What Resources Can Make the GM/HBC Shopping Experience Better?

Discussion
Oct 05, 2006
Dave Wendland

Editorial by Dave Wendland, Hamacher Resource Group, special to GMDC


Retailers are constantly looking for ways to update and upgrade the appearance of their storefront to consumers. They invest in new fixtures, trendy colors, new categories and often add ‘retailtainment’ to their repertoire. Seasonal aisles are frequently works of art. However, the unfortunate reality is that too few invest in the single most important asset within their retail operation – their people.


Effective training must go beyond the basics. This is extremely important in general merchandise (GM) and health & beauty care (HBC) products, where training has been woefully lacking. Such training needs to extend beyond the basics into insights as to how shoppers navigate decision-making and provide product knowledge to help staff direct consumers to an informed decision.


How much time and energy are retailers placing on this important training aspect? Not enough. Experience suggests there is a direct correlation between a well-trained team of associates prepared to sell in a confident, consistent manner.


Programs that provide tutorials on questions consumers ask and product knowledge relative to GM and HBC would fill a major gap in satisfying consumer needs. These types of program have proven effective in helping retailers take the all-important step in making the shopping experience an optimum one for consumers. Consumer research has consistently proven that customer service and availability of helpful, trained staff are among the most important criteria when deciding where to shop and whether or not to return.


The blurring of the retail channels makes it a requirement to differentiate at retail in new and innovative ways. The shopping experience is a critical competitive differentiator, and knowledgeable, motivated employees are better equipped to deliver a superior shopper experience, build loyalty among consumers and enrich market baskets. But, employee-training programs can be expensive and time consuming, so it is important to determine how they actually impact sales. Training programs need to not only teach how to interact with consumers but must also feature accountability and compliance monitoring to ensure ROI.


This whole issue is very poignant for GM and HBC categories since they have been challenged of recent to develop strong growth trends.


Investing in a staff’s ability to delight customers will put a retail organization on the path to delivering a market-winning environment. And, we believe that it begins in the aisle, especially the GM and HBC aisles, as associates interact with consumers – making or breaking the experience.


Discussion Questions: Can a strong emphasis on training
bolster sales in GM and HBC departments? Is it the missing element in GM/HBC
merchandising? What should training programs be combined with to maximize productivity?

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18 Comments on "What Resources Can Make the GM/HBC Shopping Experience Better?"


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Dan Nelson
Guest
Dan Nelson
12 years 10 months ago

Consumers are too often becoming accustomed to “self service” and that comes at the expense of loyalty and “personal connections” with the retailers they visit. From self service kiosks at Airport check in, to self service check out lanes, shoppers are increasingly expected to serve themselves, and this lack of customer connectivity will create lost identity for retailers.

There are great examples of associates “delighting” shoppers with wonderful personalized service and those retailers are really winning long term commitment and loyalty with their shoppers.

The smart retailers who plan to win understand that “over-serving their clients will ensure their continued growth and success, and build true shopper loyalty….

John Franco
Guest
12 years 10 months ago

In many stores that I visit regularly, the HBC aisles are next to the pharmacy counter. Inevitably, customers will ask the pharmacist on duty for help with most of their HBC questions. Some of these may be relevant for the pharmacist, but most of them probably aren’t. This shows that there is a willingness by customers to ask questions if there is someone there to ask.

Finding the peak times when HBC assistance would be profitable to the store, and staffing an ‘expert’ during those times, would probably produce a strong ROI. It would also avoid the necessity of staffing an expert during times when one is unnecessary. Or, better yet, ask the HBC suppliers to provide the manpower. Surely they could justify the cost as marketing!

I think that this applies primarily to HBC and not GM, though. I wouldn’t think there would be a huge need for a GM specialist to answer questions.

James Tenser
Guest
12 years 10 months ago
When we discuss the value of employee training to retailers we should consider its context: First, what are we training them to do? The simple, “smile, greet, say thank you” training may have value in one context. Detailed knowledge of supplements or OTC remedies may be required in another. Helping a gentleman select a suit implies a different type of knowhow compared with helping an audio enthusiast select a car stereo system. Training (and degree of investment in training) must fit the retail context. Second, even superbly trained people cannot completely cover for your flawed operational practices. If your POS system is subject to crashes or slow response, even your best checkout person is made to look plodding or incompetent. If you are out of stock on a requested item, even the most knowledgeable floor clerk cannot provide it to the customer. Does training matter? Absolutely. But it must fit the retail context and ride on top of operational competency. Otherwise it’s like applying a band-aid over a sucking wound. When it comes to customer… Read more »
George Andrews
Guest
George Andrews
12 years 10 months ago
The level of customer service is built into each retailer’s business model. Out of necessity, I see more IT solutions like information kiosks for customer assistance and product knowledge in mass and grocery, where many still don’t hit the universal customer service basics of clean, in stock, and a fast check out on a consistent basis. Retailers need to focus on improving those measures first. These retailers will also increasingly put the responsibility for in-store customer knowledge in the hands of key suppliers. However, I also see a lot of room in mass and grocery for training and improvement. In some retailers, basic technology has hurt training where “watch this video in the break room” has replaced manager providing one on one training and mentoring. Training like the Disney University model, where you are trained for one week on your job at Disney before you can direct cars on the parking lot, would work to develop more employee loyalty, improve store knowledge and reduce error rates. Hire a good attitude, teach the skills and you… Read more »
Stephan Kouzomis
Guest
Stephan Kouzomis
12 years 10 months ago

Same old story is noted; retailers know what needs to be done.

