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The 'Why' for education

How an educated staff can bring you profit

During the holiday season of 2008 this writer was listening to a radio newscast that was attempting to illustrate the depth of the recession by utilizing an example from a mass merchant retailer. The broadcast told of a merchant that would be hiring seasonal employees. The anticipated number of hires would be in the range of 24,000 employees. These employees would be on the front line of the stores all across the country with their employment starting in mid-November and their termination being at Christmas.

The newscast explained the employees would all be part time and that they would receive the necessary sales training before being placed in the stores to interact with customers. The emphasis was added as the reported stated the mass merchant had received over one million applications for these 24,000 positions.

As many newscasts do, this one included a sound bite of the interaction between a customer and one of these new salespeople in the store. It took place at the check out counter, beginning with the employee announcing the amount of the purchase to the customer. The employee continues with this question, “Do you have a (name of store) purchase rewards card?”

The customer responded with a simple, “no”.

The employee then asked, “Do you want one?”, and the sound bite ended shortly after that. Listening to the words of the salesperson, we can easily see they demonstrated no sales skills whatsoever.

Curious to see if this radio broadcast was only a fluke, this writer visited several locations of this mass merchant. Each time I made a small purchase so that I would have interaction with their cashiers. Definitely, with each visit the first interaction I had was with a person just inside the door. Their job was to watch for people bringing any merchandise into the store and directing them to the return counter.

Having made a decision about what I would purchase before I went in, I wandered about their store looking to find the item. Not once did I have any interaction with a person on the sales floor. My only encounter with an employee was with the cashier. The experience and interaction I had could have easily been substituted for what I heard on the radio. Each cashier asked if I had one of the cards and each time I responded that I did not. In some cases the cashier offered a card as did the cashier in the sound bite while in other cases the cashier said nothing more and simply completed the transaction.

This observation is not meant to completely condemn the mass merchant. As I wandered about their sales floor I did see some of the salespeople talking with customers, but the employees that all customers were sure to interact with appeared to have the least amount of skills to interact with customers.

The summary of my visits was that the first person and the last person in the store that a customer would interact with demonstrated the least amount of customer skills. The philosophy of the mass merchant seems to go against the thinking of what many of us that grew up in retailing were taught. Perhaps, that thinking is best summarized in one of the old adages of retailing in the acronym of ‘ACES’ which stands for Around Customers Everybody Sells.

The scenario at the mass merchant is not one that is surprising to most readers of this column. All of us have had an experience similar to what I have described. The concern is how often that situation can also be experienced in Main Street businesses.

While many Main Street businesses will profess the personal touch with customers is their competitive advantage, the question asked today is, “how can that be an advantage if the business isn’t constantly working to hone their sales skills or take the opportunity to improve the quality of the salespeople working in their business.

In the case of the mass merchant from this newscast, let’s take a look at the math behind the scenario of their hiring. There were over one million people applying for 24,000 jobs; that means there were approximately 42 people applying for each of the openings. The surprising component is who the people that were hired by the mass merchant. Were they the most qualified people for each job? Was it that the mass merchant spent more time teaching these new employees how to perform certain tasks as compared to providing quality customer service?

The mass merchant is only a part of this column to accent a point; there are a lot of people out there that are available to work. As you look to hire someone, the shear number of applicants does not ensure that you will always get qualified applicants.

If your business is not to be a small replay of what has just been described from the mass merchant, there are two lessons to be taken from their experience.

The first is that you can, and should, always be looking to see if there are people that could be better employees than some of those you currently have. This is not to suggest your becoming mercenary in your business. Instead, it is to say that you have an obligation to yourself, your business, the best employees you have, and especially to your customers to have the best possible business you can.

When you have an employee that is not performing up to your standards, that employee is not doing what they can to help make your business profitable; they are not placing the importance of your business before whatever it is they are doing incorrectly or not doing.

At this same time you are likely experiencing a situation in which those employees that are doing what is asked of them are looking at the underperforming employee and wondering how long you as an owner or manager is going to tolerate this performance.

For all of these reasons, it becomes your obligation and opportunity to see where you can improve the quality of your staff by way of finding a new employee.

The other lesson we learn from the mass merchant’s experience is that as a Main Street business you have an opportunity to develop these better performing employees by making a commitment to creating and maintaining a staff education program.

From the experience of this writer from many years as a retailer, the best employees are those in which you work to continually teach them how to sell, how to perform various tasks in your business, and how you provide them with knowledge about the products and services that your business offers.

Providing this education to your employees is neither expensive nor labor intensive. It simply requires your having meetings with your entire staff on a regular basis. One hour for a staff meeting held every other week, before or after business hours is sufficient to provide your staff with the education so that your having great customer service is more than a claim; it becomes one of the main reasons customers return to your business.

In today’s marketplace when it is ever challenging to offer products and services that the mass merchant does not have, we also know that with these competitors being open more hours each week than your business is, your competitive advantage has to be more than a statement. It has to be something that you can demonstrate to your customers and your staff as to how you have that advantage.

As you begin a new business year in 2010, differentiating yourself may be one of your new year resolutions. Making a commitment to yourself and your business by working to make sure you have the best employees possible and maintaining an education program in your business will make sure that resolution is carried out.

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This article is copyrighted by Tom Shay and Profits Plus Solutions, who can be reached at: PO Box 1577, St. Petersburg, Fl. 33731. Phone 727-464-2182. It may be printed for an individual to read, but not duplicated or distributed without expressed written consent of the copyright owner.

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