A Taste For Staff Training

Training is something many businesses seem to be doing less and less of and we desperately need to turn the tide. Trust me, delivered correctly, training is a sound investment in your business' future and gives your brand the chance to amaze and impress your customers.

I have spent over 40 years training team members in the industry on customer service. Over that time, the emphasis has changed, as has the style of what the consumer expects.

I used to talk about an “open“ communications style to generate conversation; now I focus on Day Maker Strategies and Customer Interaction.

Last month I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Kazakhstan; not a place familiar to many of us and tourists are still a rare sight in that part of the world.

For example, Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan has one of the largest shopping centres in Asia; 'The Silk Way'.

I love travelling to new places as you will never know what you are going to discover and learn.

This was an opportunity to look at retailing in this region of the world. Most of the retailers in the centre were famous international brands and you could have felt you were anywhere in the world.

Florist EPOS Solution

The only 'local' retailers I discovered were florists, who are open 24 hours a day. Men, especially, buy a lot of flowers in this part of the world!

It was the conversation with the salespeople in the shopping centre that was the most revealing though...

The average age bracket of a shop assistant was in their early twenties. The most common activity they were engaging in was talking on their mobile phone and, pretty much, ignoring the customer.

Woman Texting Mobile Phone

** On a personal side-note, I actually believe the most dangerous things to give any sales assistant is a smartphone. They are an unnecessary distraction on the shop floor at a time when your team should be focused on the customer and not on the latest post from your social media app of choice. **

I'm digressing though...

Back to the story... In one store we visited, we managed to get the attention of a salesperson; Linda, my wife, wanted to purchase some local jewellery.

The conversation went as follows:

[Linda] "I'm interested in this piece of jewellery; can you tell me more about it?"

[Salesperson] "It's on discount."

[Linda] "I appreciate that but where was it made?"

[Salesperson] "It is a 50% discount."

It was at this point where I stepped in...

** Firstly, I should point out that the salesperson had exceptionally good English; there were no translation or communication problems which may have been at the route of the exchange. **

I asked her if the team in the stores did any sales training and the response was, Yes, every morning, we are told how to approach the customer; the customer is only interested in discount and that is all we have to say.

Do you do any product training?“, I asked.

No, only discount as it is too expensive to provide training; young people soon leave retailing and move to other businesses.

In the end, Linda, never bought the jewellery she liked and the company ultimately lost a sale.

I mention this story because it is very relevant to what we do in farm retailing.

The Management Dilemma

Many retail businesses have a training dilemma.

Do they invest 2% of their turnover in training (2% is the norm in the retail industry) or do they not invest because young people move to another job quickly.

Staff Training Restaurant Coffee Shop

For me, it is a simple equation.

Training people and telling them WHY you are investing in their training and assuming the training is effective, the average sale per customer always goes up. If you do not train them, the average sale stays static or goes down and in my view is less cost-effective as both customer and salesperson become de-motivated.

In my part of the world in the average small business, they lose 16% of their staff each year. In retailing it is 41% every 9 months at a cost to the small retailer of a whopping £80k GBP a year.

Companies that have an effective training programme can reduce the leaving rate in their business and save money.

In major UK supermarkets, staff turnover is a comparative 35% per year with Tesco being the best retainer of staff with 29.9% turnover a year.

Not training staff can become expensive in many ways. In the UK, retailers work on a replacement cost, per team member, of 213% of their salary to replace a person.

The Farm Shop Advantage

Farm shops have a huge advantage over other food retailers. I often hear about the local or regional supermarket taking business away from small local food retailers; it should be the other way around.

We can learn some lessons from the supermarkets but, as farm retailers, our strategy should be different.

The key to staff training is the retention of team members.

That said, we also need to be honest with ourselves. Some team change over can be good for business as it can reinvigorate the team and the business in equal measure.

I recently worked with a business where they were proud of the fact that nobody had left the business in the last five years. That is not always good; in this particular case, the team and the business had become stale in their thinking and approach.

As a general rule though... 'Retention' is clearly a key component.

All businesses today need to offer flexible working conditions that include offering maternity leave, paternity leave, work for the disabled, career breaks, etc. These need to be made clear to the new team member at the start of their career with your business.

Successful Cheese Tasting Training
Cheese Customer Samples Tasting Cheese Training

All farm retailers should have a structured training and development strategy. I realize that some may already have these things; there is always room for improvement, though.

Staff Training

Training should be a combination of in-house and external programmes and each business will, inevitably, have a different training strategy.

Personally, I like the approach that is used at Tesco’s as a training concept where they have three medals in the structure

  • Bronze Level Training: This covers core skills, health, and safety, hygiene;
  • Silver Level Training: Product Knowledge and stock control;
  • Gold Level Training: Where you become an expert in your category.

This type of training should be provided in-house, but a national organization should be writing the programme to ensure there are common standards across the industry sector.

Companies such as Willow Farmers Market in Ontario, Canada have morning training sessions each day of no more than 5 minutes where they use the opportunity as a motivation session, they look at what they want to promote that day and share ideas and plans for the day. This builds team morale and keeps everyone on the same, proverbial, “page”.

Customer Training

Farm Shop University, An Opportunity?

Once team members have gone through the three medal training programme, where do they go next?

In the garden centre sector, which is closely aligned to farm shops, I have been involved with Garden Centre University in a number of countries.

This is where a group of around 20 senior retailers from a number of retailers, that are looking to develop their career, get together twice a year to deliver in-depth training. I have found this works exceptionally well for those involved and something I would love to see develop in the farm sector.

Recently, I spoke to Rob Copley, Chairman of the Farm Retail Association in the UK and this is what he had to say on the matter of a Farm University as a working concept.

Rob Copley

FRA Chairman

I absolutely agree with everything John says. Training needs to be a non-negotiable, integral and on-going part of every farm retail business; I also agree with the 2% benchmark. These days ALL team members, with online learning, should be perfectly capable of achieving Level 2 or even Level 3 food hygiene.

I also believe that every customer-facing team member should undergo Customer Service training in one way or another every 12 months, as standard.

As farm retailers, I am sure that owners could give me the back story to most products you sell, however in most of our businesses the staff would struggle. Farm retailing is built on knowing where the food comes from and who produced it. Team huddles, meet the producer, tasting all work very well but I have yet to find perfection.

Regarding staff retention; it is worrying that we all think we are friendly places to work, yet our staff retention is worse than Tesco.

Giving staff targets and celebrating when they are achieved really helps and, when coupled with good training, this can really aid retention.

The FRA is a great place to meet fellow retailers and share problems and answers, I look forward to discussing how we could move this forward at this year's conference.

Performance Reviews

Finally, it is often said, "If you can't measure it, then you can't manage it."

I believe all team members should have targets set for them and these should be reviewed on a fairly regular basis.

A simple question I often ask in farm shops is “What is the target average sale you are aiming at today?”. In some stores, I am told, down to the penny whilst in others, I get a blank look with no idea.

The average sale has nothing to do with the customer count. On our own farm we set a target, and celebrate when we exceed it.

Training is something many businesses are doing less of. I believe now is the time that small business, and especially farm retailers, should be doing more of.

It is an investment in your future and your opportunity to shine in front of the customer.


John Stanley

John Stanley



John Stanley is a retail consultant specialising in the farm retail sector. Based in West Australia, he is a sweet chestnut and pig farmer as well as consultant and conference speaker with clients in 35 countries. He is the author of several books in this subject, including the book 'Food Tourism... A Practical Marketing Guide'

Great minds think alike.

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