Grocery, and meal/produce /deli/outlets could do very well in such a highly profitable category. And this is perplexing to many, for grocers are always looking for higher margin business.

As the same old story goes, hire away a manager from a department store for HBA products, and learn how it is done. If it works, bingo! And if it doesn’t, you have secured some valuable merchandising, service and selling tools.

SIDE BAR: Many department stores secure HBA reps to work the chain, and set up merchandising units. And many times it is free.

Time to leverage your business strength for this budding and reinventive category. It can make more GPM dollars then the canned vegetable/fruit sections, or the low end cut meat section.

If you have cooking lessons, why not skin care or beauty sessions? And that’s the whole, big and profitable story. Hmmmmmmmmm

Bernice Hurst
Guest
12 years 10 months ago
Look away now if you’re the squeamish sort, I am about to use a dirty word. Some of us consumers (even we RetailWire pundits) want CHOICE. Sometimes we want to get in and out quickly, serving ourselves and not being pestered by aggressive sales staff. Sometimes we want information and advice and someone to talk to. Which means, to me at least, that training is an essential part of the job offer. Employers need to provide training as well as salary and perks. It should go without saying. I don’t know if many American retailers offer graduate training programs, but I read about some this weekend that I thought covered all the bases and offered sufficient motivation and pride to attract (obviously, judging by the numbers quoted) ambitious and potentially excellent staff. See for yourself by clicking here. There are far too many stores in the UK where service is atrocious but there are many where it is far more than merely acceptable. In the OTC arena, for example, there are quite a few products… Read more »
Ian Percy
Guest
12 years 10 months ago
This is such a tired old issue and I’m pretty well resigned to the unfortunate reality that many if not most retailers don’t get it, won’t ever get it and when they go down, will blame government, the world economy or the customers themselves. I still remember David Letterman’s line when Sears announced huge layoffs: “I didn’t know anyone worked there.” EVERY good idea or solution will come from a human mind. So why don’t owners and executives invest in people? 1) The investment can walk out the door at any time. 2) The more inspired, intelligent and insightful the employees the more initiative they’re going to take — they may even start thinking on their own. Then who knows what might happen! 3) Many Principals are focused on the week’s till, so long term investments of any kind aren’t even on the radar. 4) You just might uncover a superstar who can run circles around you. 5) There’s no money even if we did want to invest in people. Margins are razor thin. Here’s… Read more »
David Zahn
Guest
12 years 10 months ago
I am first and foremost a “trainer” by profession — so, in the interests of full disclosure let me state that upfront. This is an interesting topic because given the “personal” nature of many of the products sold in HBA/HBC specifically (perhaps less so in GM), I am not convinced that the shopper really wants to engage the clerk stocking shelves in an extended discussion. Leon Nicholas had it right when he referenced the pharmacy (there is an aura of knowledge and medical insight that the white coat offers that a pricing gun cannot carry off as well). Should someone be looking at hemorrhoid medications, liver spot or wrinkle removers, or any of the variety of “marital lubricants” etc. — chances are you would not be inclined to want to have a chat with the person most typically seen working that aisle…a 17 year old kid. I love training and all that it can be provide…but it needs to “fit” the environment. Perhaps the same thing can be covered through information kiosks or displays —… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
12 years 10 months ago

Needing to offer training and figuring out how to pay for it is the situation that retailers face. What about adding one more element to the equation: return on training dollars? What happens to customer loyalty and/or the size of customer orders when salespeople are trained better — whether the training is in product knowledge or business process knowledge? How important is it to your customers to interact with employees who can answer questions about the products or how to use the products? How important is it to your bottom line to have employees who understand how what they do fits into the overall operation of the store and its profitability? If it makes no difference to have knowledgeable employees then it is difficult to justify spending the money. If there is a return on investment, then making the decision to invest in training is easy.

Leon Nicholas
Guest
Leon Nicholas
12 years 10 months ago

Particularly in the HBC section, more knowledgeable associates would be a great asset. The “glow” of the pharmacy could be extended into OTC. Given the vast array of small-size SKUs with often undifferentiated appeal, HBC is ideal for greater customer service, especially in a section like cough/cold. In that case, not only is there a dizzying array of SKUs, but the shopper is often sick when trying to navigate it…..

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
12 years 10 months ago

Department stores and higher-end cosmetic companies learned a long time ago the value of having trained personnel. They are not just there to take up space — they are your sales team in the field, the eyes ad ears of a company who wants to know what their customers think and how they live their lives.

Clearly, this is difficult to do in a self-service environment like the supermarket. But if you can have nutritionists from time to time in your stores, why not a couple of people in the HBC aisle making recommendations and perhaps even doing makeovers if you have some space. There is huge markup in makeup!

