Getting in the Trenches

Storeowners have a lot to gain by proactively interacting with staff, rather than managing from behind a perpetually closed door.


“Shut the door. Can’t you see I’m busy?” Sound familiar? Are you one of those owners or bosses who gives daily marching orders to a manager and then shuts yourself off from the very life blood that drives your retail enterprise? If the answer is yes, then you are not alone.

Many people in the retail pet business do just that. They prefer to give the task of handling personnel to people in managerial positions rather than taking a more proactive role. However, totally surrendering employee oversight to someone else or ignoring the task altogether is not an effective way to run a business—and it is likely to produce unwanted results.

Effective employee relations requires a leader who interacts with the staff in a fashion that works to everyone’s advantage—the employee, the employer and the business as a whole. It’s a two-way street; storeowners or store managers must employ people capable and willing to exercise their own discretion. Puppets are worthless in a retail environment that profits from experience and flexible thinking. So, in order to secure the best people for your business, it is essential you walk among them as both a leader and a mentor. Learn about them as they learn from you. Every single person in your employment should know who you are and have the opportunity to discuss their role on your staff. This type of open-door policy is by far the most productive way to manage your employee oversight.

Of course, fostering an open-door environment does not necessarily come naturally. It is not uncommon for independent pet shops to be the brainchild of a single person—the owner. In this case, the vision is singular, and the flow of communication is often coming from one direction only. However, there are ways to engage employees in order to cultivate an environment that is both satisfying for staff and healthy for the store’s bottom line. Here are a few pieces of advice for storeowners or managers who are emerging from the back office to manage in the trenches:

Foster some friendly competition.
One of my favorites ways to engage employees and get them involved is by holding a fish-bagging contest. The winner receives a prize. It can be cash or it could be a coupon redeemable for merchandise. The loser has to stay late and close up the department. No one is allowed to opt out. Whomever tries to opt out simply proves their unwillingness to be judged against their peers.

Everyone has to catch and bag exactly the same items. They are not permitted to catch all the fish and then bag them. Each item must be collected separately, bagged and put in a hand basket. In judging the results, you will be looking not only for speed, but also for accuracy in fish identification and quality of bagging. This is a great way to teach employees how this important task should be performed. It’s best done on a regular basis—perhaps, weekly—so people are prepared for the event.

Prevent employees from getting “product shock.”
New products come and go in the aquatics department on a regular basis. Just because you get in a fantastic power filter does not mean that your employees even know it exists until they see it on the shelf. Let’s call this “product shock.” This should never happen, but if it does, it’s not their fault, it’s yours.

The way to avoid this scenario is to conduct regular updates on new products as they come in. Just showing employees the product, however, is not enough. You need to take one out of the box and assemble it in front of them, while discussing all the products’ features, such as what gallonage it applies to, what expendables are available and its cost value against similar filters. Perhaps, two days later, you can pull one of the employees aside and ask him to tell you about the filter. If he can’t do it, you know he either wasn’t paying attention when you held your product meet and greet, or he needs a refresher course.

Make it your business to keep an eye on employees, and talk to them when there is a problem.
When you keep an eye on your employees, you are not spying on them; you are protecting your investment and planning for the future. I remember one incident in particular that was patently inexplicable. Every day, freshwater fish would show up in tanks where they did not belong. Sometimes, it was only a single fish, other times it might be three or four fish in different tanks. At first, it was merely an inconvenience, but one day, there was an iridescent shark in a tank of platies. That was a massacre that cost the store a good deal of money. It became increasingly obvious that the culprit had to be an employee. At first, the straightforward approach was used—warn everyone to knock it off. That only made matters worse, after about a week of inactivity. As it turned out, the answer was to talk with every single employee who worked livestock and appeal to their love for animals. Moving fish was resulting in the demise of livestock—and the fish did not deserve that fate. Finally, a concerned employee came forward with enough information to pinpoint the evildoer. That person was confronted and actually admitted their deeds. Supposedly, it was done only to confound one of the managers with whom this person had a problem with. Problem solved!

Be on a first-name basis with everyone.

One of your goals is to walk through your shop and be able to say “hello” to every employee—by name. Wearing a name badge does not count. You need to know their first and last names. You can bet they know yours.

Let employees know where they stand.
Employee evaluations are very important for both the staff and the store-owner. First of all, believe it or not, many people actually feel they are due a pay raise on a regular basis. So, about every six to 12 months, you need to perform an official review of every employee’s performance. If your investigation proves that a person is worth retaining, they are worth a raise. Now, I am not talking about something spectacular. It may be symbolic, if business is not great. It may be substantial, if business is good or the employee has been outstanding. Frankly, it’s unfair to an employee if you don’t conduct regular performance interviews. People are working for you for a reason, and it’s not out of the goodness of their hearts. You need to show every employee that you value their participation—or not. And yes, these are the times to remove the dead wood.

Finally, know when to let go of an ineffective employee.
Getting rid of an employee is never a happy event, for them or you. Sometimes, it is just time for them to go. If you don’t mind paying some unemployment, you can remove them without reason. If, however, you wish to avoid the cost of supplementing a terminated employee’s income, you are going to need volumes of paperwork that document their shortcomings. Such documents need to come over a fairly lengthy period. I would say that six months is appropriate. Get it over with quickly, and don’t look back. Rehiring people that were released in the past is probably one of the biggest mistakes a retailer can make.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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