For independent retailers seeking to compete in a mass-market world, differentiating ourselves through customer service and an educated staff has become more important than ever. However, when you own your business and are responsible for everything from paying the bills to buying product, finding the time to build a successful education program for your staff can seem like just one more giant hill to climb amidst all the other mountains you face.

Here are three simple ways to take advantage of resources you already have in order to create your own, custom education program for your store.

Key #1—Use Manufacturer-Sponsored Learning Opportunities

Big or small, all retailers regularly receive invitations to participate in phone trainings and webinars.  Maybe you have an employee who is naturally inclined to learn who can participate in these trainings and share the highlights with their fellow employees.  Perhaps you would prefer to rotate the schedule of who listens to phone trainings and webinars.  Setting a goal for the listener like being able to share three key selling points with the rest of the staff after the webinar will go a long way toward ensuring that the knowledge gained will be spread among your employees.

In addition, several major manufacturers have designed unique training opportunities online that are available at the convenience of the student. NOW University, the Himalaya Herb School and Enzymedica’s online training courses are some examples of these resources. Also, several companies have joined the program that allows employees to sign up for courses and earn prizes as they learn, including Aubrey, Barleans, Natural Vitality, New Chapter, Nordic Naturals and Xlear.

Even if you are an independent learner, never underestimate the value of getting together with fellow retailers from around your region or even around the country at the many tradeshows that occur each year.  From getting to hear lectures by and ask questions of leading experts in our industry to having the opportunity to ask other retailers how they handle issues similar to your own, tradeshows can be a vital part of any store’s ongoing need to stay up-to-date with our ever-changing industry.

Key #2—Encourage Employee Interest in Product by Making Product Available

Human nature tends to get more excited about the things we actually experience ourselves as opposed to just hearing or reading about them.  For this reason, making the products you carry as available to your staff as possible can go a long way toward motivating your staff to learn more about them.

Most stores provide product to their employees at discounts, but if you have a private label or other line that you truly want to promote, consider offering these products to your employees at cost. Take advantage of companies that allow for employee orders at greater discounts.  Rotate the free product you receive among your employees.

The more you can incorporate your employees into the decision process on what products to promote and carry, the better.  If employees understand that their opinions will always be heard, even if you don’t always agree with those opinions or follow through with them, the employees are more vested in the success of your store.  When making your sales staff a true team in this way, it is important to remember that each person’s ideas need to be fully heard always and acted on when it makes good business sense.  No one wants to keep coming up with ideas that never get used.

Finally, consider giving product as prizes for completing things like online training, or for reading industry magazines and books that factor into increased knowledge you see on your sales floor.

Key #3—Capitalize on the Mentor System

People in the health foods industry are natural givers.  They have an interest in their own health and the health of others.  They spend their days helping people figure out ways to support a more nutritionally complete health regimen.

A well-run mentor system can make the most of this helping attitude.  Make a list of the most important products you carry.  Let employees teach each other the key selling points of those products, which products should be paired with the top sellers, etc.  You can pop quiz your employees on the floor to make sure they are learning what you want them to know.

The beauty of the mentor system is that it can be carried out on the sales floor, so that employees can easily shift between mentoring and helping customers.  Whether you have several staff as mentors or just one, you can easily track with a spreadsheet who has learned which products.

Regular meetings with your mentors will be the key to having a successful mentor system.  These key players in your education program need to know the goals you have, the learning objectives for each employee, and the feedback you have for them on their own success in learning and teaching.  As anyone who has taught before knows, these mentors will become your most educated employees because the best way to learn something is often to teach it.

If the schedule allows, training meetings with the entire staff can be your best opportunity to help employees learn.  Because time is limited, be sure you have a clear agenda that defines the learning objectives for your meeting.  Set measurable goals that you can easily track in the following days or weeks to ensure that what you took valuable time to teach actually gets implemented.

Educating your employees may seem like a daunting task, but by making the most of the many resources available for independent retailers, you can improve your staff’s product knowledge and increase your store’s differentiation status, all at the same time.



Ramona Billingslea has been in the health foods industry since she married into it more than 20 years ago.  She helps run the family-owned health food stores in Houston, where she does the marketing and builds the education materials, as well as helping on the sales floor.  She has a Master’s degree in English from Texas Tech University. Besides blogging for Betsy's Health Foods, she also writes a Christian living blog and is a novelist and poet.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine Online, 10/19/15