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The series: We look at decision makers among Canada’s mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

After filing for bankruptcy in 2016, Golf Town was faced with some big decisions.

With virtually no inventory, a poor selection of products and tired-looking stores, the company was purchased by Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. and began to turn things around.

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While it downsized the number of store locations to 47 from 55, one of the key changes it made was to improve the customer experience. Golf Town chose to focus on front-line employees and give them a digital advantage.

“When you think of retail and you think of having 47 stores across various provinces, those messages get lost,” says Susan Gilpin, Golf Town’s director of human resources. “At the store level, we really weren’t engaging our employees or communicating with them well.”

In-store experience still counts, especially when it comes to buying something tactile like golf clubs. Golf Town wants to capitalize on that and give their front-line employees more information that will be helpful in the shopping experience.

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The company signed on with Nudge Rewards, a Toronto-based startup that allows employers to communicate directly with front-line retail employees via their smartphones.

Nudge’s smartphone app technology permits a brand to present a consistent message through a single point of contact, to deliver training materials, and to reward employees for hitting goals.

In addition, by building up a Facebook-like community of workers, the app allows for constant interaction and gives employees the feeling of being part of one big team, no matter their geographical location.

Previous to the adoption of Nudge’s technology in spring of 2017, Ms. Gilpin says head office was finding that corporate messaging stopped at the general manager level at each store, and often information that was sent out in e-mails wasn’t being delivered in a consistent manner.

Coming out of bankruptcy, she says the company’s successful rebirth has hinged upon enabling its employees to be part of the conversation and to share best practices and generate ideas, mainly because frontline employees see new things every day.

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But a cultural shift had to happen, too. Like many other retailers in the past, using a personal cellphone on the shop floor had always been frowned upon.

“It really has evolved our business for the better,” she says. “For me, if we hadn’t done this a year ago, we’d be seeing very different results at the store level. It’s neat to see how our employees have embraced the app and are using it. We’ve given them a voice and in turn have done better sharing ours, too.”

The adoption rate was immediate, with 78 per cent of the company’s employees, which can swell in number to as high as 1,400 in the peak golf season from Father’s Day onward, signing on with the app. Employees accrue points for following through on training prompts, or watching new-product videos. Those who place high on the Golf Town leaderboard are rewarded, sometimes in the form of gift cards to be used in the stores.

Ms. Gilpin says it’s hard to draw a direct correlation between the use of the app and increased sales, but she insists that it’s easy to tell which stores are using it, and which haven’t embraced the technology.

“We see those stores that are more engaged in the tool – in reading the information, consuming it, talking about it – we see higher customer satisfaction and are seeing great results come out of it,” she says.

Given the dominance of big retail players such as Amazon and Walmart, retailers who can offer a better customer experience can get a leg up on the competition, particularly those who are selling something tactile, like a golf club. Customers who visit the store want to see how the product feels in their hands, and they want a knowledgeable store associate to give them feedback.

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Jordan Ekers, co-founder and chief customer officer for Nudge Rewards, says that these days retailers are competing more on in-store experience than they are on the financial and the discounting-of-products sides. We live in an “experience economy,” he says, and 75 per cent of customers still want to go to a location and buy a product, but to capitalize on that, retailers need front-line employees who know what promotions are ongoing and can execute on a brand promise.

Investment in the employee experience, and therefore the customer experience, will be the next big transformation in the world of retail, says Jordan Ekers, co-founder and chief customer officer for Nudge Rewards.

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“So that’s kind of the big macro trend we’re seeing that’s happening in the marketplace right now. Our thesis is that investment in employee experience is the next big transformation that’s going to happen in the world of retail,” he says.

Another advantage that Nudge offers retailers is the ability to build data on a number of performance markers, such as which promotions might work well at a certain time of year.

“We’ve kind of evolved from the world where we push content out, we cross our fingers, and we hope people can consistently execute. [Now we have] a lot more confidence around how well they are executing and how that’s impacting both engagement at the front line as well as outcomes for that brand,” he says.

Applications such as Nudge are becoming increasingly popular across many industries. Victoria Pelletier, chief executive officer at Toronto’s ValidateIT Technologies Inc., which specializes in market research and data analysis, says that platforms such as Slack, Yammer or Achievers, a Canadian-based employee recognition program, are picking up steam.

The appeal of these kinds of tools is that they keep employees engaged with the company, especially for those who work away from a firm’s head office. That can leave employees struggling to identify a clear career path and leave them in the dark about where a company is heading.

“So that’s where you’re starting to see a lot more from a technology perspective to enable their productivity, their success in their role, but also how they engage directly with their employer and colleagues,” she says.

In addition, while not every retailer will want to adopt the type of technology offered by companies such as Nudge, choosing not to do so can make it harder to attract and retain talented employees.

“Yes, you can survive,” Ms. Pelletier says. “But in this … gig economy, you’re vying for talent where there are so many other options, creating tools to make the job easier and for someone to be more effective and more productive ultimately is going to drive both top and bottom line for retailers.”

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