retail manager training

If you ever doubted that retail is its own breed, take a generic leadership development course. You’ll quickly discover that what applies in other types of organizations doesn’t necessarily translate. It’s not just the setting — although the environment certainly is a factor — it’s the nature of the challenges, the dynamics of the different people you have to deal with, the varied pace and pressures, and the flexing to different roles that are uniquely part of working in retail management.

This is also why so many well-regarded leadership development programs that have great track records in corporate environments tend to fall flat in retail, whether the audience is senior leadership, multiunit management, or leading at the store level. After having been burned by these kinds of experiences in the past, many retailers simply decide that formal training isn’t a priority.

For all its challenges, though, the good thing about retail is that it lends itself well to on-the-job learning. There’s a lot that a new manager can pick up through role-modeling, mentors, and observing how others do things. This is how many of today’s seasoned multiunit managers have risen through the ranks, and it remains an important component of most retailers’ learning and development strategies.

But at some point you have to ask: Is that all there is?

On-the-job training is an essential building block for development, but formal training still needs to be part of your overall strategy. That doesn’t mean just any program will do. But don’t discount the importance of formal skill development. Here are 3 reasons why on-the-job isn’t enough:

1. It’s hard to teach “what you know.” There are plenty of things we do, actions we take, and decisions we make that are basically part of our routine and reflexes. We don’t think about why we do them or how we do them; we just do them. And it’s tough to teach those reflexes to someone else, especially when the situation involves interpersonal behaviors and “soft skills.” We might be able to get the gist of it across, but some critical nuances could get lost in the process. And even if they don’t, it can end up being a time-consuming or frustrating experience for everyone involved.

It takes specific skills and competencies be a good teacher or trainer. You can’t just “wing it” and expect great outcomes. So leave the training to the experts and instead focus on developing leaders’ coaching skills (with formal training!) so that they can effectively support and nurture the development of others.

2. Years of experience don’t always translate into best practices. Just because you’ve been doing it for years, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it in the most effective way. This has always been the case, but never more so than now, with so much changing in the industry. To think that you can get by on the skills, knowledge, and insights you developed five or even three years ago is naïve at best. Today’s problems demand new skills. Without them, even the most experienced multiunit managers will struggle.

Also keep in mind, if you’re mentoring or serving as a role model to others, you could be handing down ineffective or outdated practices, which will keep getting replicated. Everyone needs to take a step back and make sure they’re equipped to deal with this rapidly changing environment.

3. Managers want it — even the seasoned ones! Sometimes there’s an assumption that people who’ve been in the role for a while don’t need or want formal training. But in our experience, that’s rarely the case. One of the most frequent comments we see on participant evaluations for our retail management training programs is, “I wish I’d gotten this years ago.” These managers realize how much time and effort it would have saved them, how much stronger their relationships could be, and how much better they can be at their jobs.

The best multiunit managers are always looking for ways to take their skills to the next level, particularly as the environment gets more challenging. They want to be well-equipped to tackle tomorrow’s challenges.

Of course, that generic leadership development course isn’t going to cut it. To make sure you get the outcomes you need from any formal training program you’re considering, ask these key questions:

  • Is it designed specifically for retail, or adapted from something else?
  • Is it grounded in current research?
  • Has it been field-tested with multiunit managers? Does it work?
  • Do the people who are developing and delivering it have real-world retail experience?
  • Is there ongoing reinforcement to make sure the behaviors stick? Is it something my managers will use?


Not sure where to begin? We can help you flesh out a strategy that works for your business and training goals. Get in touch today.


About Michael Patrick

Michael held positions in retail management, merchandising, and human resources before joining MOHR Retail’s predecessor in 1986. In 1990 he purchased the retail division of that firm to form today’s MOHR Retail. Michael holds true to his retail roots by delivering learning that changes behavior—providing both immediate and lasting business impact. In addition to facilitating MOHR Retail training programs, he offers executive-level coaching in one-on-one sessions dealing with critical strategic issues such as succession strategies and executive team development. The author of “The New Negotiation Mindset: Guarantee A Bigger Slice,” Michael is a longstanding member of NRF as well as ISA: The Association of Learning Providers. He has a B.A. from San Diego State University, completed Master’s level work at Arizona State University, and lives with his family in New Jersey.