Once confined mostly to large supermarket chains, computer-based training for front-end employees is filtering down to smaller, independent stores. This progression is being spurred by wholesalers that view CBT as a solution that can improve retailers' efficiency, as well as help the wholesalers move more merchandise.
"CBT now is where scanning was in the 1970s," said David Brown, manager of computer-based training at Fleming Retail Education Services, a division of Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City. "It's on the verge of explosion."
CBT allows retailers to train employees through the use of CD-ROM and Internet-based modules. Employees access the interactive modules and learn skills via a personal computer rather than traditional one-on-one training sessions.
Fleming is helping ignite independents' interest in CBT through a deal it closed with a CBT vendor last month. The alliance allows Fleming to sell CBT modules at affordable prices to the more than 3,000 retailers it serves.
Two wholesalers, Minneapolis-based Nash Finch Co., and Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Spartan Stores, have each struck similar deals. These partnerships are introducing the nation's small- to mid-size supermarkets to CBT.
"This is the first time CBT has been affordable and convenient to our accounts," said Duane Lubbers, manager of training and management development at Nash Finch, a wholesaler that serves 2,250 supermarkets. Lubbers expects 30% of the retailers the wholesaler serves will be interested in the CBT modules, which Nash Finch will make available this fall.
Each of the wholesalers is marketing a standardized, off-the-shelf library of CBT software that features 14 training titles, including cashier training, safety skills with Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, produce identification and a harassment-free workplace.
As a result, smaller retailers are now getting the chance to reduce high training costs and high turnover among checkout clerks the way many of the bigger national chains have been doing for years.
"Our studies show they'll cut between 40% and 50% off their training time," said Nash Finch's Lubbers. "Most of them are still doing it the traditional way, taking up the time of two people, the trainee and trainer."
What's good for the independents, of course, is good for the wholesalers. If independents can save training costs, heighten front-end employees' satisfaction with their jobs and improve customer satisfaction, it stands to reason the retailers will sell more of the products that Fleming, Nash Finch and Spartan supply.
Though there is an abundance of training modules available, the most popular is the cashier-skills software, Brown said. "It's where the glaring need is for retailers dealing with high turnover," he added, noting the degree of training for front-end employees varies widely among independents.
It ranges from a few hours of "shadowing -- where a new employee watches an experienced cashier at the register -- to four days of development sessions that might include everything from orientation to pen-and-paper testing," he said.
CBT, he said, typically winnows training time down to the four or five hours spent in front of the computer interacting with the module and to another couple of hours of real-world experience at the register. In a traditional training setting, it can take up to 30 hours of training before a cashier can operate a lane independently.
"The module gives the employee the basic skills," Brown noted, "but everybody's keyboard setup is a little different, so the stores still have to do some hands-on orientation."
Fleming and Nash Finch each noted that hands-on training at the point-of-sale system will still be necessary after the CBT session.
Typically, all a retailer needs to implement CBT is a standard multimedia personal computer and 32 megabytes of RAM; such a setup costs from $1,200 to $2,000. Fleming suggests how many computer stations a retailer should establish for training based on variables such as weekly sales volume and turnover rates.
The CBT modules designed for the wholesalers are self-paced and include video based on footage shot in supermarkets. Trainees interact with the software by answering multiple-choice questions. Scores are automatically recorded on-site or can be accessed from a central location.
Cashier training includes modules on scanning, point-of-sale systems, front-end shrink, customer service, safety and bagging.
None of the wholesalers would comment on how much the CBT modules cost, but Fleming's Brown said a retailer's payback on the investment is short. "If a chain used CBT for 60 front-end employees per week for six weeks, it would recoup the cost of the software," he said. "The numbers make it a no-brainer."
Lowes Food Stores, Winston-Salem, N.C., turned to CBT in 1994, making it one of the first independents to embrace the training approach. The independent looked to CBT not only to implement consistent training for its front-end employees, but also to avoid hiring training personnel for a sprawling service area throughout the Piedmont region of North Carolina and southern Virginia, said John Jarvis, director of human resources for Lowes.
"It would've been almost impossible to have somebody for every store," Jarvis said. Conversely, chains whose stores are geographically concentrated might find that CBT is unnecessary and that a centralized training center might be cheaper and just as effective, he said.
"The biggest problem we were having before CBT was lack of consistency in training," Jarvis said. "The actual training was the interpretation of the person doing the training and that could vary from store to store."
Lowes' CBT sessions last from eight to 10 hours, Jarvis said, about half the time it took when handbooks and front-end managers were doing the training. While Jarvis said he recommends that other independents take advantage of standardized CBT modules being offered through their wholesalers, he noted that off-the-shelf versions have drawbacks that customized applications such as the ones Lowes uses don't.
"When we have a procedural change that affects cashiers, we can go back to our software developer and get it changed in the software," he said. "You can't do that with some of these that they're coming out with now."
Dick's Supermarket, an eight-store retailer based in Platteville, Wis., took the CBT plunge a year and a half ago, making it the centerpiece of a cashier-training program that runs as long as 40 hours.
"I hear about how everybody is using CBT to save time, but we didn't go into it to save time," said Rob Bell, Dick's education training director. "I don't think we've saved a minute."
While CBT ensures Dick's new checkout clerks get a consistent message, the supermarket continues to supplement the approach with a "buddy system" and its own manual.
CBT offers intangible benefits that most retailers don't realize, Bell said. "When you bring in a new person and sit them down at a PC, it makes a good impression on them," he said. "They feel pretty good about the level of professionalism of the place they're going to work at."
But not everybody is enthralled with CBT. Plainwell, Mich.-based Harding's Friendly Markets, a 33-store chain, tried CBT with its cashiers last year.
"The No. 1 problem is it isn't as interactive as a human being," said Curt DeVries, information systems director at Harding's. "There's no substitute for standing by that person at the register and having a 'real' person showing them how to be friendly to customers."
Harding's found that training time actually took longer using CBT than going the on-the-job training route, DeVries said. "Even though CBT is easy to use and simple, we can train a person at least as well in half the time," he added.