A new employee sits in a small, dank windowless room for hours, poring over the pages of a training manual that’s the size of a telephone book and just about as compelling. Halfway through the tome it’s anyone’s guess if they have absorbed the material, whether they will finish the lessons or even leave, forcing the entire extensive and expensive hiring process to begin again with someone else.
That could have been the scene at any retailer over the past 50 years. But it’s rapidly becoming obsolete as companies adopt more efficient and lower cost training tools that can enhance the customer experience.
The two-year-old partnership between 200-store eyewear retailer Eyemart Express and Axonify’s adaptive, microlearning platform does just that. It represents a giant step forward for onboarding new employees far more quickly and less expensively — as well as significantly reducing turnover — all while offering employees a continuous and more satisfying learning experience.
Axonify provides Eyemart with a real-time, relevant training tool that reaches associates at their individual levels of learning. Basically, it drives performance through knowledge by using a combination of adaptive microlearning, brain science and gamification that embeds knowledge deep enough to change on-the-job behavior.
“We’re continuing our growth strategy with an average of 25 to 30 new store openings annually,” says Gianna Venturi, Eyemart’s chief people officer, whose mission is to drive the company’s performance through a more knowledgeable and productive workforce.
“The key was finding something that would work for the way people learn today, not our old legacy learning system. Sitting in an office and reading manuals are generally not the best way for most people — especially the younger generation who don’t want to do it that way,” she says. “I had heard about the concept of microlearning and when I saw what Axonify was doing, I felt it was something we needed to pursue.”
Eyemart is certainly not alone in its quest. The lack of adequate training and the inherently high turnover rates are two major issues that have plagued retailers for years. Researchers have found a direct correlation between the level of employee engagement and higher sales. Additionally, the high cost of onboarding new employees — in excess of $3,500 by some estimates — coupled with an average turnover of about 65 percent has been a major drain on financial resources.
With a global background in human resources for Coach and Kimberly-Clark, Venturi seized on the need for change as Eyemart grows. The privately held chain recently opened its 200th store in Destin, Fla., placing it in 38 states.
“Microlearning works for specific individuals. It’s very personal. If someone is struggling with a particular topic, more questions on it are sent to them.” — Gianna Venturi, Eyemart Express
The stores, mostly located in strip centers in smaller towns, run from 2,400 to 4,000 square feet with an average of seven to 15 employees. The cost of acquiring and training new employees was averaging $2,800, and an average of 35 days was needed to bring them up to optimum productivity, Venturi says.
The training was effective, but copying manuals to send to stores for each new employee to go through with their manager had become impractical and online training was limited to managers rather than new hires.
“This was a challenge. We are a specialty retailer and you have to have some skills in areas like reading prescriptions before you can start selling glasses. So more and different training methods were critical — even for people who were already in the optical industry,” she says.
“Our priorities depend on the role each person plays. For retail associates it’s the ability to work in a fast-paced environment and deal with sensitive healthcare issues. At in-store labs, we’re looking for people who understand how to work in a high-volume, technical environment. Full-service labs are in every store and about 90 percent of the glasses are made the same day. This is a competitive advantage and we want the best people for any role. Sometimes that means they’re coming from outside the industry.”
In an effort to step up its game, Eyemart began discussions with Axonify in 2017 on its adaptive microlearning program as a consistent learning source for all employees.
“As a new hire everyone has a lot of training to go through. But then there are reinforcement questions that can be done every day in about five minutes. That was a feature I really liked,” Venturi says. “With anything you learn in life, you need to keep getting exposed to it or else you forget. This microlearning works for specific individuals. It’s very personal. If someone is struggling with a particular topic, more questions on it are sent
Initially, the chain did a four-month test in 50 stores. After ironing out some of the bugs, it was formally launched chainwide in April under the auspices of a cross-functional team that included retail managers and other field personnel who were best suited to decide what was working at the store level.
By eliminating manuals and putting everything online, the chain was able to get a new hire up and running in 10 days and provide a continual learning experience through regular reinforcement questions for employees to answer. It’s also helped with compliance training in the areas of safety and harassment, Venturi says, with more frequent questions than in the past.
The platform’s rewards points have spurred significant employee engagement with the system. “Every time they go into the system to train, they build up points for the Axonify store where they can get items and gift cards. I think it’s one of the reasons people have stayed with us and why we’ve been able to reduce turnover,” she says.
Venturi says all of Eyemart’s employees have gone through the system, and 90 percent are on it every other day. “The overall results are that onboarding time has been reduced dramatically, meaning we have more people who are reaching optimum productivity more quickly,”
“We can measure the base knowledge of employees and how much they improve. It’s been phenomenal and saved us a lot of money,” she says, noting that the cost of ramping up a new employee has been reduced an average of $1,300 to about $1,500 per employee.
“We constantly measure customer service and we can see where issues have been addressed. But let’s be clear: Axonify doesn’t take away from the role of the managers in coaching and managing performance of associates. It’s not a silver bullet. But it does show managers where the issues are and how to solve them.”
Len Lewis is a veteran journalist and author covering the retail industry in the United States, Canada, Europe and South America.