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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Personal training

    Employee development is more important for some grocers than any planogram or promotion.

    The most successful grocers I know invest generously in their employees, because those grocers understand that people are their most competitive assets. But there are also shortsighted operators that view training and development as an expense, and believe associates should be first in line for elimination when the bottom line needs boosting.

    That's not how Bill Price sees it. Investing in human capital, especially for independents, is an absolute must, according to Price, a retailer who's president of Springfield, Ohio-based Howard's Management Group, a family-owned company that continues to grow its IGA stores and Save-A-Lots operating in the Buckeye State.

    "In an environment where so many retailers are offering the same exact products and services, our management team understands what having well-trained associates who are committed to customer service means to our organization," says Price. "Every day we're challenged to hire the right people and to provide proper training that's specific to our company. They're what makes us different and gives us a step up on the competition."

    Rudy Dory, owner of Newport Avenue IGA Plus in Bend, Ore., agrees, and his company is testament to the fact that size doesn't dictate how crucial training should be. "We have just 65 associates, and for the most part our training takes place on the job," he notes. "We're a small company. We don't have an in-house HR department. But our commitment to training is big."

    On the East Coast there's successful supermarket owner Stew Leonard Sr., whose philosophy in regard to training at his Norwalk, Conn.-based company is uncomplicated. "We hire the smile," he says, "Then we do a lot of training by setting a good example." For instance: "When I'm walking through one of our stores and bend over and pick up a piece of paper off the store floor, many eyes are watching -- customers as well as team members. You can't beat setting a good example.

    "The employer has to live what they preach. They really have to love their customers to transfer that feeling to all of the team members," says Leonard, who with his family operates four stores in Connecticut and Yonkers, N.Y.

    "We put much more effort into customer service than anything else," he adds. "Of course, we have hundreds of computers in our company that could be used in the training process, but our emphasis is on training our 2,000 associates for customer interaction, not on boring, dry sermons."

    Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, another innovative independent, has developed one of the most comprehensive supermarket training programs in the country -- a program that has the entire food industry taking note.

    "In the war for talent, Giant Eagle wants to be the employer of choice," says Neil Brem, director of retail/operations training & development and instructional design. "We want to set up every employee to be successful and demonstrate the opportunities that a career with Giant Eagle can offer."

    Understandably, however, training over 35,000 employees in five states is no easy task for Brem and his 20-person central learning and development team.

    "Managing the flow of training to the stores is a huge challenge," admits Brem. "As a result, last year we created a Global Training Forum, in which training staff from across the enterprise regularly share best practices and resources. Currently we're coordinating various initiatives so we can maintain an achievable training schedule for store employees."

    Brem says the regional powerhouse is also committed to making training more standardized and resource-efficient. "This means eliminating redundant programs and agreeing on fewer, high-quality training assets that we can leverage across the enterprise."

    According to Brem, those efficiencies are in part being realized by delivering learning and performance support directly to associates at their work locations, rather than requesting them to train off-site.

    "Through instructor-led training, in-classroom small groups, one-on-one mentoring/coaching, and a number of Web-based training configurations that we provide, we continue to improve our 'just-in-time' performance support, and the resources employees need to succeed are right at their fingertips," he explains.

    Enterprise solution

    During the company's upcoming fiscal year, financial management of the state-of-the art training will be at the fingertips of Brem and his team when they implement an enterprise-wide learning management system (LMS) that will give them extensive analytics and reporting capabilities.

    Overall, Brem is convinced that the first step in the training process is the most important. "Whether you're a large company such as Giant Eagle or a single-store owner, the on-boarding of new hires is key," he says.

    For Giant Eagle, investing wisely in both new hires and long-term associates has paid big dividends. "Having joined the company just 16 months ago, I'm astonished at how many people who started working for us bagging groceries when they were just teenagers have gone on to become store directors, specialists, regional managers, and executives," notes Brem. "We want to continue to earn that kind of commitment in people who are just starting out with us today."

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