Independent retailers in Canada are up against some serious challenges these days: the arrival of new U.S. powerhouses, the continued ascendancy of online shopping and an army of educated consumers hungry for the lowest possible price.
In such a tough environment, can indies even survive? Toronto-based retail analyst Doug Stephens thinks so. In fact, he believes smaller retailers have the capability to thrive—provided they adjust to the changing reality. And a huge part of doing so is attracting the kind of employees that make customers love you.
This may sound impossible in today’s strained labour market—after all, the best and brightest aren’t exactly lining up for McJobs. But it’s not. In The Retail Revival: Reimagining Business for the New Age of Consumerism, Stephens explains the three types of employees you need for your business to flourish—and the strategies you can use to lure them in:
These employees don’t just get your operation’s value proposition—they believe in it. They feel extremely engaged in their work, and it seeps into their customer interactions.
How can you cultivate such cultish enthusiasm? Stephens suggests you cherry-pick best practices from companies with hyper-engaged employees, such as WestJet (which has a profit-sharing program and solicits staff input before key decisions) and Zappos.com (which offers staffers a $2,000 “quit bonus” should they decide to leave before completing training, meaning that those who turn down the cash are truly committed to the brand).
Customers like to buy things from people who actually use these same things. With reams of product information a mere smartphone search away, buyers are drawn to staff who are able to enthuse about the product from experience and credibly answer questions without reading from a manual.
How better to deliver this experience than to hire people who love your stuff? Cosmetics retailer Sephora nurtures this by hiring only staff with a serious love of makeup, then rewarding successful applicants with freebies and interesting training sessions (not, it should be noted, extra wages). In the U.S., outdoor-apparel chain REI achieves the same end by letting staff test out—and demonstrate—the latest and greatest gear.
Stephens argues that in order to succeed going forward, retailers have to create exceptional customer experiences. More and more, that involves allowing customers to customize their purchases to meet their exact need. (Think: Fujitsu stores in Japan that allow consumers to build their own computers in real time, or California cycle-shop chain Studio Velo, which allows buyers to perfectly configure their new bikes in-store.)
In such contexts, retail staff can’t stand idly by. They have to be armed with the tools and technology needed to deliver on the promised experience. They should be facilitators of experiences as much as they are peddlers of product. And if you stress the former in your recruiting, you may find an entirely different calibre of candidate applying.