Retail onboarding: a step-by-step guide

A great retail onboarding is foundational for the success of your business—and your employees. If you’ve found some well-rounded team members to join your business, set them up for success by delivering a clear and informative onboarding process

By taking a few easy steps to create an onboarding program, you’ll be able to save time and money. Plus, your employees will feel more confident, experience higher morale, and able to deliver your customers a great experience.

In this article, you’ll learn about why retail onboarding is important, the benefits you’ll see by implementing a solid retail onboarding process, and an easy checklist for you to use in the future to help onboard new employees. 

What is retail onboarding?

Retail onboarding is the process that new retail hires go through when starting a new job. 

This includes completing new hire paperwork, meeting the existing members of the team, and learning how to complete day-to-day tasks. Depending on your business, tasks can range from inventory management, to how to use your specific point-of-sale software, to interacting with customers.

Retail onboarding starts when your new employee signs their offer letter and continues until they can complete their day-to-day tasks independently. There’s no right or wrong length of time for onboarding. It all depends on what works best for your team and for your new employee.

Why is retail onboarding important?

Retail onboarding is important because it sets expectations for your employees on the work that they’ll do, and how they’re expected to do it. Onboarding helps ensure consistency for customers and provides your employees with the right knowledge to do their job accurately. This provides your employees the confidence they need to start their first solo shift—and avoid having to call a manager to help with a 50% off coupon.

Thorough onboarding helps to set expectations and good habits. For example, a seasoned employee may regularly take 45 minute lunch, despite the handbook saying lunch is 30 minutes long. If both new employees and seasoned employees are involved in trainings, this is a good opportunity to reinforce how you want your business to operate.

Retail onboarding covers four essential topics that every employee needs to understand. These four things are commonly referred to as the four C’s of onboarding.  

The four C’s of onboarding

Every good onboarding program should cover four main aspects of your business.

  • Compliance: Outside of your specific business structure or brand, your team needs to understand basic legal regulations and company policy. If you have someone who’s never worked retail before, it’s extra important to ensure you’re both following all labor laws and regulations. Documenting these policies in an employee handbook makes it easy for your team to refer to at anytime.
  • Clarification: This refers to the level of understanding a new employee has about their job role. You want to make sure every new employee knows exactly what’s expected of them for each given task. Adding clarification means each person clearly understands what they’re expected to do in their day-to-day.
  • Culture: A good retail onboarding program showcases the unique culture of your business. This can include more specific things like dress code, language, or what kind of music you’re allowed to play on shift, to more informal things, like if the team goes for drinks Friday nights, or sends each other memes in the team group chat.
  • Connection: Onboarding helps provide opportunities to your new employee to build connections. This helps your team strengthen their bonds, but also grows your new employee’s network. This could be a team communication app, special buddy lunches for the first week, etc.

Benefits of successful retail onboarding

Creating a strong retail onboarding program requires some upfront work. However, the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. We’ve outlined a few benefits of a solid retail onboarding process and how it can help your business. 

Decrease your turnover rate

According to a study conducted by the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 50% of hourly workers leave their job within the first 120 days of employment. And since hiring new employees can be a costly process, it’s a smart idea to do everything you can to decrease employee turnover, no matter your industry. It’s simple: implementing an onboarding program decreases your turnover rate. The key here is to outline job expectations and employee success on day one. This way, new employees know what’s expected of them instead of guessing—or worse, guessing wrong. 

Increase employee job satisfaction

Your retail employees need to know what you expect from them. Providing a clear path for growth and an understanding of how to be successful can lead to job satisfaction. Your employees will know exactly what to do, which ultimately means less time doing meaningless work. Showing your employees how their work impacts your business proves their work is contributing to success. And when your team feels appreciated, they’re more likely to feel motivated to do a great job.

Improve customer service and customer satisfaction

According to research conducted by Portland State University, employees who participate in a step-by-step onboarding program are more effective than employees who don’t. Onboarding your new employees teaches them how things get done and how to respond to certain situations. Consider this scenario: if a customer comes in asking if you have a specific product in stock, does your new employee know where to look for it? What about checking for inventory in your database? Onboarding provides your employees the toolsthey need to best help your customers.

Increase revenue

It’s Retail 101: when your customers are happy, they tell people. The more happy customers your company helps, the more likely it is they’ll bring new friends and family into your business. And if you’ve got happy, motivated employees who remember to tell customers about your BOGO promotion and always ask if they want to subscribe to your email newsletter? Well, who could resist that kind of great sale?!

Minimize the cost of hiring

According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, it costs on average six to nine months of an employee’s salary to replace them. That’s a lot of money walking out the door if you’re not starting your team off on the right foot. Providing new employees with a robust retail onboarding program helps to minimize that. When your team is well-trained and has opportunities to grow, they’re less likely to leave.

