Building a Better Staff

One of the best ways to ensure retail success is to employ a team of hardworking, motivated store employees.




In order for any retailer to be successful, they need to draw in new customers, retain old ones and provide a variety of reliable products. To accomplish those tasks, a team of friendly, dependable sales people who’ll interact with customers, help sell products and increase profits is invaluable.


Unfortunately, small, independent retailers in the pet industry don’t have the same liberties in the hiring process as those in the food, drug and mass channel, who may not necessarily need to have as strong a focus on passion and qualifications. So, how can small business owners ensure that they’re attracting and hiring reliable staff that will satisfy their customers?


First, “it’s important to have a solid understanding of your organization’s cultural values before beginning the talent acquisition process,” explains Corinne Jones, president of New York-based CJC Human Resource Services. “Those values are key for ad language, sifting through cover letters and forming your interview questionnaires.”


Retailers need to evaluate their company’s mission in order to create an appropriate advertisement that will draw in the right candidates, keep everyone on the same page and help weed out those who are just looking to earn a couple extra dollars.


“We must first be clear with job candidates on what we expect and what they can expect in their position,” says Lorna Kibbey, MBA, CPM and author of Becoming a Better Boss – Your Guidebook to 25 Fundamental Management Responsibilities. “Before we begin our search, we need to identify what skills the job will require and ask interview questions that identify a match—and at the same time educate the candidate.”


Retailers should be looking for someone who is resourceful and motivated with strong communication skills, says Pattie Boden, owner of Charlottesville, Va.-based The Animal Connection.


“They have to be willing to do it all; it is not just a ‘run the cash register’ position. They have to be willing to read and learn extensive product info, be a problem solver, listen to customers and provide a creative solution,” she explains.


Even with those guidelines set, retailers still have to double-down with questions in the interview stage to ensure they’re hiring someone who’s there for the right reasons. The key to finding an employee with those desirable qualities is knowing what points to hit in interviews and what questions should be asked. Remember, just because someone believes that certain expectations apply to them doesn’t mean it’s true.


“Asking a candidate questions like, ‘what attracted you to our organization?’, ‘What cultural values do you have that you would like to share with your employer?’, and ‘What familiarity did you have with our company before learning about this role?’ are all good questions to gauge whether or not someone truly cares about working your company, or they are just looking for a job,” says Jones.


Retailers also have to try and get a feel for a candidate’s personality.


According to Kibbey, candidates should be asked practical, every day questions, such how they would use their downtime on slow days, or even propose scenarios that they will likely encounter on the sales floor.


“Typically, you’ll know who’s fit for your company within the first 10 minutes of the interview,” explains Ben and Lisa Prakobit, founders/co-owners of Tampa, Fla.-based The Modern Paw. “Go with your gut feeling; it’s almost always right.”


Of course, if there’s an immediate need to fill an opening, it’ll feel as if there’s not enough time to create and publish a detailed advertisement and then carry out such an extensive interview process. For retailers who are facing, or might face, that dilemma, Theresa Backes, COO of Independent Pet Partners, assures that it’s worth it to take a breath and wait for “Mr. Right, not Mr. Right Now.”


“Being understaffed is not a good thing, but compromising on hiring standards places strain on the rest of the staff and nearly always results in more turnover. Taking the time to do it right is critical,” she explains.


A situation like that would require even more of a reliance on current employees. Being that this would involve staff members working longer hours or picking up extra shifts, retailers should show them how grateful and appreciative they are for the extra help. Little rewards could include an extra paid 15 minute break or the ability to set their own hours for a day or two once a new person is hired and things go back to normal.


In times like this, Backes says that “transparency is key.” Employees are more willing to help if they’re not left in the dark or worried about what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s up to the managers to keep their spirits up and stay positive.


Getting Onboard

Once you find the right candidate, it’s time to get that eager new employee trained and ready to take on the sales floor and all its challenges.


“A good onboarding program is a must,” advises Kibbey. “Employees need to understand from the start how their work contributes to the overall mission of the organization. It is important to get them excited and engaged right away.”


Barbara Ratner, founder and owner of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Holistic Pet Cuisine Market, stresses the importance of outlining and setting the ground rules for new employees from the get-go.


“If you teach your employees correctly from day one and set up a protocol on how you want your employees to sell, then the rest is easy,” she says. “We expect professionalism and politeness for every client that walks in our store. Every animal is different and every customer is different, so they need to know they might have to adjust their way of making their clients happy, one by one.”


