Retailers Are Using AI for Onboarding, Associate Retention

This post is the latest in our “Disrupting Retail” series. It’s our editorial focus for the month of July, including topics like in-store innovation and Amazon’s moves. See the rest of the series here


The retail landscape is going through an evolution, with mom-and-pop stores on Main Street being replaced by e-commerce outlets that rely on sophisticated algorithms to manage virtually every aspect of business operations.

While most headlines about the transformation of retail focus on the consumer-side of the equation, there’s even more change going on behind the scenes. Competition between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar is forcing innovation in the way retailers approach the challenges that come with onboarding and retaining in-store associates.

In 2018 alone, retail turnover rose 81%. Retailers with physical stores are desperate for associates. It’s a problem e-commerce players just don’t have, and yet another major challenge facing brick-and-mortar stores.

To combat the issue, physical retailers are turning to many of the same technologies as their e-commerce competitors. Retailers like Walmart and Bloomingdale’s are using artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure their onboarding is adaptive and personalized based on the needs of each associate.

According to Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, a B2B company that uses AI technology in the micro-learning space, more than one-quarter of the top 250 global retailers are integrating AI into their organizations. But, in the race to improve the customer experience—with everything from smart shelves to beacon campaigns to AI-enabled checkout—many of these retailers are overlooking their frontline employees.

“When it comes to training your frontline, if you make learning personalized to the individual associate through AI they will be more engaged in the content and recognize they are learning new things,” Leaman says. “When you train everyone on the same information, no matter how experienced the associate is, they will get bored and check out. By leveraging AI, you can adapt the training content to what each associate knows and doesn’t know and close knowledge gaps quickly.”

Leaman says the traditional approach of “fire hosing” new associates with hours and hours of one-size-fits-all information puts them into a state of stress, and it does nothing to actually help them perform on the job. The average person forgets most of the information in the span of a few hours, and customer experience is negatively impacted. Instead, Leaman says retailers should be focusing on the key essentials of what new associates need to know immediately and then providing a continuous onboarding experience.

Research supports Leaman’s position. According to a report in Forbes, more than two-thirds of workers leave a new position within half a year. Of that group, 23% said they might have stayed if managers had communicated better, and 21% blamed poor training.

Leaman proposes that retailers should be using AI technology to provide relevant, and more engaging, learning experiences during the onboarding process, making their associates feel like the organization cares about their skills development.

“By leveraging AI powered learning technology, retailers can personalize the content for each associate, instantly identify individual knowledge gaps they have, and intelligently deliver new information to close those gaps,” Leaman says. “Every associate starts with a different base of knowledge based on previous experience; a new hire with 20 years of retail experience shouldn’t receive the same training as someone starting their very first job.”

Taking full advantage of AI for onboarding is one of the key ways brick-and-mortar retailers are fighting back against e-commerce giants. One-third of shoppers rate salespeople as the “strategy” most likely to impress them when they walk into a store, and despite the decline in brick-and-mortar locations, Leaman says shoppers still prefer to make their purchases in physical stores.

“Online-only retailers like Warby Parker, Birchbox, Casper and Wayfair are opening physical stores, realizing it’s critical to deliver customers the blended experience they want,” she says.

The question is, how can brick-and-mortar retailers leverage AI to improve the customer experience and drive sales and loyalty? In Leaman’s view, it comes down to having extremely knowledgeable associates who know when and how to approach customers and how to effectively drive purchasing behavior.

“AI used in the associate learning experience is now able to track the continuous granular knowledge of the associate in critical areas that drive the desired behavior,” she says. Those behaviors are what drive business impact, and when knowledge at scale is measured and tied to store results, retailers can predict with a high degree of accuracy what those store results are going to be.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

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