Retaining your employees means you don’t have to spend time searching for new ones. This ultimately minimizes the amount of time and money spent searching for replacements

Streamline training processes

Onboarding gives you the opportunity to look at what’s needed for each role and how you can best teach those skills. Take a moment to look at what parts of the training or onboarding take the most time. Is there anything you can do to streamline that process? For example, automatic new hire paperwork is a great way to shave time off a new employee’s first day. Send them everything they need in advance in one simple digital packet, get their e-signature, and you’re all set. That way, they can spend more time learning useful job skills and building connections instead of dealing with ugh, paperwork.

Common retail onboarding pitfalls 

Making a mistake when onboarding can cause major issues. If you know what they are, it’s easy to fix them. Here are a few things you should avoid during retail onboarding.

No formalized onboarding process

According to a study conducted by Kronos, a quarter of HR survey respondents said they have no official onboarding program at all. For a new employee coming in on their first day of work, not having a formalized onboarding process can make training confusing. What should they do? Where do they start? And hey, are there bathroom breaks? With no formalized process, there’s nothing to set expectations.

Having an onboarding process creates consistency and decreases the amount of confusion that a new employee may have about the role. Not only does it create consistency, but it provides all your employees with the same information. The goal is that everyone gets the same treatment—so if one person’s asking about those bathroom breaks, everyone gets told the same thing. Consistent processes mean consistent service for your customers across the board and fair and equitable treatment for your team.

Confusing orientation with onboarding

Orientation and onboarding are often used interchangeably. The difference? Orientation is more generic and it’s often used to introduce an organization or company at a high level. Onboarding is more specific to a role. It’s the act of bringing a new hire onto your team with step-by-step actions on how they will begin learning the skills they need.

Creating a robust onboarding program for different roles helps ensure that your team succeeds and everyone understands how to complete their individual roles effectively.

Not providing an onboarding partner

Starting a new job is scary. If you’re onboarding only one new employee, it can be even more nerve wracking for them because they don’t have another newbie to commiserate with. Instead of throwing your new employee to the wolves, assign them a partner to go through training with. A good onboarding buddy is someone already on your existing team who excels in the role. This can be great for someone who was recently promoted, and can even set the stage for someone showing potential as a future manager.

Instead of your new employee constantly having to report to a manager if they have questions about their role, now your new hire can refer to their onboarding buddy.That way training becomes less intimidating and your new employee is more comfortable integrating with the team.

Manual or outdated onboarding processes

Ditch the pen and paper for new-hire paperwork. Try digitizing and automating this process instead. Onboarding software can help you save time and compile everything in one place. Plus, your new hire can get all of the technicalities out of the way before they even clock in for their first shift.

Streamlining the more manual parts of your onboarding process helps keep you organized and saves a ton of time. And hey, what do you want your new employee spending their first day focusing on: how to do their job well, or paperwork?

How to create a retail onboarding process from scratch

If you’ve never created an onboarding process before, the best way to start is from the very beginning.

Step 1: Understand the 4 phases of the retail onboarding process

The retail onboarding process consists of four different phases:

  1. Preboarding: The time spent before a new hire officially joins the team. You or your hiring manager complete administrative work like getting banking details, contact info, and signatures to ensure your new team member is prepared for their first day before they even walk through the doors.
  2. First day: If paperwork isn’t already sent digitally, spend a portion of the first day getting the technicalities out of the way. Also provide some basic training and a tour of the location they’ll be working at.
  3. First week: This outlines the specific training and tasks a new onboarding employee should complete by the end of their first week on the job.
  4. First month (and beyond): By the end of the first month, your new retail employee should have experience doing a little bit of everything within their expected job description. Use this period to help assess employee performance. Then, give them specific feedback on how they can best grow.

Sound good? Let’s go into a bit more detail on each of the four phases.

Preboarding phase

Preboarding should always be done before your employee’s first day. That way, their time onsite is spent learning valuable skills they can only get with on-the-job training—not just filling out paperwork.

    • Prepare HR paperwork ahead of time. This includes banking details for direct deposit, home address, cell, and an emergency contact, plus other key information you might need. Not sure what to include? Check out Homebase’s HR services and see how we can help ensure you’ve got everything you need to stay compliant.
    • Add the employee to your internal HR database. Use a smart software system to ensure your new hire is ready to go when it comes to payroll, feedback, and your team communication app so they don’t miss a thing.
    • Send a welcome packet. A digital new hire packet is a great way to give your new employee time to read things through at their own pace and plan out any questions. Your welcome packet should include information about your business, what they can expect from their first day, and important rules and policies for them to follow.
    • Assign an onboarding partner to help familiarize them to their new role. This can be a great way to minimize the stress of a new hire having to ask awkward questions. It’s also a great opportunity for some of your more experienced team members to take on a new role and gain valuable skills. Look for someone ready to take on a leadership role who might be great for an assistant manager role.
    • Schedule first day meetings. If you’ve got a small team this isn’t always necessary, but it can definitely help with the first day jitters. Schedule 15 minutes or so with each person your new hire needs to know.
    • Outline the schedule for their first day. Nothing’s worse than showing up for your first day and no one knows what to do with you. Don’t be that manager. Create a schedule of exactly what your new hire will be doing and who they’ll be working with, whether it’s you, their buddy, or shadowing someone on shift. Oh—and it should go without saying, but let the other person know as well. 

