OPINIONIndustry Partners

Grocery Trends Put Spotlight on Front-Line Employee Training

Service, customer experience will matter more as country reopens
front-line grocery employee
Photograph by WGB Staff

The rocky road for grocery retailers isn’t over. Even as many saw booming sales in 2020, they also faced severe growing pains as they tried to manage people, processes and technology to keep up with consumer demand during a pandemic. A year later, some of the pressures brought by the pandemic have eased, but grocers can’t afford to relax.

As more people return to life near-normal, working in offices and dining in restaurants, a new challenge emerges: attracting and retaining customers who no longer rely solely on grocery stores for most of their meals.

At the same time, some of the changes from the pandemic won’t go away. Shoppers have grown accustomed to online grocery shopping, curbside pickup and grocery delivery—and they aren’t going to give those conveniences up.

To tackle these challenges, grocery retailers must ensure that their front-line employees have the training they need to perform.

From Crisis to Consistency

During the pandemic, many grocers were forced to offer online ordering, delivery and curbside pickup. It wasn’t an option: It was a matter of survival. Retailers that didn’t have the technological or procedural infrastructures to make the switch worked with third parties such as Instacart and Shipt to shop and deliver customer purchases. But fees from those third parties add up quickly, especially in an industry that already has small margins.

Online shopping and delivery are here to stay, and grocers should plan to integrate these functions into their own organizations and rely on their employees to deliver consistent customer experiences. Grocers will need to provide training to enable employees to succeed in these new and developing positions.

Superior Customer Experience

The grocery industry is known for being highly competitive, and that will only increase as retailers such as Amazon, Wegmans and Aldi expand their physical and online reach. Consumers have ample choice, and with these expansions, they’ll have even more.

To keep customers, grocers must focus on building loyalty. One very tangible way to do that is by delivering a superior customer experience regardless of whether a customer shops online or in-store. Here’s an example. Online customers can be hesitant to let some “stranger” pick their produce or decide what an acceptable substitution is.  Their first experience can determine if they will ever do online grocery shopping again—at least at that store.

That’s why the grocery employees who do online order fulfillment must have the right skills and knowledge to create a great experience. That might mean making smart decisions about product substitutions, selecting fresh, undamaged produce or texting the customer to inform them of an out-of-stock item. Even simple steps can make an impact, but if employees aren’t given the training to know how and when to make the best decisions, you risk a bad experience that could turn a new customer off forever.

Historically, training front-line employees hasn’t always been at the top of the grocery store management team’s priority list. If they provide training at all, it may be an occasional event that gets lost when employees who were trained leave. But the fast pace of change in the industry means that event-based training is not enough. Grocers need to find new ways to make ongoing training a regular part of employees’ days so they remember and apply the skills they need to perform their jobs well in the moments that matter

Growth in Experiential Shopping

To battle competition from restaurants and other grocers, retailers will need to provide new shopping experiences. Stores like Wegmans offer fresh, hot meals from themed foodservice stands and partner with local restaurants to carry favorite products.

Consumers have placed more emphasis on fresh and healthy eating. In response, grocers offer more healthy recipe ideas, prepared meals and ingredient transparency to help consumers meet those aspirations.

As grocers expand their offerings, they ask more of their front-line employees. They must make sure employees have the training and skills to deliver the customized experiences that set their stores apart.

Training the Front Line

During the pandemic, grocery employees needed to quickly learn to handle new tasks, from shopping for online customers to delivering to the curbside and homes, in addition to managing traditional roles of stocking, inventory, customer service and cashiering. As grocers enter the next phase, they must make sure the front line is prepared to balance both traditional and new responsibilities.

Front-line employees need  the right training to perform at the higher level that grocery stores now require and that customers demand. This new approach to training must be frequent, ongoing and accessible. As last year proved, requirements change quickly, and employees need the right support to rapidly adjust their behavior.

When grocers invest in effective ongoing front-line training, employees perform better and become an integral asset to help grocery stores address the challenges to come.

Evan Parkes is a principal learning strategy consultant for Axonify.

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