On-Demand Education

J.C. Penney Co.’s employee-training program focuses on educating associates about merchandise, consumer lifestyles and new brands. By merging its satellite network with technology solutions popular among the Generation Y segment—a strong contingency of the retailer’s work force—the retailer is embarking on an on-demand training strategy.

As Penney begins hiring associates for its back-to-school and holiday seasons, the retailer is attracting a larger pool of younger, technology-savvy candidates. “This is pushing a transformation in the way we train,” said Eric Blackwood, VP, director of store communications and coordination.

Plano, Texas-based Penney, a department store chain with $19.9 billion in sales for fiscal year ended February 2007, has 1,040 stores geographically dispersed across 49 states and Puerto Rico. Such a vast enterprise has prompted the retailer to “use technology in different ways to train associates,” said Deborah Masten, Penney’s director of HR.

“This is especially important since we operate in a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week business world now,” she said. “Training is very important in reducing turnover and ensuring that our shoppers have a great, consistent experience across all of our stores.”

The company’s old CD-based training program was not ideal to meet this goal, especially when getting associates up to speed on point-of-sale transactions. This challenge is only exacerbated when atypical transactions emerge.

For example, new employees are currently jumping behind POS stands as the back-to-school rush hits. “During this time, 15 different states will feature tax-free weekends,” Blackwood explained. “A CD program cannot get several hundred associates up to speed.”

A transition to a simulation DVD program is making this and other training issues smoother. “We are all about training behavior, and the DVD enables us to emulate what the behaviors are and teach interactions with customers,” Masten said.

This goal became extremely important as the company transitioned to a new POS system three years ago. While the main task of the POS, the RealPOS80 from NCR, is to manage customer transactions, “We consider the unit more than just a cash register. Instead, it serves as a portal to service shoppers,” she said.

“Penney’s 39,000 devices are all connected to www.jcpenney.com as well as our inventory database,” she explained. “The units also serve as a training portal,” internally called J-POS.

Using the stores’ data lines, the digital-training information is downloaded to each location’s POS server where it can be accessed via register at any time. The solution was rolled out to stores last October.

This is only one on-demand training option. For example, the chain has featured satellite-based broadcasts from the corporate office to store level for some time, Masten said.

“By evolving the program, we have created new ways of using the communications tool for on-demand learning services,” she said.

The company’s J-Learn application is ideal for associates who are not available for live training broadcasts, including those who travel between stores and the corporate office.

By merging a keypad with a digital video recorder (DVR) from Lindon, Utah-based Helius Inc., the retailer enables associates “to download broadcasts onto the unit’s hard drive and watch them as they fit into their schedule. The keypad enables associates to interact and answer questions posed in the broadcast,” Blackwood said. “This solution aids approximately 150,000 store associates, including store-sales and sales-support, specialty-selling associates, supervisors and management.”

The newest on-demand training program, called J-Pod, debuted in February. Armed with their iPod, mobile district managers can download training pod-casts off the satellite network.

The units are also equipped with a security screen, “So if it is misplaced, the only way to use the unit is to input the security code,” Masten explained.

Currently, 25 district managers are evaluating the technology.

“We have not decided to roll out the system yet, but we are gaining good learnings about how mobile devices can help us deliver training for managers who are on the go and cannot watch the broadcasts,” Blackwood said. “These are all available in real time and provide information that can get our associates up to speed quickly.”