First day phase

The first day is your opportunity to make a good first impression on your new employee. No, we didn’t get that backwards. At this point, it works both ways: you want your new hire to be a go-getter, but it’s also on you to make sure they want to stick around. It’s important to make them feel both prepared to start a new role and welcomed as a new member of your team. Some sample tasks during this phase include:

  • Touring your store. Make sure they know where everything is, from the stock room, to the breakroom, to the bathroom
  • Introduce your new hire to their teammates
  • Start technical training, like teaching the new team member how to use the point-of-sale software or how to manage inventory
  • Share team swag or provide team member with appropriate workwear. This is especially important if you’ve got a team uniform or certain safety gear that’s required

First week phase

The first week of retail onboarding for a new employee is all about setting expectations. Along with the ins and outs of your business, they’re learning how to complete their day-to-day tasks, understanding team goals, and figuring out the best way to achieve them. Here are a few tasks that you may see within the first week beyond the first day technicalities:

  • Share new employee benchmarks. This is where tools like a 30-60-90 plan can help enforce and encourage retail employee growth
  • Discover personal goals with the new retail employee. If they have certain career goals, help to create a path for them within your store. TikTok expert? Have them create and run a store account. Budding art student? Throw them some chalk and have them go at that sandwich board
  • Continue technical training for the day-to-day tasks at the store

First month phase (and beyond)

By the end of the first month, your new hire should have enough hands-on experience to understand where they can improve. As a manager, the end of the first month is a good opportunity to perform a check-in with your new employee. How are they feeling? Anything they’re unsure about? What can you be doing to keep them motivated? 

After the first month, take some time to make sure you’ve set your new hire up for success with a few easy actions:

  • Establish monthly check-ins. This can be done either with just the new employee, or with the entire team. This doesn’t always have to be with a manager—it could be with a shift lead, their buddy, or with an assistant manager.
  • Assess the new employee’s performance and offer feedback. If there are areas they can focus on or improve, offer them opportunities to practice that skill so they can become a more well-rounded retail employee. Now’s the best time to correct anything that isn’t perfect instead of waiting and letting bad habits build.
  • Continue to train them on new skills beyond what their job entails. This helps foster growth on your team and encourages them to stay longer.

Step 2: Outline the information about your business that’s essential for every employee to know

While your retail employees may have different roles within the organization, everybody should be on the same page in terms of mission and business goals. Why does your business exist? What is it that your employees are contributing to by working at your business?

Providing the general mission, business goals, and values of your company ensures that all your employees are on the same page. Share this information to new employees in an employee handbook, or during an orientation program.

Step 3: Outline specific roles and responsibilities

The responsibilities of your retail team lead are different than the responsibilities of your cashier. While there may be some overlap in terms of skills, it’s important to outline which person handles what.

As you outline what tasks each role is responsible for, you’ll understand what aspects of that role need more specific training. Some skills can be taught as you go, but others will take some time. For example, point-of-sale software varies. Training on how to use your exact software is something that should be added as part of a new hire onboarding.

Step 4: Create a 30-60-90 day plan

Mapping out what your new employee’s first few days look like helps take some of that new job anxiety away. Providing expectations gets rid of ambiguity and helps people feel more comfortable in their new role. Plus, having a schedule beforehand shows that you’re an organized and prepared employer. By creating a full training plan before an employee even arrives, they’ll have the confidence that you’ll teach them the essential skills they need to be successful.

Hourly retail workers often see poor communication, unpredictable pay, and lack of growth in retail positions. Providing a 30-60-90 day plan gives your new employees a clear path for growth, consistency, and good management.

Step 5: Implement your onboarding process

Got your basic timeline of a new hire? Great. You should also know what important general business information you want to share with all employees, plus the tasks for specific roles. Now you’re ready to implement your onboarding process. The next crucial step? Finding a new employee to bring onto your team.

Step 6: Reiterate and repeat

After an employee goes through your new retail onboarding process for the first time, ask them for feedback. It’s important to take employee critiques seriously, as they’re an essential part of the success of your business. Plus, receiving feedback from your employees means you’re constantly improving. Making small changes ensures that all your employees get the best experience when they join your team.

