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Powell’s Books uses Totara to deliver a personalised training experience for employees

Serving Portland, Oregon since 1971, Powell’s Books is the largest independent bookseller of new and used volumes in the world.

Boasting an inventory of more than two million books, Powell’s operates five bricks-and-mortar stores – including Powell’s ‘City of Books’ headquarters which spans almost 1.6 acres of retail floor space and occupies a full city block – as well as

The Challenge

For a couple of years, Powell’s Books had been facing issues related to their existing outdated homegrown LMS. Their previous LMS was implemented over 15 years prior and was based on technology that was rapidly being phased out of most internet browsers, making the solution virtually unusable.

“Because our previous LMS was built in the early 2000s and could only launch Shock Wave File (SWF)-based training, we were limited in what we could provide and facing obscurity as browsers phase out Flash. Additionally, the LMS had a very rudimentary instructor-led tracking programme that was so unwieldy that it wasn’t used, and the company that created the LMS went out of business, so there was no ability to use them as a resource if issues arose.”

Robin Fruitticher, Director of L&D at Powell’s Books

Facing these challenges, in early 2018, Powell’s began looking for a scalable solution that would grow with their organisation and adapt to evolving needs. They conducted their own research internally and identified that the open source learning platform, Totara Learn, would provide the future-proof and flexible solution that they were searching for.

“I evaluated a number of platforms but after a lot of research I decided I wanted an open source solution,” said Fruitticher. “The world of online training is shifting rapidly and I felt that an open source solution gives us the greatest ability to stay current on the technology as the industry changes and didn’t tie us to one company.”

Robin Fruitticher, Director of L&D at Powell’s Books

Powell’s found eThink Education, a Platinum Totara Partner (and 2018 Global Partner of the Year), who worked with Powell’s team to identify their ‘LMS wishlist’ and how they could customise Totara to meet their specific training needs.



Powell’s requirements for their training platform included:

  • Reporting
    Supervisors wanted to be able to pull reports on individuals and teams for more accessible learner data. With five storefront locations, a warehouse and a corporate office, Powell’s required these reports to have the ability to filter by location as well as by training date, training module, hire date and other criteria, with the ability to export the results to Excel.
  • Certifications and course retake options
    Powell’s has a handful of courses that employees are required to take annually. Certifications automates the process of ensuring that employees and their supervisors are notified when it’s time to take the course again. Certifications also enables automatic notification if the learner fails to recertify. Reporting is used to easily view whose certification is up for renewal or expired.
  • Notifications
    With notifications in place, the system automatically emails and alerts the learner when assigned a course to help keep them on task.
  • Hybrid training
    Powell’s wanted a central hub that allowed them to track both web-based and instructor-led trainings. They have tended to do more instructor-led training in the past, but the varying levels of permissions within Totara enables Powell’s to have a wide array of contributors to online content so that it’s easier to build and incorporate robust web-based training.
  • Calendar
    A company training calendar that lists instructor-led trainings allows people to easily register for courses and effectively manage their time commitments. Powell’s wanted to embed this into Totara so that users could easily see and sign up for instructor-led training. Additionally, when employees sign up for instructor-led sessions, they have the choice of downloading the information directly to their Outlook calendar.
  • Enrolment capabilities
    With updated enrolment features, Powell’s was looking to provide managers with the ability to assign learning courses to employees, while also giving employees the freedom to self-enrol for additional courses they may want to join.
  • Course completion editorPowell’s wanted administrators to have the ability to modify course completion data by learner. Being able to edit the completion date is helpful when the training was obtained from a third party, for example, and they wanted to ensure that the correct completion date from a learner’s certificate document is reflected in Totara. Powell’s also has users that can ‘skip’ training because they are already proficient. Being able to add a completion for that training so that the learner’s transcript is complete is helpful.
  • Course history
    Powell’s wanted the ability to store course history and relevant learner data for completed courses so that it could be leveraged for reporting.
  • Audience-specific courses
    Powell’s wanted the ability to have separate course libraries for managers and employees, presenting specific trainings to learners based on the organisational hierarchy.
  • Content variety
    Powell’s wanted an LMS with easy integration options that allowed them to use a variety of content development platforms. Powell’s frequently used Adobe products but wanted the option to try other tools in the market like Camtasia. With Totara, Powell’s has more content variety. For instance, they are able to upload LinkedIn Learning courses into the LMS. The learner needs their LinkedIn Learning username and password to launch the course, but the completion records trigger in the LMS. This makes it easier for managers to track what LinkedIn Learning their employees take and enrol them in programmes or courses based on roles.
  • Ecommerce solution
    Finally, Powell’s was very interested in implementing some type of paywall to enable them to potentially offer training to people in the book industry outside of the Powell’s organisation. By expanding their training outside of staff to an external user base, Powell’s could offer their LMS offerings to a larger market.
The Solution

Powell’s Books partnered with eThink Education to create a sustainable, customisable learning platform. With eThink’s fully managed LMS solutions and high-touch support, Powell’s was able to implement and customise the open source Totara Learn to fulfil each of the requirements listed above. They tackled each goal one at a time to ensure the success of each before moving onto the next.



eThink also provided additional solutions including:

  • Hierarchies
    eThink helped Powell’s build hierarchies into their learning plans, enabling them to provide personalised training with audience-specific courses. Powell’s Books can now provide tailored training across multiple organisation levels. In particular, the hierarchies in Totara Learn give Powell’s the ability to offer managers and employees specific course libraries depending on their roles.
  • Quick user setup
    Using HR Import, eThink was able to sync their existing user base into their new Totara instance, ensuring an easy transition of their employee roster and accompanying user data.
  • Seminars
    Powell’s is using the Seminar Management feature extensively to offer a series of ‘talks’ that employees can sign up for, including sessions on topics like ‘Holiday Inventory Preparation’, ‘New Book Purchasing’ and ‘Supply Chain Management’. Using this feature in Totara Learn, employees from different locations are also able to sign up for these events. The Seminar feature is also used for required instructor-led training like harassment prevention and a variety of management training classes.
The Results

Using programs, certifications and hierarchies that align to their organisational structure, Powell’s is now able to provide employees with more personalised learning plans, including different course libraries for managers and employees. This ensures that learners are seeing only the information that is relevant to their position.



With Totara, Powell’s has more choice regarding the type of learning content they’d like to incorporate into their training programmes. As an open source platform, Totara embraces open standards, such as LTI, SCORM, and xAPI, which facilitates easy integration between content and the learning platform.

Being able to incorporate content from a virtually unlimited amount of sources allows Powell’s to pick and choose the best solutions for their learners, ultimately achieving a best-of-breed learning strategy.

The implementation of Totara Learn at Powell’s has helped to evolve their internal training into a modern solution that can continue to grow with them as their company scales.

The features they’ve implemented already ensure that Powell’s employees are well trained and educated, allowing them to continue to offer top-notch customer service across their organisation. At the same time, employee training is streamlined to ensure that it is engaging, easy to manage, and not distracting from primary job responsibilities.

“As we continue to build the LMS and utilise it more thoroughly, any time I need help figuring things out, eThink is there and willing to dive in with me. I can’t imagine diving into Totara without having eThink as a partner. With their help, I feel like we’re truly using the LMS to its fullest potential, which in turn means we’re getting our money’s worth from the system.”

Robin Fruitticher, Director of L&D at Powell’s Books
Background pattern

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