Workforce Management: A Modern Approach to Training

Kroger’s Fresh Start initiative aims to achieve greater associate engagement, retention
Gina Acosta
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Workforce Management: A Modern Approach to Training
Kroger has teamed with Axonify on the Fresh Start program to offer personalized training to the grocer's associates via app.

The grocery industry is in the middle of a workforce revolution.

Rising wages, a historically tight labor market, a pandemic, digitization, automation and myriad other challenges are forcing food retailers to rethink their approach to talent management as hiring, training and retaining the right employees become more critical than ever before.

In recent months, Target, Walmart and other food retailers have gone to new lengths to attract and retain workers. Aldi recently boosted its average starting wages for store and warehouse workers to $15 and $19 per hour, respectively. Costco raised its hourly minimum wage to $16 for U.S. employees. Both Walmart and Target have rolled out recent initiatives to help employees pay for college, and Walmart is doling out signing bonuses to warehouse workers. For the first time, the average wage of restaurant and grocery workers has risen above $15 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

But even with wage increases and companies expanding benefits, unemployment rates for the retail industry are higher than the overall U.S. rate of 5.4%, coming in at 6.4% as of July, according to BLS. Retail workers are leaving their jobs as a result of the pandemic and other worries; a recent survey commissioned by retail operations platform Zipline shows that a majority of retail workers think that their employers aren’t putting enough focus on improving their working conditions.

“It’s a highly competitive labor market, and we absolutely know that talent is selective and attracted to companies that offer competitive wages and benefits, and are also leading with a clear purpose and offering an engaging culture where, honestly, they can join, thrive and advance,” says Senchal Murphy, senior director of training and onboarding at The Kroger Co., which employs more than 500,000 associates.

Kroger recently teamed up with Axonify to launch a personalized training program to support greater associate engagement and retention, and redefine what it means to be a great place to work.

Axonify really offers, in our opinion, a modern approach to training that works the way our associates work, with personalized, bite-sized learning bursts,” Murphy continues. “It helps our associates learn key behaviors and best practices, and they also have a lot of fun. I think that’s really important, that our associates come to work and have a lot of fun as they serve our customers. It also offers us meaningful metrics to help us establish an associate’s baseline understanding and helps them assess their knowledge growth. So over time, we’re able to assess what impact training has on our business results, which is really important for us.”

The program, called Fresh Start, allows associates to access personalized training quickly and easily in the course of their day. The solution is being launched in a phased approach across all of Kroger’s businesses.

Workforce Management: A Modern Approach to Training
Senchal Murphy, senior director of training and onboarding at The Kroger Co.

“The application can be downloaded on an associate’s personal device or accessed on a shared device,” Murphy explains. “It’s training that takes a couple minutes a day. Our associates will complete training at the beginning of their shift, short, personalized training sessions that will help them build knowledge and confidence over time. There’s some really cool gamification aspects, other cool enhancements as well. We’re really focused on the things that matter most to our customers. So if we think about behaviors that support and drive our full, fresh and friendly customer experience, those are the things that we’re really focused on teaching our associates to ensure those are [the] outcomes that we see in our customer experience.”

Kroger leverages a variety of methods to communicate with associates in different ways, but the Axonify solution is another big boost in that area, especially when it comes to training workers to perform new tasks related to e-commerce.

“The nature of the work for our front-line associates is changing and challenging,” Murphy notes. “Getting information and training to them quickly and consistently is so important. It’s more important now than it ever has been. In the past, we’ve relied on various methods to deliver training and communication, and we just know that there is a need to do things differently, moving forward. So we’re really excited to find new ways to meet our associates where they’re at to deliver and provide an effective, real-time training and engagement experience for them.”

According to Murphy, the company is focused on properly and effectively upskilling and reskilling associates on best practices to ensure that they can support the customer experience, no matter the omnichannel platform.

“So, things like training through the application is a heavy focus for our e-commerce teams and departments,” she says, adding that the communication capability of the Axonify solution is a game-changer, especially during the pandemic, when everything, from safety protocols to out-of-stocks, is changing so fast.

“We’re actually able to communicate direct to our associates on items that are really important,” Murphy asserts. “Safety is incredibly important to our company and one of our core values. So, if we have any shifts in or any data that we need to share, whether it’s around vaccines or around math or ... anything that’s really specific around safety, we have a modality now to connect in a very simple way. Everyone processes information ... differently, but we do know that we’ve at least got some new avenues, methods, vehicles to better communicate the things that matter most to our associates, and safety is very much a driving priority for us.”

With continual learning performed in less than five minutes per shift, each associate’s training experience is tailored to their individual needs and knowledge gaps via Axonify’s app.

On the hiring front, Kroger recently held its first-ever virtual and in-person hiring event across the company, with a goal of hiring more than 10,000 associates. The jobs varied from supply chain to Kroger delivery to stores, pharmacies and manufacturing plants. Through that event, Kroger was able to offer more than 5,000 opportunities in a single day, which was a record for the company. Kroger’s average hourly wage has been $15 an hour since 2019. The grocer also offers benefits such as affordable health care, a 401(k) and a pension. “Honestly, those are many things that our competitors do not offer,” Murphy observes.

“I think the pandemic has definitely brought us new challenges,” she adds. “It has really challenged us to be more efficient, more effective, more streamlined. This is ... just one great example of ... the way that we’ll need to train in the future, [which will be] training in the flow of work, training on items that matter most to our customers, prioritizing training, utilizing technology to communicate and connect with our associates faster. I think the pandemic has just really accelerated our need to ensure that our methods to connect and engage are most effective.”

As far as what grocers need to be thinking about next when it comes to training and retention, Murphy says that upskilling and staying agile are the two things that Kroger is focused on.

“It’s incredibly important for leaders in the training and talent development space to stay close to the business and to really understand what’s coming in the business that’s new, innovative, compelling, exciting, and ensure that we have associates that are upskilled and ready to deliver against that future vision,” Murphy observes. “So, something that’s important for us is staying connected to our leaders at multiple levels around what is coming down the pike and ensuring that we are agile with our training, in our approach, in our methods.”

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