COMPUTERS AS TUTORS

Computer-based training systems for store-level staff are already delivering on their promise to slash costs for large chains with many employees and high rates of turnover.But now even smaller retailers are increasingly turning to personal computers to do their teaching."This is what we need to start doing to keep pace with the competitive environment," said Guy Desautel,co-owner of Wally's Supermarkets,

Computer-based training systems for store-level staff are already delivering on their promise to slash costs for large chains with many employees and high rates of turnover.

But now even smaller retailers are increasingly turning to personal computers to do their teaching.

"This is what we need to start doing to keep pace with the competitive environment," said Guy Desautel,

co-owner of Wally's Supermarkets, Grafton, N.D., a three-store independent operator. "We are dealing with 1990s employees who are well versed with computers. They are not intimidated by them anymore."

Employees' willingness to work with computers, coupled with competitive pressure to reduce operating costs and increase customer service, has made the PC a powerful training tool for retailers of all sizes.

Computer-based training's most dramatic benefit, particularly for larger chains, is a significant reduction in training time.

"The general rule of thumb for cashiers seems to be that they need 24 hours of [conventional] training. With computer-based training, a retailer can reduce the actual time required to gain these skills by 50% to 60% or more," said Chuck Brazik, senior vice president of human resources at Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill.

The 101-store chain, which introduced PC training about 18 months ago, has reduced average training time and documented additional benefits. Among those cited by Brazik and other retailers:

Productivity gains in the checklane: At Dominick's, computer-trained cashiers consistently scored better than new cashiers trained at an off-site learning center. Better skills led to speedier transactions and less trainee supervision needed at the front end.

Programming flexibility: Training programs can be customized to meet a retailer's changing requirements, and the software is portable, eliminating the expense and inefficiency of sending new cashiers off-site for training.

"It is a great vehicle for delivering training to a decentralized associate population, and it is easy to update," said Helen Chase, manager of public relations and corporate communications at Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine.

Uniformity: A standard training format ensures all employees are presented the same instructions, whether they are located within a single market area or across the country. An automated testing function objectively reflects trainees' proficiency levels.

"You have a score sheet that shows you what they know. You can get a good determination as to whether or not to retrain an employee in a weak area or if [a job applicant] does not qualify for a position," said Kim Spivey, director of human resources, public relations and corporate communications at E.W. James & Sons, Union City, Tenn.

Cross-training opportunities: Because the PC "trainer" is resident in-store, employees can acquire new skills when time allows.

"One of our store managers said what he likes best about computer-based training is that he can train everybody else in the store to fill in as a cashier when necessary," Dominick's Brazik said. "He was training produce clerks, grocery people and others when they did not have a critical task to do."

Reduced turnover: "If people are not trained well enough, they can get frustrated with their jobs and quit," said one industry observer who asked to remain anonymous.

"Turnover [rates] really show how well you train your people," agreed E.W. James' Spivey. "Many companies lose people because they were not properly trained. People don't like to feel or look incompetent."

E.W. James, which operates 16 stores, is shopping around for a computer-based training program that incorporates touch-screen features, he said.

"All of our stores have several personal computers on site, so the hardware is already bought," Spivey said. "We are already committed to do a test site to see how it works with one store."

At Big V Supermarkets, Florida, N.Y., the primary motivation to introduce computer-based training was reducing training costs and increasing productivity, said Jim Horton, director of training and organizational development.

Consistency in training delivery, greater flexibility for training "on demand" and learner-controlled pacing were secondary motivations, Horton said.

He noted that the cost of computer-based training software has come down in recent years. However, "as you customize, you add cost."

Customized or not, computer-based instruction programs bring systemwide consistency to training, which is especially important to Jitney Jungle Stores of America, Jackson, Miss., which is exploring computer programs, said Steve Edwards, vice president of training.

"A secondary objective is that we would like to be able to track actual training time" more accurately, Edwards said. Jitney Jungle stores are allowed 15 hours for training of each new cashier, said Edwards, "and this would be a fair way to give the stores credit for training hours."

Retailers agree that computer-based training has a lot to offer, and most employees are receptive to working with PCs.

"Computer-based training is a more interesting way of learning," said Dominick's Brazik. "We have found in our stores our employees feel good about our using a state-of-the-art learning method."

Desautel of Wally's agreed. "Computer-based training has so many advantages: speed, consistency, uniformity. Employees of today are intrigued and challenged to do things on computers."

Wally's Supermarkets plans to introduce computer-based training for its front end cashiers first, followed by a system for bookkeeping and office personnel, Desautel said.

Despite the clear advantages, retailers stress, PC training is not necessarily well-suited for all companies. If staff turnover is very low or the company has only five to 10 stores or less, computer-based training may not prove cost-effective.

Retailers who incorporate PCs into their training programs acknowledge that computers cannot be used exclusively for all training tasks.

Hannaford's Chase said, "Multimedia training may not be used exclusively, but it is applicable in one way or another to every type of training. Leadership training or team-building, for example, would not rely on it primarily, but could use it as a supporting tool."