As for the training itself, Boden opts to provide “extensive product education with brochures, websites, sales reps and online training sessions.” She explains that she expects her staff to be knowledgeable about all the products her store carries, even the niche ones, and she requires them to be able to provide a nutritional consult.


Backes explains that including gamification during training allows trainees to earn rewards and recognition for achieving high levels of proficiency. It also requires the candidate to stay alert and be actively engaged throughout the whole session, preventing them from getting lost in the monotony of switching a tape every hour or flipping a page every minute.


Another good tactic is to reach out to manufacturers directly and talk to a representative to learn about their products from the source.


“We work closely with our vendors for product information, and we utilize that information for training our employees,” explains Ratner. “We also have protocols in place for each category of issues that might arise in our pets daily routine.


Going a step further and applying those methods to a group training setting will allow employees to work together, improve their skills and get to know each other on a more personal level while bonding over a shared experience.


The truth is that even with a meticulous hiring process, there’s still a chance that a new hire is only there for a paycheck. But Jones explains that that’s okay because, “not everyone is lucky enough to be in a career that they are passionate about.”


That’s why having a strong onboarding process is crucial. For those unmotivated employees, sometimes all it takes is a fun, interactive training session to ignite their desire.


While onboarding may be exclusive to new hires, training itself isn’t. With trends seemingly emerging out of nowhere and other aspects of the industry changing so quickly, even the most diligent employees can be left out of the loop and begin to fall behind, as “formulations are [always] changing, and new products are being introduced constantly,” says Backes.


It’s especially helpful for those employees who have been at it for a while and could use some fresh motivation. Just like onboarding, retraining can be conducted in either single or group settings.


“I would recommend strongly that training and retraining occur continuously,” says Kibbey. “And, I would recommend that employees be involved in selecting topics and delivering content, when possible.”


While exciting and entertaining retraining sessions can help reenergize some employees, others are going to require more effort. When those situations arise, “an informal conversation may really help you understand why that employee isn’t engaged in their work and whether or not this can be improved,” says Jones. “Sometimes, getting back to basics and reviewing the value systems with the employee is all that is needed.”


Let’s Get Ethical

Work ethic is the primary distinguisher between a motivated, eager-to-help employee and someone who hangs around the cash wrap waiting for a customer to come up with their items. As for who’s the best hire, the jury’s still out.


“Age is certainly a factor in work ethic, but just one factor,” says Jones. “In our experience, entry-level professionals and tenured professionals tend to have the most rigor and passion applied to what they do. They may not have the pressures of raising a family and building a life that tends to happen in the mid-career point.”


Kibbey disagrees, explaining that she sees a bigger shift in the reasoning behind why someone wants to work.


“I do not believe differences in work ethic have to do with age groups,” she says. “People no longer come into jobs expecting to stay 30 years and collect a pension. Instead, they come in and work hard when they believe the purpose is worthy, they are effectively contributing, the boss cares about them and they have the ability to work and ‘play’ as they choose.”


Backes takes a similar stance, but points to the workforce as a whole.


“What I have observed is less [of] a desire to remain at any one company for many years to gain seniority,” she says. “People coming into the workforce today have a desire to move ahead in their careers through changing companies every few years to seek new and interesting challenges.”


With all the expansion and priority shifts, employees that once had strong company values might reevaluate their purpose and set their sights on a different prize. That’s normal, and to be expected, in an industry that sees one of the highest rates of non-management employee turnover.


While that turnover can be tough, especially with the stigma that may be attached to it, Kibbey chooses to focus on the positive aspects it can provide, such as bringing in new ideas and introducing fresh perspectives.


However, just because statistics say a certain amount of turnover is normal doesn’t mean it’s okay. The hiring process requires a lot of time and energy, something small business owners may not have a lot of. If a retailer feels that they are losing employees more rapidly than they would like, it might be time to take a step back and examine their own management styles to see if there’s any areas that can be improved.


The Prakobits recommend to “put yourself in their shoes,” advising retailers to follow the golden rule. “If you wouldn’t want to be spoke to that way, don’t say it to your employee.”


“Even when people are well-paid, challenged and otherwise happy with the work, they will leave if they do not like the boss,” Kibbey warns. “The manager is key to employee retention.”


It’s important to remember that as overwhelming as it might seem on paper, “building a good staff is not difficult if your company has a strong vision and good values,” says Backes. “When employees know that they are cared for and that their opinion matters – they return that investment with loyalty and hard work.”  PB


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