Making the sale at a small hardware store or home center often comes down to knowledge; whether it be answering customers’ questions about DIY projects or providing them detailed product information. It takes training. Chicago-based True Value reacted to that fact in late 1999 with their introduction of True Value University (TVU).
“We’re constantly trying to help our stores be the best retailers they can be,” said Katie Stangel, training manager at TVU.
According to Lyle Heidemann, president and CEO, training is an essential part of success to any business strategy, and is especially important on the home center level.
“Teaching people what retailing is—that’s very, very important, and that continues to be an evolution,” he said. “The industry does a good job of providing product training, but what we also need to help them with is human resources—how to help them select people.”
According to the co-op, ongoing, comprehensive training across departments and settings keeps employees on the cutting edge of industry trends, technology and best practices.
The educational program provides training at all levels, from basic product knowledge to DIY training. The program involves different training methods, including classes led by True Value University instructors as well as mail-order training kits, which can be anything from pamphlets and training books to training videos.
But while TVU provides a lot of information, it was often difficult for members to send themselves, or their associates, to the training events, due to the time and cost of travel, as well as the cost of training, which could range from free to approximately $1,500, according to Stangel. In 2006, TVU launched its Resource Learning Center (LRC), a free online training program.
“They were asking for something that was available in their stores,” said Stangel. The LRC provides hundreds of courses, from basic cash register functions to DIY and product knowledge.
Associates can log on to the site from any computer and take the courses, either on their own time or while working. Their managers will receive e-mail messages each time an employee completes a course. Managers can also log on anytime and monitor their employee’s progress.
The LRC program really took off in 2007, with enrollment reaching 4,000 users, up 23 percent since its inception the year before.
“With a relatively new system, we’re thrilled,” said Stangel. “We know that we’re doing something right.”
According to the co-op, the growth proves these training tools continue to be an important asset to members.
Stangel added that they’ve seen an increase in associate competency, especially from the product knowledge training.
“I think it’s a very useful program for employers in the field.” said Perry Hahn, owner Hahn True Value in Hartford, Wis. “Logistically, it eliminates the excuse of ‘I don’t have the time or money to send my people for training.’”
Hahn said that he actively uses the LRC to train his employees, making some programs mandatory and providing incentives for finishing others. Hahn employees who complete the Advanced Course in Hardware Retailing, for example, receive a $100 cash bonus, and a 50-cent per hour raise.
“I would say the vast majority of my new hires go through the advanced course within 90 days of being hired,” he said. “Now they’re more valuable employees to me.”
Hahn said he has been actively using the TVU program for three to four years, but since the introduction of the LRC, he has definitely ramped up training.
“They’re more competent, they get a lot more training and it’s a lot easier to train them,” he said.
Along with training, the LRC just recently added an HR toolkit that guides members through developing an effective compensation plan, from writing thorough job descriptions to establishing pay levels and pricing each position appropriately.
According to Heidemann, the training is as important to manager as it is to employees—from cash flow to finances, and to develop future managers.
“I don’t think you ever draw a line in the sand and say, ‘OK, everybody’s trained,’” Heidemann said. “Because this industry keeps changing too much.”
One criticism of the program, according to Stangel, was that members complained that there were so many courses available, it was of ten difficult to find the right courses for each job title.
“They were saying, ‘This is great, but there’s a lot—help me navigate it.’”
As a result, Stangel said administrators now plan to organize the courses based on job title, making it easier for managers and employees to find the training courses that apply to them. Hahn agrees that it would be an improvement. “That would be so instrumental on the store level,” he said.
Stangel said the TVU team will be making changes to the site based on member suggestions.
“We’re always looking for feedback,” she said. “What are we missing? What can we improve?”