Learning to Profit

Retailers can and should use a formal, consistent employee-training program to grow their businesses.





Steve King



Employees who enjoy what they do are key to building and maintaining the loyal customer base on which independent retailers depend. A study published in the Journal of Service Research found that in small-business settings, customers’ intentions to return and make additional purchases are nearly twice as strong when employees are satisfied with their jobs.

Employees who have high job satisfaction don’t spend the workday texting friends or surfing the Internet while customers browse your aisles. Sales associates who enjoy their jobs are positive, engaged and open to challenges—assets that busy retail owners need to achieve financial .

One way to strengthen the connection between a store’s front and bottom line is to empower employees with a formal training program. Unfortunately, developing and maintaining a formal employee-training program can be a challenge for small, independent retailers, which often face serious time and financial constraints.

“As a small business owner, time is at a premium,” says Sherri Mitchell, owner of Delaware Pet Stuff in Delaware, Ohio, which provides boarding/daycare and retail/grooming services in two locations. “Training becomes the last thing on a long ‘to do’ list—but not because it’s not important.”

With this in mind, an online training program like Pet Store Pro (petstorepro.com) can be invaluable. Created by the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA) and offered free to qualified retailers, Pet Store Pro helps pet retailers, store managers and sales associates build skills and improve customer satisfaction.

Since its launch at Global Pet Expo 2008, almost 18,000 pet store employees from more than 3,500 stores have used Pet Store Pro to develop the knowledge and confidence that customers expect from a specialty retailer. Mitchell credits the program for helping her business to grow by ensuring that all of her employees that learn the basics.

“It’s nice to have a professional, consistent product like Pet Store Pro for ongoing education and supplemental training, without having to bring our whole staff together in one place at one time,” she says.

Dorothy and Doyle Hunter, owners of Paws Natural Pet Emporium in Richland, Wash., also understand the importance of having a consistent employee-training program for a growing retail business. When the Hunters opened a second location in Kennewick, Wash., in late 2011, the program gave veteran employees the foundation they needed to train new hires for the new location, allowing Doyle and Dorothy to focus on operational details.

“Through their own experience, our employees know the importance of good training and how it affects job performance and satisfaction,” says Dorothy. “That means Doyle and I don’t have to micromanage.”

As Paws Natural Pet Emporium has grown, the program’s expanded curriculum has kept Pet Store Pro relevant for everyone, not just new employees. “As we grew, so did Pet Store Pro,” Dorothy says. “We continued expand our own knowledge as Pet Store Pro added new courses in gross profit and other manager training.”




Starting on the Right Foot
Enthusiastic but inexperienced young people are integral parts of the staffing pool at independent pet stores, which makes it critical for retailers to get these novices started on the right foot from day one.

Connie Packard Kamedulski, owner of Animal Fair Pet Shop in Ridgefield, Conn., prepares her store’s new hires for working with customers and animals by assigning them a 90-day deadline to complete Pet Store Pro’s customer service and sales, merchandising and animal care chapters. Employees are required to complete the program at home, on their own time, but each gets a bonus to cover their time. As an incentive, trainees receive a pay raise and a $100 bonus when they finish all the chapters.

Packard Kamedulski says the web-based training program is perfect for her teenage staff. “Teens may tune out their teachers, their parents and even their boss,” she explains. “Pet Store Pro’s online format aligns with today’s learning styles. The feedback lets us know whether they’ve been paying attention.”

The results, says Packard Kamedulski, have been obvious. “At Animal Fair, we often receive compliments about how well our sales associates know our products and can help our customers find what they need,” she says. “What makes that special is that they generally refer to our part-time teens who have been working at our store for less than a year.”
While online programs like Pet Store Pro can go a long way in making employee training less time consuming and labor intensive, plugging employees into the program and leaving them to their own devices is not a formula for success. It is important that retailers take the time to help employees transfer new knowledge and skills to the sales floor.

Ann Cipriani, owner of Woody’s Self Serve Dog Wash & Boutique in South Park, Pa., goes out of her way to explain to employees how course content applies to her store and reviews employee test results to discover their strengths and weaknesses. “The Q&A discussions Pet Store Pro generates are invaluable,” she says. “My associates not only learn more about what we do, how we sell and who we sell to, but it also provides a non-threatening way to approach them about skills that need improvement.”

Packard Kamedulski agrees that a training program’s ability to provide information about the employees’ strengths and weaknesses is critical to grooming an educated staff. “It’s easy to keep track of trainees’ progress [with Pet Store Pro] because the program sends me an email for each completed chapter test,” she says, noting that the test results give her a baseline picture of each student’s capabilities, from which she can identify areas in need of improvement.

Providing employees with this type of well-rounded knowledgebase, and confidence that it inspires, translates to sales, says Dorothy, whose Paws Natural Pet Emporium won the Retailer Excellence Award for Customer Service at the 2012 Global Pet Expo and was nominated again in 2013. Her employees have a sense of ownership, which is what makes Paws Natural Pet Emporium successful, she says. Three years after implementing training with Pet Store Pro, Paws Natural Pet Emporium’s annual sales grew to $1 million. That capital funded the Hunters’ business expansion with no additional loans.

Better yet, says Dorothy, “We can leave during the off season to take vacation. There’s time for that when you have confidence in your employees.” 

Steve King is president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association and executive director of the Pet Care Trust.





Ongoing Training

Training should be an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Here are some tips to maximize success.


  • Put someone in charge. Whether it is you or a trusted manager, assign one staff member the responsibility to make time for your training program’s ongoing management and administration.


  • Set a schedule. “Some employees are real go-getters; others, not so much,” says Sherri Mitchell, owner of Delaware Pet Stuff in Delaware, Ohio. Assigning a structured lesson plan, such as one chapter per month, ensures that each employee gets the knowledge they need. Consider an additional incentive for those who finish before the deadline. 


  • Allow time for learning. Keep deadlines reasonable to account for different rates of learning. Dorothy Hunter, co-owner of Paws Natural Pet Emporium in Richland, Wash., gives employees 12 months to complete all their course assignments, which include all chapters but saltwater fish. Then they receive an hourly raise. If they complete all the courses within 90 days, they receive the raise sooner.


  • Look for learning opportunities. Help employees understand how to apply what they’ve learned on the job. Role-play challenging customer scenarios, or ask how they’d help resolve a specific customer problem. 


  • Provide ongoing encouragement. Check in with students regularly about their progress. Dottie Anderson, owner of Rockport Pet Gallery in West Milford, N.J., has associates repeat the tests after two months to see if they have improved their skills. “We get very competitive for the best test scores,” she says. “It’s a fun way to motivate my people.” 


  • Reward accomplishments. Recognize employees who’ve scored high on a test or completed the program at staff meetings or post their names on a bulletin board in the store. Low- or no-cost incentives could include gift cards for movies, small cash bonuses or a choice shift or scheduled day off. For instance, employees at Woody’s Self Serve Dog Wash & Boutique receive $25 when they complete all their assignments. 


  • “Yes you can” is a powerful motivator. Rather than telling employees what they can’t do, focus on what they can. Entrusting sales associates to take returns, void transactions and handle customer complaints can increase their sense of responsibility and accountability—and it makes a good impression on customers, too. Pair recent hires with more experienced employees to observe new tasks until you’re confident they’re ready to take them on themselves.



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