likely to look for other work.

Learning is ineffective

When training does occur, the traditional retail training styles typically used don’t translate into genuine learning. Employees are often put through intensive classroom-style onboarding when they first join the company including completing workbooks or online courses. In a classroom environment, at best, 40% of what is taught is retained. In most situations, it is only about 25%. One-off classroom training doesn’t create a workforce of lifelong learners.

Learning is under-recognized

It’s impossible to generate enthusiasm for learning if employees aren’t shown its value. 76% of L&D professionals feel that learning is not a management priority and 64% think that company managers view learning as a cost rather than an investment. Retailers aren’t leading by example and championing investment in learning, so why would employees bother to invest in learning themselves?

Related: 5 Common Problems with Retail Sales Training and How to Fix Them


Why does this matter?

It’s estimated that the pandemic has sped up the digitization of customer and supply-chain interactions and business operations by 3 to 4 years. Frontline retail employees have needed to adapt quickly to new technologies, guidelines and processes and this can become overwhelming and stressful. A well established learning culture makes it intuitive for employees to acclimatize to new tools and concepts such as scan-as-you-shop, curbside pickup and virtual reality displays. 

In addition to this, in workplace structures where learning is championed, employees are more willing to speak up when they feel there are gaps in their knowledge. When a company values learning as a positive exercise, employees are more likely to ask for extra training when they need it, creating a more productive, safer workplace for everyone.

"When a company values learning as a positive exercise, employees are more likely to ask for extra training when they need it"

Cultivating a culture of learning also helps retailers to attract and retain top talent. As retail re-opens the hiring market is experiencing a shortage of workers and securing new talent is becoming highly competitive. Having engaged, motivated frontline workers is crucial for taking on the surge in foot traffic, so retailers need to go the extra mile to ensure that they appeal to talented jobseekers. 42% of millennials say the most important factor when considering employers is learning and development opportunities, so this is where retailers' efforts should be focused when trying to attract new hires.

Related: Gen Z and Millennial Frontline Employees Feel Unfulfilled: Here’s How to Fix It

A study by the Center for American Progress estimated that the cost of replacing a retail employee on a $20,000 salary is at least $3,200 per employee. It’s far cheaper to upskill existing employees than make new hires, and an industry with notoriously high turnover, lack of learning opportunities can be hugely expensive. Creating an organizational culture that values learning counters this, as 94% would stay in their current role for longer if they felt that their company was invested in their learning. It’s inevitable that frontline retail roles with many younger employees will have a higher turnover than other industries, however a lack of training on the basis that employees might move on detracts from customer experience and impacts brand reputation.


How to create a learning culture

To create a learning culture, retailers should take the following steps:

Reflect with an open mind

Retailers first need to evaluate the learning structures already in place, asking employees how effective they are and how they could be improved. Remember that there are many ways that people can learn which are just as valuable as traditional training courses, including videos, podcasts, discussions, debates, reflection and teaching someone else. Use focus groups and surveys to find out which formats of learning employees think will best serve them and fit into their lives.

Related: Interview: How Tomlinson's Feed Empowers Their Teams with Mobile Learning

Create feedback loops

The keystone of a culture of learning is continuous growth. This can only happen when employees and managers are constantly given opportunities to improve. Teach all members of the organization how to give and receive constructive feedback and create structures which encourage them to do this regularly. Feedback loops which regularly highlight areas for improvement for employees, managers and organizational processes and structures enable constant progression.

Learn as an organization

Demonstrate receptiveness to learning from the top-down. When senior management responds to employee feedback and uses this to shape company strategies and processes, learners see that their ideas and opinions are valued. When managers commit to learning from employees, employees are more likely to want to learn too.

Make learning a social activity

58% of frontline employees agree that the most important thing about learning is for it to be fun and making learning a social activity is a great way to do this. Make learning a key feature of the company culture by training employees using group discussions, forums, competitions and collaborative tasks.

Related: 5 Retail Training Best Practices for 2021 and Beyond

Use incentives

The best way to show employees that learning is highly valued within your organization is to reward them for doing it. Incentives for teams who complete the most learning can include financial bonuses, recognition from management and team treats. Setting goals for learning can give employees something to work towards and a sense of fulfillment when they meet their target.

Show the impact

In order to be motivated, learners need to see the impact of their learning. This can be done by linking learning to wider company goals and clearly showing how employee efforts are contributing to them. For example, setting a goal for all employees to complete quality assurance by the end of the quarter and then sharing statistics about how many fewer defective products have been returned as a result.

Make it accessible

Training shouldn’t be seen as an extra part of frontline employees’ jobs. It needs to be embedded into their everyday flow of work and knowledge needs to be accessible at their point of need. Making learning resources accessible via mobile devices means that retail workers can learn on the job with short, bitesize content (aka microlearning) that easily fits around their other tasks. This could take the form of a 2 minute video, infographic or animation clearly demonstrating the correct way to complete a task. Mobile-first, digital training can also use gamified features to make learning fun and something employees will feel motivated to complete.

Related: A Guide to Microlearning and Why Your Employees Need It

Choose the right tool

Invest in a tool that is scalable and can deliver tailored training to different groups of employees who have different requirements. The best tools make learning measurable and give retailers a clear line of sight into how successful learning tools are using performance metrics.

Related: How to Choose the Right Digital Learning Platform for Frontline Employees 


Key takeaways

A culture of learning is not just something that’s desired, but something that new generations of frontline workers expect. But employees are being let down by inconsistent, ineffective and undervalued training. Without embedding learning at the individual, team and organizational levels, retailers will never achieve their growth potential and get the most out of their employees. Retailers need to:

  • Reflect on existing learning processes
  • Create feedback loops
  • Demonstrate learning from the top-down
  • Make learning social, accessible and fun
  • Highlight the impact that learning has
  • Choose the right tool


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