How retailers like Foot Locker and PetSmart key into training to deliver on customer experience

In today’s world of heightened competition—and shopper expectations—CX is key.
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Foot Locker

· 5 min read

It’s the busiest time of the retail year, and companies are hiring aplenty. Amazon wants to fill 150,000 seasonal jobs this year; Target is targeting 100,000; even 1-800-Flowers has 10,000+ open roles. In all, the National Retail Federation predicts retailers will bring on between 500,000 and 665,000 workers this holiday season, up from 486,000 in 2020.

But once those jobs are filled, there comes the next challenge: Training. In today’s world of heightened competition—and shopper expectations—the customer experience is key.

The stakes are high if a company doesn’t deliver.

  • More than half (53%) of US shoppers said they cut their spending after just one bad experience with a company, according to a Qualtrics XM Institute study.

“The customer experience at the end of the day is usually the one most remembered,” said Ross Forman, managing director of the workplace operations and strategy group at accounting firm BDO USA. “Meaning: Can I even get an employee to help me? Can I get a knowledgeable employee to help me? Are they responsive when I do?”

Best foot forward

Foot Locker knows that shoppers are racing around during the holidays.

“Customers want quality service, but speed and being able to get in and out efficiently are some attributes that are absolutely paramount during those peak seasons,” George Jenkins, the company’s VP of customer experience in North America, told Retail Brew.

To that end, Foot Locker tells its workers to keep an eye out for “doubling up.”

“Obviously, if it’s a slower pace, then you have time for one-on-one interaction with consumers,” Jenkins said. But when traffic picks up “and the ratio of customers to associates is 10 to one or eight to one, then we talk about...being able to assist a team member” and handing them off.

  • The company tailors its training platform (fittingly called Lace Up) for the time of year.

Team players: When it comes to new workers, Foot Locker looks to them more to fill gaps where needed—whether it’s stocking or fulfilling online orders—instead of overloading them with too much responsibility off the bat. “It’s more of a support role,” he explained.

“So, it might be someone that’s acknowledging customers and saying, ‘Hey, do you need help?’ And grabbing the radio to say, ‘Hey, I need this and this size,’ or going to an associate with [a] handheld device.”

  • And yes, Foot Locker equips its employees with handhelds so they can quickly scan and see if a product is in stock, Jenkins noted—a better alternative to trekking to the back room only to come back and say you don’t have an item.

Jenkins added that Foot Locker’s talent pool is key to winning the customer. For one, the company is often “hiring team members from within the communities that we serve” as well as students. The latter often pick up shifts when they’re back home for break.

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“We have a large pool that actually come back during peak periods,” Jenkins said, noting that  those are workers that are easy to reactivate. Thus, the training is already in place.

We’ve got the numbers: Having a scalable workforce—what Forman calls “the holy grail” for retailers—is especially crucial during busy periods. Cross-training employees across skills is not only a worthwhile investment for the retailer to more easily fill holes, he noted, but it gives workers a more flexible career path.

“It says, ‘I’m going to be trained not just how to be that person on the floor or working at a cash register or doing inventory, but I’m going to learn some other skill sets that can make me more marketable,” he said.

Starting point

PetSmart store


PetSmart, which wants to bring on 6,000 seasonal workers this holiday season, says it puts the customer front and center—of its hiring process.

  • A lot of associates even come from the company’s customer base; PetSmart said it recently saw a more than 100% increase in applicant flow after emailing its “pet parents” about open roles.

“The customer experience starts at the interview, and the training for that continues throughout [the] journey with PetSmart,” Mike Schultheis, the company’s SVP of retail operations, west, told us.

PetSmart’s interviews are based on behavior, which helps determine the right role and department for applicants, he explained. And for those workers that want to be store associates, the company aims to set those expectations from the beginning.

“We get out and we walk them around the store, and we make sure they understand that working at PetSmart,” Schultheis said, “it’s not just always about pets and puppies.”

A core element they immediately learn is what the company calls HEART, “an acronym for our customer-engagement model.”

H is ‘hello,’ it’s that warm, friendly greeting; E is the ‘energy’ around the store where we’re actively seeking customers; A is assessing our pet parents’ needs; R [is] ‘responding’...and making sure they’re getting the products and services they need…and then finally [T] that genuine ‘thank you,’ for their business and appreciation,” Schultheis explained.

Back again: Mastering the art of the CX might be easier said than done, BDO’s Forman admitted. “Meeting a customer’s expectations is not a natural skill for 99% of people.” But the training is essential—from knowing how to deescalate a situation to understanding products. And it pays off.

“That is why customers return over and over again...going the extra mile,” Forman said.

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