Staffing the store

As a direct marketer, you don’t have to worry about store layouts, shoplifters, or point-of-sale displays. But once you add retail to your channel mix, those are just a few of the additional concerns you take on. Most direct marketers branching into retail don’t have employees experienced with brick-and-mortar issues, so they need to hire those who do.

“Retail is simply more physical than the catalog end of the business,” says Robert Buchsbaum, CEO of Galesburg, IL-based discount art supplies merchant Dick Blick Holdings. “Keeping the stores stocked is always among our biggest concerns. We look for personnel who are detail oriented and understand the needs of individual customers.” Established in 1911, Dick Blick operates 33 stores in 15 states in addition to a catalog and online business. Retail accounts for about one-third of the company’s $150 million annual revenue.

While retail managers must be generalists to some degree — able to oversee sales clerks and merchandise display areas with equal aplomb, they also need to know about the product line, particularly if you’re a specialty merchant. “Our customers often drive more than 25 miles to buy art supplies from one of our stores,” Buchsbaum says. “For some of them, the only thing more important than the fact that we have the specific products is that we have a helpful, knowledgeable salesperson to help them.”

For that reason, he says, “when we hire people here we never consider anyone who doesn’t have an art background.” Becoming a good retailer is tough enough, but if you try to cut corners and employ people who don’t know your business, your customers will catch on and assume that your brand as a whole isn’t a credible player in its niche. In addition to understanding the product line, your store personnel has to be good with people. This may sound obvious, but dealing face to face with customers is much different from speaking to them on the phone or via e-mail.

Maris Daugherty, a senior consultant with Toronto-based global retail consultancy J.C. Williams, says that good retail management comes down to customer relationships. Store managers must be able to interact with customers on matters ranging from defective products to dubious returns. “At the end of the day, the retail sales associate or manager is the face of the brand,” says Daugherty.

Roswell, GA-based KooKoo Bear Kids, which started as a catalog merchant of upscale children’s decor two years ago, opened its first store this past January. When hiring for the store, CEO Joe Mediate seeks people who can easily put themselves in the role of the customer. “We are looking for people who can see a mom walk in with a hysterically crying child and know that they are working with a time limit,” he says.

Cranston, RI-based jewelry and gifts merchant Ross Simons opened its first store in 1952 and now has 14 stores in nine states. The $207.2 million company looks for retail staff who can follow through on promises. “Communication, sometimes even overcommunication, is the key in the jewelry business,” says director of retail operations Tom Kowal. “You need people who foster trust and can keep their promises.”

On a store manager level, Kowal seeks people who know how to take care of customers, as well as those who know how to recruit, hire, and train others. “In the jewelry business trust is everything,” says Kowal. “If a customer doesn’t believe in the company he or she is buying from, no purchase will be made.”

Merchandising mavens

Another aspect to consider when hiring for retail is the differences you will inevitably have in merchandise in the respective channels. Your stores, for example, may offer more lower-ticket items than your catalog, as you will probably want to encourage impulse buys to boost order sizes. So knowing how to best arrange these store-only impulse items is another important retail skill.

In hiring people who understand how to lay out a store and create displays that sell, previous retail experience is important, Mediate says. The head of KooKoo Bear’s retail department is a former Saks buyer, for instance. But some potential employees can easily master the ability, he notes: “It’s an eye. It may even be an innate skill, knowing which items go where in the store.”

KooKoo Bear, which plans to open four more stores by 2007, tries to teach new employees the overall operation — catalog, Web, and retail. “Since we opened the store, we have trained our people in the catalog and Web operations first, and then they learn retail,” Mediate says. “This allows us to have a more flexible and interchangeable staff.”

An organized person is also a bonus in retail, since stores must look neat and clean. If you are a fashion apparel store, for example, and your racks are messy and your dressing rooms are not well kept, you can discourage any “feel good” vibe you may have fostered with your customers, says J.C. Williams’ Daugherty.

Customer service is also paramount to that “feel good” vibe. “Customers in today’s competitive environment know and understand the difference between good and mediocre service,” adds Daugherty. “You need to hire retail people from top to bottom who will always put the customer’s need first. And if the service isn’t how and when they want it…it’s not likely that they will return.”

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