Well-prepared staff make the difference in customers’ decisions to buy today, return, and refer.

As Mark Twain might have said, the rumors of brick-and-mortar retail’s death have been greatly exaggerated. While it’s true retail isn’t the same as it once was, it’s transforming, not dying. The stores that make the headlines for going under are a handful of large corporations, not the 91 percent of retail operations that have fewer than 20 employees, says the National Retail Federation (NRF).

This majority is hanging in there—and some might say growing. According to the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, 2016 saw 86.8 million square feet of new retail construction. And online retailers like Amazon, Fabletics and thredUP are now pursuing physical locations.

Retail isn’t going away, but to be successful in this new climate, small stores need to look at all aspects of their business with a critical eye to determine what is most important. Topping this list should be staffing well-prepared employees.

THE COST OF UNPREPARED STAFF

Some retailers equate training with putting a lot of time and effort into frontliners who don’t stay. According to a 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “many retailers see labor as a cost driver rather than a sales driver,” citing The Home Depot as an example.

When Robert Nardelli became CEO of the home-improvement company, he cut staffing to reduce costs. While that move yielded short-term profits, in the long run the company’s customer service reputation suffered. Having few employees or only poorly trained ones on the sales floor detracts from the customer experience.

Wendi Swanson, a senior consultant at The Friedman Group, a retail-training company, says retailers spend time in areas they feel will get the greatest yield with the least amount of effort—and that usually doesn’t include staff preparation, even though they know it is important.

“How much time and money is devoted to marketing to drive customers into the store? How much time and money is spent making sure the customers have something to purchase?” she asks. “So you have customers, you have something to sell to them, yet the experience is nothing special. Why would they return? They can simply sit on their sofa in the comfort of their own home in their pajamas and get what they want.”

Carl Ashizawa, manager of Logos Bookstore of Hawaii, admits it is hard to make time to train, “but training isn’t just important—it’s necessary. Employees come with different backgrounds and experiences. Often times, especially in retail, we are their first job. It’s necessary to train them in how to interact with customers, how to speak professionally, how to dress, act, smile. Customers can tell if you want to help them versus have to help them.”

BUY, RETURN, REFER

Trained, capable staffers can help close a sale, and that comes down to behaviors, says Swanson.

“The money in the register is a direct result of doing something. What behaviors cause the customer to spend their money with us today and, more importantly, reward us with their loyalty?” she says. “Customers spend money in brick-and-mortar retail stores for different reasons than they traditionally did. They have greater choice where to spend their money than ever before. [Staff] must be well trained in the behaviors that cause customers to buy today, return, and refer.”

A good salesperson can make all the difference. Ann Berglund, co-owner of Omaha Parables in Nebraska with her husband, Barry, says of her store, “Training is on-going and thoroughly necessary in each area. Almost everyone on staff can be involved in training another employee at some level. We find that a team effort works well.”

“Each team member needs to know what to do, how to do it, and why it is important to provide a differentiated experience that causes customers to vote with their feet; they come to our store, purchase, return, and refer,” says Swanson.

CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE VS. CUSTOMER SERVICE

Everyone knows what customer service is—taking care of the shopper’s needs. But “customer experience,” as defined by Jeanne Bliss in her book Chief Customer Officer 2.0, is the “proactive and deliberate orchestrating of an end-to-end journey between a customer and a company. Each stage of the journey is architected to understand the emotions and needs of the customer, and what he or she is trying to achieve.”

Reviewtrackers.com says customer experience is a core value that should involve everyone in the organization, from the C-suite to the frontline. If the customer experience was so important to success, most retailers wouldn’t leave it in the hands of a sales associate who isn’t prepared.

“The experience is the only thing that’s different [between online and in person shopping],” says Swanson. “If retailers believe the experience is valuable, they’ll make the time [to train] a priority.”

CBA RETAIL ACADEMY ONLINE

In order to support retailers, CBA has teamed up with The Friedman Group to provide retail training that’s affordable, reliable, and readily available. CBA Retail Academy Online is a portal of courses that address a variety of retail topics and are customizable to staff skill levels.

This training is designed to help stores create customer experiences, build strong teams, and increase sales without being pushy or obnoxious. With 24/7 access available, store managers and staff will learn how to ensure consistent engagement that builds their brand.

“CBA’s new training provides a common language, expectation, and greater competence in less time because it leverages technology to help increase a person’s knowledge,” says Swanson.

The importance of training can’t be overemphasized, says Ashizawa. “I tell our employees that we aren’t helping customers, we’re serving customers. As Christians in a Christian bookstore, we have an obligation to provide the best customer service because we care about what we sell.”

For more information about CBA’s Retail Academy Online, visit cbaonline.org/RAO.

—Lora Schrock