Artificial intelligence (AI) is currently being embraced as a solution to a wide range of problems. Indeed, from traffic congestion to literacy, there are high hopes that AI can help. It is not entirely surprisingly, then, that AI is also being embraced as a way to solve a widespread workplace challenge–training in the retail industry. eLearning Inside recently talked to Carol Leaman, the CEO of Axonify, to find out how her company is leveraging AI to help tackle retail training challenges and reduce the high rate of churn that has historically plagued the retail sector.
Low Retention Rates and Training Challenges in Retail
Retail has historically had one of the lowest retention rates of any industry. The industry’s high turnover has been the result of several key factors. First, many retail positions are seasonal. Second, retail positions are often viewed as entry-level jobs or as a stepping stone to a higher position. Finally,retailers have often struggled to retain employees due to the industry’s low wages (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, the mean average annual salary for a retail associate was just $24,340), limited benefits, and lack of training and advancement opportunities. But according to Leaman, the situation may be getting worse as automation continues to disrupt the retail industry on multiple levels.
“There are numerous challenges retailers are facing today when it comes to training their frontline associates,” says Leaman. Notably, a recent Korn Ferry survey of 53 retailers who collectively employ more than 2 million employees found that turn over, specifically among part-term employees, rose 5% between 2017 and 2018.
Leaman also emphasizes that in the 21st century, retailers face other unique challenges. “Retailers are also facing growing labor costs with minimum wage increases and increased pressure to provide an elevated customer experience, to name a few,” she explains. “These challenges put a lot of pressure on store managers to hire, onboard and train their people as efficiently and effectively as possible, but they can only do so much with traditional training tactics like store huddles and breakroom binders.”
How AI Is Transforming the Retail Sector
Anyone who has visited an Amazon brick-and-mortar store will already know that at least some retailers are actively experimenting with stores that are virtually free of human sales associates. Many other retailers, such as CVS, are using automated check-out terminals to at least reduce the number of sales associates required at each location. Despite such experiments, Leaman isn’t convinced that human sales associates will ever be replaced by machines.
“As more technology surrounds our experiences, consumers still crave genuine, authentic human interaction and retail is no different,” says Leaman. Rather than lead to the elimination of sales staff, Leaman suspects that the current disruption in retail will change the types of tasks carried out by retail staff. She explains:
“Basic tasks like taking inventory or checking out customers will be outsourced to technology as machines can handle these tasks with higher consistency and accuracy. The human connection, one where the retail associate knows you personally and can guide your shopping experience assisted by AI, will help with product recommendations and real-time inventory analytics. What’s really exciting is that by blending the use of technology and human interaction retailers can provide the best customer experience to meet expectations. The future associate is mobile trained and equipped to provide a consistently seamless retail experience to each customer that walks through the door.”
From Ad-hoc to Personalized Training With Axonify
Leaman notes that in the past, retail training was often a hodgepodge of approaches that were largely determined by local managers, but this wasn’t necessarily effective. “Historically, the game of telephone from head office to the frontline has resulted in each manager putting their ‘personal touch’ on training, delivering disjointed experiences across stores,” says Leaman. New technologies are now helping global retailers deliver training programs that are both consistent and personalized and to do so on a large scale. A key factor, according to Leaman, is that with training platforms, store managers are no longer on the hook to manage and train staff. Today’s online training platforms, such as Axonify, also have the ability to deliver more than any individual manager could in the past.
“This can include bursts of learning content for general onboarding, customer service best practices, the latest technologies and features in your newest product, proper basket-building approaches or even tips to identify credit card or return fraud. In a few minutes a shift, modern training platforms can personalize and adapt training to each employee based on which topics they are proven experts in and which areas of the training they need reinforced.”
Leaman emphasizes that by and large the arrival of online training platforms is a positive development for mangers, sales staff, and organizations: “With so much pressure on teams to perform, coupled with continually rising customer expectations, there is a focus on investing in new training methods, not just in retail, but across many other industries where frontline behavioral consistency and knowledge is key to business success.”
Axonify’s Approach to Retail Training
Recognizing the need for consistent yet personalized training for sales staff, the Axonify platform uses AI to offer what Leaman describes as a “deeply personalized learning experience for every frontline employee.” But Axonify’s platform isn’t just personalized. As Leaman notes, it was designed to “measure what has long been unmeasurable—the true impact of training on bottom-line business results.”
This is essential, since retail staff all bring a unique toolkit of skills to the job. “Every new hire starts with a different level of experience and knowledge,” says Leaman. “By adapting the training experience to each individual, retailers can pinpoint what each employee knows, and doesn’t know, and continually provide reinforcement of key topic areas to close those gaps. The end result is a more engaging training experience for the associate since the information is relevant to their role and needs. All of this translates into more consistent behaviors across stores.”Leaman notes that Axonify has been designed to support organizations of all sizes and to support employees from the frontline to head office. Axonify is also currently undergoing a period of ambitious research and development and expansion.
“We have some exciting new product announcements in the coming year that will make it even easier for retailers to stay competitive,” says Leaman. “We will continue to grow our own team and work closely with new and existing customers to make sure their frontline employees have the knowledge they need to do the things that matter most to the business. We are also expanding into new markets around the world, including Europe, and we are partnering with organizations like SAP to provide additional value to their customers.”
As of 2016, there were close to 5 million retail sales workers in the United States. While growth in the retail industry is slower than average (the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts just 2% between now and 2026), the industry is still expected to add close to 100,000 additional jobs over the next seven years. Given the expected changes, high churn rates, and ongoing growth of the retail sector, the need to streamline training is obvious. For this reason, it seems likely that AI-driven solutions such as Axonify will become increasingly important moving forward.