People want to look and feel better. If they are looking for help in what dinners to prepare for the week, why not some quick in-store advice on personal grooming and wellness?

Dan Gilmore
Guest
Dan Gilmore
12 years 10 months ago
The retail shopping experience continues to degrade everywhere. At one level, improved training for sales floor associates could help, but retailers understandably are reluctant to invest in people when the turnover rates are so high. I think we also have to ask whether collectively the retailers are all just not very bright — if the investment in training paid off with real ROI, surely some of them would be doing it a lot more? Finally, this is really the age old retail dilemma between high service and low price retailers, made worse in the internet age. The retailer that invests in its people often finds it educates the consumer, who then price shops. Much as I wish, as a shopper, we had better trained sales associates, I see little likelihood of it happening, for the reasons cited above and others. Much more likely — technology approaches, whether that be increasingly intelligent kiosks, or the ability thru the kiosk or even phones on the floor to connect to a centralized group of product experts who can… Read more »
Laura Davis-Taylor
Guest
Laura Davis-Taylor
12 years 10 months ago
This is such an important topic — and too often overlooked. One negative or positive consumer experience with the staff has incredibly powerful implications to loyalty. Yet training is just now earning its place as a key internal focus for retailers. Amazing considering that the average shopper is just dying for someone to ask them what they need and show them that they care! I agree that we as shoppers have also accustomed ourselves to Self Service. However, we don’t even have those tools right in-store yet. Self service is much better online than in-store and efforts to bring those best practices into the brick and mortar have been lackluster at best. Best Buy has made some very positive inroads with special training processes to help associates identify and effectively communicate with specific segments. I do believe that 2007 will unveil more interesting customer service efforts as well. Saatchi X’s new role with Wal-Mart regarding their associate training “to become more on brand” and live customer service tools such as Experticity and Live Expert are… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
12 years 10 months ago

It’s easy to suggest training. It’s hard to pay for it. Most retail stores are self-service. The employees are there to ring the register and put merchandise on the shelves. Department stores have commissioned cosmetics salespeople. These people have to be trained, because the merchandise isn’t available for self-service. The training is paid by the margins, which are far superior to those available for cosmetics sold in chain drug stores, mass merchants, and supermarkets.

George Anderson
Guest
George Anderson
12 years 10 months ago

When was the last time you were in the HBC section of a supermarket, mass merchant or even a drugstore and found an employee working in it? What’s the point of training employees on the finer points of HBC if stores do not put workers in the aisles or sections?

There are some exceptions to the no-one-around rule.

Wegmans has a desk in front of its Nature’s Marketplace section. It isn’t always staffed though. Whole Foods does a good job in this area. There are usually one or two employees in our local store who always offer assistance when you come into the HBC aisle.

Bernie Slome
Guest
Bernie Slome
12 years 10 months ago
Whether it is GM/HBC or any other category, training is essential. Proper training, that is. Giving someone a training manual should not be considered training. Training also doesn’t end after the initial training period. There must be a constant reinforcement and retraining. And there needs to be measurement of the level of learning. With the proliferation of retailers and the blurring of their wares, the differentiation is the customer experience and customer service. And this must be taught. Employees/associates/salespeople — whatever they are called, must be trained. We have a recent case study where a major electronics retailer did a one year test. They trained their employees with the goal of giving the customer a World Class experience. 1/2 of the stores were then sent on their way to conquer the retail landscape. The other 1/2 was mystery shopped every week to measure the effectiveness of the training and to determine the areas that needed further reinforcement. Results: * After 1 year the customer conversion rate for the non-mystery shopped stores was 36%; for the… Read more »
Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
12 years 10 months ago

What have we done to ourselves? The ‘self-service’ concept has made us, as customers, feel disconnected from the stores we shop, and the employee does not feel challenged to know or understand the merchandise if ever a customer asks a question.

If tech companies, digital signage manufacturers and agencies have their way, stores won’t even need staff. Every element of communication between the store and the shopper will be automated.

And even though management will have plenty of time on their hands, they won’t be allowed to talk to customers directly, because it would interfere with the ethnography video tracking studies.

This is the perfect scenario for a store concept that really ‘services’ the customer to take the world by storm, putting employees on the floor who talk to, not at shoppers, and really care about satisfying their needs. Training will be important and probably expensive, because few know how to do that well either. But it is worth it for the survival of what we knew as retail.

Sherry Moore
Guest
Sherry Moore
12 years 10 months ago
Training is absolutely the key ingredient to developing higher grade employees. In my recent years as a manager I asked a different team member to “teach” us something they had read that week about a product or about our industry and how we could apply that on a daily basis with a customer. It was not a corporate outlined training segment and yet had a positive effect on sales. The idea mentioned previously, to have trained staff available during peak periods, would definitely be part of a positive shopping experience for me. I know the need for advice is critical…how do I know that? Because I am usually asked by 2 – 3 shoppers if I can assist them with something…and I’m not a store employee. If I am shopping with one of my sisters and we are discussing products then they assume this chatter is being emitted by an “expert.” I am an expert of sorts – I’ve used many of these products for MANY years. A marketing effort to promote the availability of… Read more »
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