AS retailers explore ways to do more with the limited manpower they have, new ways to train staff are emerging.

Many are also using Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) certified training programmes, and are choosing to be a retail WSQ in-house approved training organisation so that employees can be trained within their premises. WSQ is the national credential system created by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency.

These retailers are spurred by the lack of manpower, which makes it difficult for store managers to release staff for training.

One training avenue that is gaining popularity is e-learning, so that employees can learn at any time of the day - be it off-peak business hours, or at the end of the work day.

"Through the years, training has become more specialised. Previously, it was mainly conducted in a classroom, now it's both classroom and on-the-job training," said Isetan managing director Lim Tien Chun.

NTUC Fairprice is one retailer that uses the online medium for training.

Besides tapping on resources by external training providers, it has two in-house interactive e-learning modules, which provide information on standard operating procedures and address frequently asked questions, said its managing director of business operations Gerry Lee.

The supermarket chain faced certain challenges when it first started in 2006, including the low level of IT literacy level among frontline staff and employees' time constraints in juggling work and e-training.

In response to these problems the group, which is a retail WSQ in-house approved training organisation, started basic in-house IT training catering to specific job requirements, and streamlining its training modules into shorter durations of 10 to 15 minutes, so that its employees can zoom into topics of interest.

At Home-Fix DIY, training has migrated to the tablet. In a pilot programme that it started last August, the company provided 10 stores with a tablet each, in which its training application comprising 12 scenarios focusing on a specific product range or department, was installed.

Its employees were encouraged to play the game during off-peak periods or break time, said its CEO Low Cheong Kee. They were also allowed to borrow the tablet to bring home and play with the application on their days off. Sales for the piloted stores increased by 4.3 per cent a few months after the training programme was launched.

The mobile platform could eventually also prove useful for interacting with customers, he added.

"For example, customers may say their lightbulb has blown, but they can't remember how it looks like. So we hope to use this app to show them: Does your lightbulb look like this, or that?"

Videos addressing common problems such as a blown lightblub would greatly enhance the experience that the customer will have with the shop, he said.

And of course, being able to conduct WSQ retail training programmes in-house because Home-Fix is an approved training organisation also helps to facilitate the learning needs of its employees.

But more than just a way of increasing productivity, training is also used to develop talent and retain them. Rather than adopt a piecemeal approach, training development is charted for staff right from the get-go at some organisations.

"When somebody comes in, we always hope that they look at it as a career. Training development must follow the entire progression," said Estee Lauder Cosmetics managing director Grace Ban.

"If somebody comes in as a beauty adviser, her next step is to be a senior beauty adviser. If she's a counter manager, she's in charge of the business that can run into millions of dollars.

"If she wants to go into the office, the question is: Are we able to train her every step of the way?"

And career development does not just have to be about climbing up the ladder - it could mean moving between ladders, or lateral movement in the company.

A company that has adopted such a strategy is Wing Tai Retail, which has also made use of the WSQ. And like NTUC Fairprice and Home-Fix, it is an approved retail WSQ in-house training organisation.

"WSQ is very good because it is focused on specific skills, after which you can rotate the staff. They could laterally move to specialise in areas like style advisers, personal shoppers, and some of them can be promoted to be in charge of public relations, marketing and also merchandising," said Wing Tai Retail executive director Helen Khoo. "Once you have the knowledge and you are specialised, people will respect that profession."

Such training and talent management schemes are especially crucial for companies looking towards succession planning.

NTUC Fairprice's Mr Lee says that it is "one of the biggest users of WSQ". "Most of our staff are frontline staff, so we train them in cashiering, merchandising and customer service.

"For the executives we train them in leadership and development strategy."

The group, which has its own training centre and conducts WSQ training programmes in-house, sets aside 4 per cent of its sales for training each year. It also sends its employees for training overseas.

"We send them overseas once a year to study developments and trends. We also send them for attachment programmes in Japan.

"Training is an ongoing thing - there are job redesigns, new things to learn, upgrades through computerisation and automation, so you have to retrain. We do that through a lot of refresher courses and dialogue, as well as townhall meetings."

According to Mr Lee, about 40 per cent of its staff are above 50 years old.

"We have committed people . . . for now but 10 years on we may have a problem," said Mr Lee. "That is why career succession training is important now."

NTUC Fairprice has put in place a management trainee programme, which puts fresh graduates through a structured training programme including a six-month attachment with retail operations and other divisions. The management trainees also have mentors to help guide them along, said Mr Lee.

To groom the next echelon of leaders for the retail sector, some are planning to go even further by extending the training to potential employees.

Said Wing Tai's Mrs Khoo: "We are thinking of suggesting more collaboration with ITEs and polytechnics and universities, to have immersion programmes that are part and parcel of their curriculum.

"It is not only a means to solve our labour shortage, but also a means for consumers and youngsters to have an introduction to the trade which may interest them. And even if they don't continue to work in the industry, they will be a better consumer ultimately."