When Dave Levy, co-owner of Hawley Lane Shoes in Stamford, Conn., recently stopped by his local Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through on his way to work, he picked up more than a cup of coffee. He left with a new employee.
“When certain people take your order, you can tell they are really upbeat,” said Levy, who’s always on the hunt for sales associates for his fashion-comfort chain. “There’s a good amount that have a passion for [selling], and I’ve offered them a job at the drive-through window.”
Like many small businesses operating in today’s tight U.S. job market, Levy is continually faced with the challenge of finding hard-working, engaging associates. And even when employees finally do decide to join the team, long hours, weekend work and commission-based pay can prevent them from making a long-term commitment.
But there is hope for small retailers. In fact, the recent store closings for chains such as Payless and Dress Barn could likely infuse the market with even more workers with retail experience.
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“The one area people should be having an easier time is retail since brick-and-mortar is contracting,” said David Lewis, CEO of the HR consulting firm Operations Inc. “The market right now could not be better for finding employees.”
The trick, said Vanessa Nelson, owner of Expert Human Resources, is to sell sales jobs better. “You have to glorify the [position] and add incentives,” she explained. “People need to be educated to know the sky is the limit in sales. They get what they put in.”
Below, retailers and hiring experts offer other tips for recruiting and retaining great talent on the sales floor.
Independents on the hunt for sales associates may not have to look any further than their own front door. According to Mark Denkler, owner of Vince Canning Shoes and Tootsies in Delray Beach, Fla., four of his employees started out as customers. “They’d say, ‘I love it here,’” said Denkler, who then asked if they were interested in a job. Other customers have approached him directly about joining his team.
Making personal connections has also proved to be a valuable recruiting tool for Todd Lewis, president of Shoe Fly Stores in Pennsylvania, who queries friends and family to see if they know someone looking for a job. “We’re not seeking strangers,” he said, “but somebody who knows somebody.”
Indeed, networking works, explained recruiting expert Bob Nagen, president of WhizBang Retail Training: “There are good people out there; you just have to know how to find them.” He encourages the practice of ethical poaching — approaching service professionals at restaurants and stores who have impressed you with their work — and even suggests retailers hand out business cards to these people and say, “I hope you’re happy where you are; however, if you’re looking for a change of scenery, please come talk to me.’”
Getting social by posting jobs on a store’s website and Facebook page is another simple and cost-effective way to scout help since it’s likely seen by fans of the store. However, Mel Kleinman, president of recruiting firm iHumetrics, said that retailers need to make the online ads sound very enticing by including the top 10 reasons to work at the store, such as a light schedule for part-time workers.
He cited a convenience store with a big lunch business that lured moms by advertising the hours allowed them to be home with their children after school.
He also suggested expanding the labor pool by considering an ad that reads: “‘Maturity and experience rewarded and appreciated.’ Why not go after the senior market?” he asked. “Why do you need someone who’s 22 to sell shoes?”
Indeed, Levy of Hawley Lane Shoes said, “We’ve had good luck with hiring retired teachers for the weekends. They’re great with kids and adults; they just have a way about them.” He also noted that the group is much more flexible about scheduling than millennials, who prefer weekends off.
Lewis of Operations Inc. agreed that a personal approach often yields the best candidates. “Take a step back and look at the profile and backgrounds of the individuals you have successfully hired over the years,” he said. “Then try to answer the question, ‘Where did I find them? What type of background do they have? Then put the pieces together that demonstrate the trends. You may not have realized how many were moms returning to work, retired people or customers.”
The Learning Curve
In today’s competitive retail world, it takes an educated and enthusiastic sales team to make an impact with consumers. And experts report that retailers who are willing to invest the time and money to train newcomers will see the results.
At Comfort One Shoes in Manassas, Va., president Maurice Breton has created Comfort One University, an in-house, three-week course that new associates attend before they hit the sales floor, and afterward, they work alongside a mentor. According to Breton, five to six weeks of training takes place before they ever talk to a customer on their own.
The retail veteran said that small companies must provide an environment that promotes career building. “If they’re interested in a career in retailing, I will show them a possible path of development and achievement, as well as new positions they can [evolve] into, such as a store manager,” said Breton.
He said the program, which was implemented in 1998, has paid off. Roughly 61% of Comfort One staff has been with the company for over two years, while almost 40% has been there at least five years.
Though its program is slightly less formal, Mar-Lou Shoes in Cleveland also requires its new hires to shadow a store veteran before turning them loose on the floor. “Additionally, we have a detailed employee manual they must read and sign,” said owner Dan Ungar. “It contains specific selling techniques and obligations to our customers and to the proper handling of stock. Moreover, we have a tremendous amount of training seminars with our vendors.”
Keeping Workers Happy
Money may not be everything, but for many associates, it’s a top priority. Since sales jobs typically offer commission-based salaries that can fluctuate, it takes a positive, friendly work environment to maintain even the best workers.
“At the end of the day, salespeople migrate to the dollar, particularly in a job market where selling is a core skill, but a transferable one,” said Operations Inc.’s Lewis. “If an employee can sell shoes, they can probably sell other things. You have to find people who believe in retail. If they are there just to make money, you’re not going to win the battle no matter what you pay.”
Peter Hanig, co-owner of Hanig’s Footwear in Chicago, said he, so far, has been fortunate to keep many staffers for the long term. One associate has been with the store 45 years, beginning his career as a high school part-timer. “They like us,” said Hanig, who works to maintain a positive environment for employees. “We try to keep someone good. We treat them with respect, but we must also be competitive in commissions and benefits. We want them to feel comfortable here so our customers will feel comfortable. We’re in a relationship business.”
At Yarid’s in Charlestown, W.Va., storeowner Emile Yarid Couch also has longevity on her team. “Our longest-held sales position is 30 years.” She noted that one way they foster teamwork is through the company’s pay structure. “We pay a good wage with group commissions in all stores. We believe that every job is important. Everyone has to be compensated for their hard work during the day, and not just on the selling floor.”
Yarid Couch noted that her business offers benefits like vacation and sick days for full-time staff, plus health benefits and a profit-sharing plan, but because it has an all-female staff, she has also factored in other considerations. “We’re sensitive to their home and child care issues, and we try to work with everyone’s family life while scheduling their work life,” she said. “We believe that happy employees create happy customers.”
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