7 problems with retail associate training (& how technology can help)

7 problems with retail associate training and how technology can help

The status quo of traditional training is not all that exciting for people trying to learn. Retail associates do their best to consume policies, procedures, and instructions on paper or video, but some lessons have to be learned the “hard way” — when face to face with real customers. 

Retail associate training doesn’t have to be this way, though. New technologies are transforming the world of workplace training and better preparing our frontline and essential workers to be more equipped, more engaged, and ultimately more effective in their jobs from day one. 

Here are just a few of the ways technology can solve your existing training problems.

Problem #1: Traditional techniques don’t teach in the way people actually learn

The optimal way of learning is not the same for everyone. Some people are visual learners and respond well to pictures, charts, and graphs. Others learn from reading and writing, tapping into the part of the brain that translates words into knowledge. 

Still others learn best by doing — kinesthetic learning. And according to a lot of research, most people learn best when subjected to multimodal learning — more than one way at once.

Solution: Multimodal learning

“People learn differently. Some people are visual learners, and some people can just hear something and react. Other people are more hands on. This gives you all of that.” 

— Walmart retail associate who experienced Immersive Learning
Play Icon

Technology first began to enable multimodal modes of learning with e-learning options and even training videos that combine verbal information with graphics and quizzes. 

The next step is Immersive Learning, which uses Virtual Reality (VR) to give people highly realistic, hands-on learning experiences — essentially a model of “learning by doing,” with added features.

Immersive Learning places the learner within a highly realistic immersive environment so that they have a kinesthetic experience, then combine it with rich in-headset visuals, verbal conversation with avatars, and written lessons and quizzes. 

Technologies like Immersive Learning that enable a multimodal method can get new hires truly on board with their onboarding and inject existing learners with inspiring L&D experiences.

Problem #2: Attracting (and keeping) talent is critical for retailers

Among the highest quit rates of the last few years have been those on the frontlines, including retail associates. But attracting talent and reducing turnover have always been critical issues for retail HR departments. 

“Entrepreneurs are already exploring how technology can transform human resources, from recruiting and talent management to scheduling and compensation.”


With frontline workers often coming from the youngest population in our workforce — a generation that is now born-digital — you have to appeal to their tech-friendly nature. Millennials and Gen-Z employees expect to learn in technologically aided ways. 

As Rob Lauber, Former SVP & CLO at McDonald’s Corp and CEO of XLO Global LLC, wrote for Strivr: “Those generations have been reared on digital: mobile, gaming, Virtual Reality (VR). If you’re still stuck on old ways of training employees, you don’t have the edge with employees who have a lot of choices today.”

Even before the pandemic, a study by Unisys found that more than half of the employees at organizations considered technology “laggards” felt frustrated with their employers — making them more likely to quit. 

L&D experiences that are not engaging lead to disengaged employees, and that makes it harder to keep talent. Worse, it’s hard to attract talent in the first place without the promise of both engaging onboarding and ongoing opportunities to learn and grow. 

Solution: Use innovative tech and strategies to attract and engage employees 

Technology impacts the retail training experience before associates ever “hit the floor.” E-learning is quickly being supplanted by mobile- and micro-learning methods. Instead of long sessions in front of a computer, employees are fed small “nuggets of learning,” often able to be consumed on a smartphone while commuting to work or tackling a new skill on the job. 

These methods offer training experiences that more closely align with their expectations and experiences outside of work. 

Immersive Learning is another innovation that can lead to better engagement and retention of employees. Inserting Immersive Learning modules into the initial training experience, as well as ongoing L&D efforts, helps bring employees in, learn the skills they need, and feel connected to the culture of the company in a hands-on, experiential way. 

Problem #3: You can’t teach empathy

Customer service skills are a combination of hard and soft skills: knowing what to do and how to do it, as well as how to manage the customer relationship along the way. These skills tend to grow over time. They also require a certain degree of empathy — a soft skill that can’t necessarily be taught on paper. It’s why a common adage in customer service is, “You can’t train for empathy.” Or can you? 

Solution: Build situational empathy with Immersive Learning

While dispositional empathy (empathy as a personality trait) is an inherent quality, situational empathy is a trainable skill. This is the ability to react with empathy to a specific situation, and the way to train for it is to give your retail associates a chance to walk in the shoes of your customers. 

Verizon, for instance, brought Virtual Reality-based empathy training for high-stakes conversations into the call center. Instead of four-hour, in-person role-playing workshops to train telephone associates on how to de-escalate tense calls, Verizon used VR-based Immersive Learning to provide highly realistic experiences where employees can practice having difficult conversations in a “safe space” before they take a real call.

Watch the webinar to hear how employees reacted to learning in VR

Because the experience can be played back, it also gives learners the opportunity to see the conversation from the customer’s point of view. With this model, learners are able to see how their words and actions impact customers, building greater empathy into virtual contact centers.

