Finding a way of instilling consumer confidence and trust is an ongoing task for any e-tailer. The faceless nature of most on-line shops means that many potential customers continue to be wary when it comes to making that first on-line purchase. But what if you could graft a human interface on to Internet shopping which eased the transition to the on-line world?
This is exactly what Richard Branson’s Virgin is attempting to do by transforming its range of Our Price stores to V.Shops – and ensuring that the Our Price workforce is fully trained to work in the “bricks and clicks” environment.
V.Shops are traditional shops, but with kiosks offering free Internet access where customers can shop on-line for a range of goods from DVD players to mobile phones.
Creating a training programme for 100 Our Price teams to make the transition to V.Shops was the task of Our Price head of employee development and recruitment Sheena Macdonald.
Macdonald was once a retail manager at both Virgin and Our Price stores. “I have a front-end delivery background and in HR I try to bring that focus to help staff. I also understand active learning styles.”
The Our Price/V Shop transformation gives her three main training challenges, she says. “We have to make sure staff have the right Internet awareness; make sure they have the right product knowledge – because some of it demands a different mindset; and we have to take customer service to a whole new level – staff have to be able to deal with the customer’s fear of the Internet and be supportive.”
Not only do staff have to be able to allay a customer’s fears on Internet security but they have also got to deal with such diverse returns as a crate of wine or computer hardware. “There is always a temptation to create experts: for instance, an authority on mobile phones. But in this case multi-skilling is the key,” Macdonald says.
Macdonald was briefed on the project at the end of April, with the first shops planned for September. She put together a four-week training programme, engaging the outside help of Headline Training for the knowledge component of the course and MSB for customer service.
“Our staff already had a lot of the necessary knowledge; it was more a case of unlocking the potential,” she explains.
The average age of the Our Price workforce is mid-20s and while some of those in their late 20s were less confident about the Net, the 18-19 year olds were comfortable with the concept from the word go. “We surveyed staff for Internet awareness and 74 per cent already used the Net.”
While the staff training was underway, Alchemy Associates was appointed to put together a change management package which would enable the transformation from Our Price to V.Shops to take place with minimum disruption to the staff.
The first shop was launched on 4 September and Macdonald and her team immediately put a mystery shopping programme together to assess staff.
So far, the results are pleasing, says Macdonald: “It’s made staff feel up there with the best and most innovative.”
V.Shop also potentially relieves staff of some drudgery. For example, the back catalogue of records, tapes and CDs is now accessed from the kiosk and saves staff having to deal with an enquiry manually.
Next on Macdonald’s agenda is to develop an Intranet-based in-store learning framework and a similar management coaching framework. “It opens up a world of possibilities,” she says.