How to Train New Retail Staff: Onboarding for Employee Success

Alexandra Sheehan
May 17, 2018 · 7 min read

At some point, every growing retailer will need to hire staff. And even though they may only put in a few hours a week at your store, they play a crucial role in the customer experience, which is what ultimately drives sales.

That’s why it’s essential to establish an effective onboarding process. Consider some of these numbers, for instance:

Whether you’re making your first hire or onboarding employees for the umpteenth time, it’s important to set things off on the right foot so you can minimize losses. A positive onboarding experience could lead to higher productivity, more employee engagement, and — every retailer’s goal — greater overall profits.

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Below, we chat with industry experts and retailers themselves about how to onboard new retail employees to set you and them up for long-term success:

Set expectations

As with any relationship, profesional or not, setting expectations upfront keeps everyone on the same page. Plus, it helps your new hires understand what you deem to be success for them in their role.

The Wall Street Journal writes:

“Outline challenging, clear career paths. Employees want to know where they could be headed and how they can get there. Annual reviews or midyear check-ins are one obvious venue for these discussion, but you should also encourage workers to come to you with career questions and wishes throughout the year.”

While your hourly retail staff may not envision a lifelong career at your company, it’s still a good idea to give them opportunity for growth and advancement. You can give them skills that they can take with them beyond their time of employment with you.

“The culture of the retail firm needs to embrace continuing education, and lifelong learning,” says Ray Riley, CEO at Progress Retail. Showing your new hires what they can expect to learn and gain from their role at your company can give them extra motivation at the start.

As such, it’s a good idea to document your expectations, giving employees clear goals to work towards. When it’s in writing, they’ll have something to refer to, and you’ll minimize miscommunication. Consider creating an employee handbook, distributed to every team member. That consistency will help employees, new and old, work towards the same goals.

Greg Rudolph is founder and CEO at Board Blazers . If you’ve never documented or thought about setting expectations before, he has some advice: “Think through what your best employees do well and write it down,” he says. “Then sit down with your new hire(s) and share what defines ‘successful’ at your company.”

Other considerations on expectations:

  • How, when, where and why to communicate
  • What to do in challenging or uncertain situations
  • Your company policies — and the why behind them

When you’re goal-setting, make sure they’re SMART goals. MindTools has a great overview on how to create SMART goals.

Establish processes

While expectation-setting should be an official part of your onboarding process, you’ll also want to establish other processes to make the transition as seamless as possible. Share these processes with your employees, so they know what’s next.

Rudolph does this for his team at Board Blazers, where he has regular reviews with staff. “Make an appointment for the next one-on-one conversation,” he recommends. “It assures employees that there’s an established time to ask questions and share concerns. And it gives managers the opportunity to offer feedback in a structured setting without catching employees off-guard.”

Diana George, president of By George HR Solutions, notes how essential processes are to giving employees a positive first impression. “One thing that hourly retail staff appreciate more than anything else is being properly put into the system and receiving their first paycheck without a glitch,” she says.

Create a checklist that outlines each of the necessary steps to getting your new hires fully onboard, George recommends. “This ensure nothing is missed,” she says. She recommends having both the employer and employee sign off on the completed checklist to hold all parties accountable.

George also stresses the importance of making sure you not only go over company policies and procedures, but that they are fully understood. “While new employees are excited to get started and asked to sign a lot of paperwork their first day, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve observed is that people don’t read what they’re signing,” she says.

Provide job-specific training

The research by Korn Ferry found that training is one of the top two areas retailers are focusing on to help reduce employee churn. And it’s a smart move if you’re looking to get new employees acclimated to their role and your company.

Training means different things for different roles, and it also depends on your new team member’s experience before they accepted the job. There are a few key areas to consider:

  • Sales training
  • Training about your brand
  • How to use point-of-sale (POS) and other tools
  • Company-specific procedures and guidelines

Remember to consider your specific new hire’s needs. Alan Guinn CEO and managing director of The Guinn Consultancy Group stresses how important it is to give them the support they need in the beginning, otherwise this could do damage to the customer experience and your brand. He recalls a time where he saw a sales associate ask a customer to help him, which really should be the other way around.

“I’ve watched managers and supervisors practice the warm body theory — ‘just put any warm body in that position…that’ll do.’ That immediately subjects the new hire to an environment where they have little to no knowledge or expertise when they’re put into a customer-facing position. The new employee then doesn’t know how to adequately represent your brand.”

Here are some general tips for training your new retail staff:

  • Mix it up. “Everyone has different learning styles, and not all of your employees will be able to grasp concepts in the same manner,” says Yamarie Grullon, director of content strategy at ShopKeep. “Use a combination of visual, verbal, nonverbal, tactile and auditory materials to onboard employees.” This means a training video could be followed by an on-the-job demonstration, plus a printed booklet that the employee can review and refer to later.
  • Train them well on the POS. It’s critical that all employees know how to use your POS properly, or you could face missed payments or inaccurate inventory data which could lead to bigger problems if unaddressed.
  • Have them shadow other staff. Seeing the work in action, and how it’s supposed to be done, will give new hires an idea of what the true day-to-day is like. Plus, learning from a peer rather than a superior may also be more effective in some cases.

Andy Curry owns a True Value Home Center retail store in Colorado. His employees go through a series of training phases: POS training, shadowing and, when they’ve proven their commitment to the job, outside training to help them advance their knowledge and skills. Still, questions do come up, and that’s a normal part of the process. “There are typically several months of new hires asking fellow employees how to do something, or if stock this and that,” he says.

Highlight the benefits of the job

Among the top perk retailers are adding for staff, according to Korn Ferry:

  • Training
  • Career path development
  • Compensation packages

Employers are taking a hard look at what they’re offering staff beyond just hourly pay. And if you’re willing to provide those perks, be sure to share them with new hires. You don’t want them to miss out on benefits that could lead to higher retention rates.

In addition to those listed above, here are some perks to consider:

  • Discounts at your store or partnering stores
  • Incentives and bonuses (they may or may not be performance-based)
  • Tuition contributions and scholarships
  • Company culture

Lululemon is a perfect example of this. The brand has a strong identity, and its employees represent that identity. They encourage leadership and personal development and wellness, plus they offer a pretty attractive discount so staff can purchase the clothing that suits that lifestyle. There’s a reason they have 4.6 stars on Glassdoor and have been voted one of 2018’s best places to work.

Give them a warm, authentic welcome

Retail employees are often the one who spend holidays, nights and weekends helping your store prosper. “This is your retail family,” Michael Patrick, founder and CEO of MOHR Retail, says.

And while you can’t force friendships, you can welcome new hires to the team in an authentic way.

  • Zazzle, an online retail brand, welcomes new hires with a scavenger hunt. Though these are for corporate employees, a similar tactic could work for your hourly workers, too.
  • The United States Postal Service gifts new employees with a swag bag, including a water bottle, drawstring backpack and hat.
  • Colorado-based brewery Holidaily provides uniforms that double as useful flannel shirts for employees to wear outside of work. (They also promote the brand, so it’s a win-win.)

Spend time getting to know what your new hire is like outside of work, within reasonable boundaries. “Knowing a person’s milestones is a great way to build rapport,” Patrick says. At the end of the day, the Golden Rule really applies here: Treat your new hires as you would like to be treated.

Visit the Department of Labor website for specific guidelines on what constitutes an appropriate employer-employee relationship.

Up next: 4 tech trends that are changing how you recruit and hire retail staff >


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