Problem #4: Truly effective retail associate training is not scalable

The most effective training is delivered by an organization’s best trainers. That’s why, in the past, retail organizations often had a handful of skilled educators they’d ship around to various locations to train new employees in clusters. This model was untenable during the pandemic — and frankly, it was never actually scalable.

Solution: Replicate your best trainers, virtually

VR can turn the experience of training in person with your best educators into a scalable, repeatable virtual experience.

A great example of this is Walmart, a company that embraces innovation in its training methods. For the company’s thousands of stores across the US, Walmart has built out dedicated training facilities at over 200 strategically placed locations, so no associate is more than a few hours’ drive from training options.

That hands-on training is often aided by cutting-edge technology. For instance, when introducing new “in-store pickup towers” to their stores, Walmart’s L&D team needed a way to quickly get employees across the chain up to speed on how to use the new technology in front of customers. Rather than fly expert trainers around the country to conduct 8-hour training sessions, Walmart associates learn and practice in VR. Strivr’s platform enabled Walmart to scale the training nationwide to the hundreds of stores implementing the pickup tower. 

In addition, Walmart was able to reduce what had been an 8-hour training session to just 15 minutes per employee without sacrificing effectiveness.

Problem #5: It’s hard to train for unpredictable and sometimes dangerous situations 

Retail associate positions are not inherently dangerous, but occasionally, the unpredictable happens: shoplifters, armed robberies, even active shooters. It’s hard to prepare store employees for the possibility that they could be confronted with an emotionally intense situation in a way that actually teaches them how to act in order to ensure their own safety and the safety of others around them. 

Without experiencing these situations in a lifelike way, associates can’t predict how they’ll react in a real-life situation. 

For frontline workers, safety should always be paramount, and despite efforts to teach health and safety measures with ever-newer, better protocols, actually internalizing that information can be hard when you’re not in the moment.

Solution: Realistic immersive experiences

Immersive Learning provides the most effective way to train on safety issues. 

For instance, Verizon used Immersive Learning to teach store associates how to respond in times of crisis: someone grabs a device and runs, or an armed robber bursts in. By creating a highly realistic VR scenario in which associates experience the heart-pounding rush of an armed robbery — without actually being in danger! — Verizon has been able to prepare associates across 1,600 US stores in a way that’s effective, scalable, and safe.

Problem #6: It’s difficult to gauge effectiveness

Is training working? It’s an age-old question. 

Data on real-world performance is hard to come by, so this question has always been very subjective for L&D organizations. Training completions are not a good indicator of effectiveness, nor are paper-based assessments. 

You can really only tell if training is working if employees seem like they learned the material, and that can be a risky prospect. You often have to throw them “on the floor” to test their knowledge.

Solution: Technology can help collect data on whether people actually learn

One of the ways in which technology best supports retail associate training is by delivering feedback on that training, often in real time. Even with the simplest version of online training modules, it’s typically easy to gather test scores, time spent learning, modules completed, and any other important metric around learning. 

Still, just knowing whether someone passed a test or completed the material doesn’t ensure they’ll know how to act in a real-life scenario. With Immersive Learning, two elements of the technology provide that layer of certainty around learning:

  1. Learners get real-time in-headset feedback, and are corrected if they’re wrong in the moment they’re experiencing the content.
  2. Employers receive training data on how well employees perform in modules and whether they actually learn and retain the material.

Strivr’s platform can deliver behavioral insights that are simply not possible to get from other learning approaches. We talk about these insights in our platform webinar. 

Problem #7: It takes time for employees to learn — and you don’t have time

Employees at large enterprises are spending more and more time in training – over 100 hours per employee in 2020. But for retailers to keep up with demand, they need more people proficient at their jobs, faster. The fact is, it simply takes time for people to get info, digest, retain, and begin to work productively. But you can reduce that training time with technology.

Solution: Reduce training time with VR

“We do very hands-on functional training in those facilities to teach associates the skills they need today and in the future.”

— Andy Trainor, VP of U.S. Learning for Walmart

Technology enables experiential training that’s consistent and scalable. Arizona-based supermarket chain Sprouts Farmers Market partnered with Strivr to pilot an Immersive Learning program in its 43 Arizona stores as a trial run of a new way to onboard and train retail associates at scale. 

By moving their culture and values training into Immersive Learning, Sprouts reduced the four-hour in person session to 45 minutes in the headset – an 81% reduction. The Sprouts team has also found that VR learners demonstrated a 16x improvement over employees who experienced the traditional training



reduction in values training, from 4 hrs to 45 min



more likely to remember all six Sprouts values

With the focus on frontline workers today, anything retail organizations do to enhance their learning enhances their engagement, their happiness, and their ability to better serve customers. 

To learn more about the immersive future of work, read this free report.