The best way to doom a holiday retail trial to failure: Don't brief employees

The combination of seasonal help and tech trials -- when combined with a lack of training -- is a holiday recipe for disaster.

gifts christmas presents wrapping bows
Credit: flickr/JD Hancock

Combine a quarter-of-a-million temps with new customer interaction methods and then factor in retail's strong history of inadequately briefing all employees about technology changes. Can you spell trainwreck?

It's that time of year again when retailers prep for the holiday shopping season by bringing in crowds of temp employees. Kohl's just said it was bringing in 69,000 holiday temps, Target bringing in about 70,000, Toys"R"Us eyeing about 11,000 workers and Macy's is now bringing on 83,000 people. This would be a jolly event were it not for the fact that the holidays are also when merchants test the latest in mobile interactions with POS, store shelves, beacons and even aerial drones.

This is my annual pleading effort with retailers to take training and briefing seriously. It's my job to visit retailers after they have announced a new technology approach for shoppers and to try it out. The biggest obstacle by far -- and the second biggest obstacle doesn't even come close -- to many of these technologies not working is an embarrassing lack of employee training.

In reality, this goes beyond a lack of full training. Employees typically are completely unaware of what their employer announced days earlier. If you're not going to train employees and temps, at least give them a reasonable heads up.

It's not difficult to understand how these things happen. The retailer sees employees as part of the salesforce and technology trials -- even announced tech trials -- is something that IT, e-commerce, marketing or the mobile group concocted. No one bothers to make sure that everyone impacted knows everything they need to know about it.

Here's the typical scenario: A shopper walks in, having heard about the trial from a news media story or perhaps saw the news release online when searching for perhaps store hours or if a particular product is on a special sale. They try to participate and it doesn't work. (My all-time favorite was a Target gift card trial that imploded during the holidays. My second favorite was a holiday experiment from PayPal, where they again opted to not tell any employees about it.)

After it doesn't work, they approach a store associate and ask for help. The associate gives them a blank stare -- a facial expression duplicated by a supervisor and then an assistant store manager. At this point, the shopper gives up.

Understanding how this confusion happens doesn't excuse it. Indeed, this disconnect does a huge amount of harm. This harm is in the form of inappropriately disappointing trial results, which in turn leads to the wrong technology decision. When the resulting data gets back to the IT director or the VP/marketing (or wherever this particular trial began), it shows how often it was used and what actions followed its use.

Is weak usage an indication that shoppers don't like it? That's what will be concluded. And it will be so concluded even if the real problem was a lack of training and briefing. How many wonderful shopping tools were killed because no one bothered to make sure employees and temps knew about it?

This brings us back to the temp issue. Seasonal help generally do an amazing job at getting acclimated as quickly as they do. (Some stores will hire the same people in consecutive years, which certainly helps.) But to the extent that it's a problem briefing all employees at the level that is necessary, it's far worse with seasonal help.

To be precise, it's not necessarily an issue of not briefing all employees. It's really an issue of not briefing store managers/GMs. As long as they are appropriately briefed, they can brief their people. No time for a briefing? How about making sure that they all get explicit e-mails describing how the trial is supposed to work and what associates need to know to help customers.

No matter. It's now become a part of my holiday tradition. Fight the crowds to visit the major chains and malls, go where there are the most interesting trials and then rejoice in the sea of blank stares when asking for help. Who am I to muck with tradition?

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