5 tips and best practices for retail onboarding

There are a lot of different aspects to retail onboarding, but a few simple tips can take your onboarding from standard to memorable. Here are a few simple things you can do to make your onboarding experience stand out.

1. Make joining the team exciting

Getting hired for a new job is exciting—both for you and your new retail employee. So share that excitement with them! Send them a personalized message before their first day, give them a free branded tee-shirt, and add them to the team chat. Have other team members join in as well! Have them share how excited they are for the new hire to join.

2. Create a fun (but structured) first day

The first day at a new job is a lot like the first day of school—a good mix of nerves and excitement. The good news is that you can harness that energy and structure your new employee’s first day beforehand so they know what they can expect. When you’re creating that schedule for the day, make sure to add some fun things like a break for lunch with their buddy or the hiring manager. This offers an opportunity for more connection, but also takes some of the stress out of the first day.

3. Keep training structured so new hires don’t become too overwhelmed

When you join a new job, you get a lot of information at once. Learning everything at one time is exhausting, and sometimes can be hard to retain. Make sure that you build in some breathing time between trainings to ensure that your new employee is retaining the things they need to learn. This prevents having to retrain tasks, and ensures that they’re getting it right the first time.

4. Offer different ways to learn

Some people learn by doing and others learn by watching. Some prefer reading a manual and taking extensive notes, and others want to get right in there. Offer your new employees the ability to learn in a way that works best for them. Provide learning documents, videos, or offer opportunities to shadow more tenured employees. By providing a variety of ways to learn, your employee can choose a way to learn that works best for them.

5. Always ask for feedback and reiterate

Despite having a consistent onboarding experience, each of your new employees will have feedback on how the process went. Your employees will have insight into how you can improve processes and make changes for new employees in the future. Don’t be afraid to make changes and adapt—the retail industry is constantly changing and it’s important to be flexible and to change with the times.

Sample retail onboarding checklist

  • Preboarding phase
    • Prepare and send new hire paperwork
    • Add new hire to employee database
    • Schedule first day meetings with key team members
    • Assign an onboarding partner
    • Send new hire welcome packet, including:
      • Employee handbook
      • First day schedule
      • Work uniform
  • First day phase
    • Tour your store
    • Introduce new hire to teammates and key management
    • Begin intro technical training of day-to-day tasks
  • First week phase
    • Share 30-60-90 day plan
    • Provide clear role expectations and responsibilities
    • Continue training of day-to-day tasks
  • First month phase
    • Conduct 30 day employee review
    • Assess new employee’s current performance and provide feedback
    • Create an action plan for areas of improvement
    • Suggest training of new skills for growth
  • Beyond first month phase
    • Conduct 60 (or 90+) day employee review
    • Assess employees current performance and provide feedback
    • Assess whether employee meets (or exceeds) certain skills to advance
    • Promote when applicable

Retail onboarding FAQ

What is retail onboarding?

Retail onboarding is the process that a new employee goes through when starting a new retail job. Onboarding usually entails things like new hire paperwork, on-the-job training, introducing the new employee to their teammates, and establishing clear role expectations and goals.

Why is onboarding retail employees important?

Onboarding retail employees is the best way to set your employees up for success. A good onboarding process outlines the tasks and expectations a retail employee needs to complete to be successful. The best onboarding experiences offer clear opportunities for growth within your business.

What are the four phases of the retail onboarding process?

The four phases of the retail onboarding process correlate to where a new hire is in the onboarding process. Those four stages are:

  • Preboarding phase: The period of time between when an employee is extended an offer, but before they start the job. The hiring manager provides administrative work to ensure that the new retail employee has a smooth first day.
  • First day phase: This usually consists of introductions to other team members, tours of the facility, and how to do basic tasks like clocking in and out. If you don’t send paperwork ahead of time, part of the day is reserved for the legalities. 
  • First week phase: The first week phase is primarily for the new retail employee to get familiar with the specifics of their new role. Within the first week, your new employee should start learning the day-to-day tasks that they’re expected to complete.
  • First month phase (and beyond): This period of time is used to assess a new retail employee’s current performance. Then use this opportunity to offer feedback and how they can grow.

How long does retail onboarding take?

It can take a new retail employee up to three months to become fully ramped up at their new place of work—especially if they’re only working a few days a week. While every retail onboarding experience is different, one month is about how long it takes for an employee to be fully onboarded.

What are the 4 C’s of onboarding?

The four C’s of onboarding are:

  • Compliance: Teaching new employees about the basic rules and regulations of your company
  • Clarification: This refers to new employees having a clear understanding of their role and what’s expected of them
  • Culture: Offering a way for your new employee to understand the culture of your organization, and that they can contribute to it
  • Connection: Giving your new employees a chance to connect with new team members and establish a relationship with them.

Streamline your onboarding process.

Consolidate paperwork, payroll, and onboarding, all in one place with Homebase. Get started now for free.

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