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    EXCLUSIVE: Village Pantry Revamps Employee Training

    By outsourcing its training, the company gains consistency and customization without an in-house department.

    By Mehgan Belanger

    INDIANAPOLIS -- When it comes to employee training, there’s a wide spectrum of options for convenience store chains to choose from, such as guidance from another employee, classroom courses or computer-based virtual learning. Last year, Indianapolis-based Village Pantry sought to revamp its on-the-job training with a solution that provided consistent, high-quality results for its nearly 200 c-stores, without an in-house department.

    "One extreme was basically having no program, just on-the-job training with no curriculum, no follow-up or evaluation -- like a mom and pop. The other end is an in-house training program," Mick Parker, CEO of Village Pantry, told CSNews Online. "I knew I didn’t want to be a mom and pop, but it economically didn’t make sense to be on the development side. For our size, it made much more sense to outsource it."

    Enter TSi’s InfoTrain Outsource, a third-party, customizable learning system using patent-pending technology called LTraining. Village Pantry, an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners, was referred to TSi from another Sun affiliate company, Pamida, a general merchandise retailer that also operates more than 140 pharmacies headquartered in Omaha, Neb.

    TSi works with the company to create training and communications solutions. TSi interviews employees -- from company executives to store level associates -- on its culture, objectives, mission, vision, obstacles and more. From those interviews, TSi develops a report and a three-year training program is developed to achieve the company’s goals.

    "As I see it, it’s much more sophisticated and effective than paper manual training materials, and I think it’s more effective than computer-based training for the type of things we are doing," said Parker. "One of the cool things is it’s done at a level employees can relate to, with good, consistent messages."

    The keystone of InfoTrain Outsource is LTraining, a technology that teaches subjects via headsets such as CD players. LTraining uses visual, touch and kinesthetic, or hands-on, learning in addition to aural methods, and can be coupled with Web-based or CD-ROM components as well as paper materials. Trainees can wear the headsets and receive training while on the sales floor, and pause the program when necessary, such as to help a customer. In addition, the programs are designed so trainees can stop the CD at specified points on the disc and complete an exercise, and company executives even get a chance to get involved and speak during the programs, according to Parker.

    Village Pantry began its InfoTrain system in June 2008 with one module that taught employees about an upcoming promotion to encourage customer usage of the Marathon co-branded credit card. This promotion was chosen because it was a more complex topic for store employees to understand, and company executives wanted to measure the effectiveness of the outsourced program.

    "It required an understanding of the credit card process and the benefits to the customer," said Parker, adding it was a new program where store employees had no previous knowledge.

    After training was complete, TSi conducted telephone surveys with questions approved by Village Pantry to validate employees’ knowledge of the promotion, and their feelings toward the training method. The results were "far and away the best training" Parker said he’s ever seen. There was only one negative comment about the method of training, due to an equipment problem.

    Even better, the Marathon promotion was deemed a success by all measures. Village Pantry saw a good increase in the percentage of customers who used the Marathon card, according to Parker.

    Going forward, Village Pantry plans to create a training system for the entire lifecycle of an employee, from new hire training through career development and specialized training, such as store manager training, according to Parker. To date, Village Pantry completed modules prepping store employees, managers and district managers for ongoing store remodeling activities, as well as modules for new hire orientation and restricted sales. Other training modules on Village Pantry’s agenda are point-of-sale, customer service and shift duty training.

    In addition, Parker foresees a module for standardizing the chain’s deli program, where all deli associates will be trained using the same process and methods. And, once Village Pantry’s rollout of a PDI back-office system is complete, the training modules will be available to stores over the network, and the chain will go to work creating modules for the corporate headquarters, Parker said.

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