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Master Management for Success
Posted: December 9, 2010, 2:50 p.m., EDT

Creating an environment where employees shine helps retailers maximize profits.

By Alison Bour

By the time Aquila Brown, owner of The Yuppy Puppy in Spokane, Wash., hires employees taking on their first job, they’ve already worked in her store for up to two years as volunteers. It’s a great way to avoid a nightmare every pet retailer faces at one time or another: hiring the wrong person for the wrong reasons, Brown said.

Creating an environment where employees shine helps retailers maximize profits.
Managers and retailers reported that training employees is vital to success, as is having trust in them once they have proven to be competent.
Photo Courtesy of California Pets of Orange
High school students near Brown’s store must complete volunteer work to graduate, and she said she makes her store available for them to fulfill their graduation requirements. Brown also looks to her own customer base and Humane Society volunteers for employee leads.

Finding employees with known levels of experience eliminates a major problem for retailers. Often, experience proves to be the best teacher, both for potential employees and the managers and retailers who employ them. Bob Negen, who owns WhizBang! Training in Grand Haven, Mich., admitted he was “a really, really bad manager” after initially launching his kite store. He said he now uses his experiences as training tools for retailers.

Successful salespeople never run out of prospects, and Negen believes pet retailers should develop a “hot prospect” list of potential employees.

“You should create ongoing relationships with potential hires,” he said.
Negen said he promotes posting a sign stating “Always looking for great people”—even when no open positions exist. It’s a way of pre-qualifying people for the hot prospect list.

Several retailers reported the need to take care in hiring younger workers, in some cases. While Brown said she often hires a younger crowd, Claudia Loomis, who owns Cherrybrook Premium Pet Supplies in Phillipsburg, N.J. said she generally stays clear of the high school crowd.
Loomis’ employees include people she met at dog shows and her own loyal shoppers. The majority of her employees are full-time.

“If it’s your full-time job, you’ll treat it differently than if you work a few hours after school,” Loomis said.

Online Pet Retail Courses Supplement Training

When the Bel Air, Md.-based Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA) set out to create training resources through Pet Store Pro, an educational website for pet industry retailers, they chose an online format because of its obvious cost-effectiveness. 
In addition, Pet Store Pro reaches clientele in a reliable, familiar format, said Stephanie Kaplan, director, online education for PIDA.
“Most retail staff is younger people,” Kaplan said. “It’s how they’re used to learning.”
PIDA’s numerous courses on everything from reading food nutrition labels to financial benchmarking cost nothing to pet retailers.
New York City-based NexPet Retailer Co-op, founded by Barry Berman, also offers online interactive coursework for retailers who join the co-op.
Both PIDA and NexPet offer educational programs designed in modules or chapters with established quizzes for each section.
Kaplan said users of PIDA courses incorporate financial and other incentives, such as gift cards or Saturdays off, for employees who successfully complete the coursework.
Kaplan added that an online program works only if a store manager assigns “an internal champion,” who is responsible for overseeing online education and ensuring new knowledge gets applied in the store setting.
In addition to finding pools of potential employees, many retailers reported greater success with hiring when they focus on the interview process.

“We hire for attitude and train for skills,” said Theresa Rickerby, co-owner of All Creatures Great and Small in Clinton Township, Mich., with business partner Heather Haraldsson-Glennie.

“We prefer a background in natural health, but it’s not an absolute,” Rickerby added.

Most pet retailers opened stores because they love animals, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll know how to interview potential employees, Negen said.

He recommended potential employers create a “superstar” list of characteristics for new hires then design interview questions around the list. For example, at his kite store, Negen said he wanted fun people who were self-starters.

One potential hire told him he loved juggling. Negen applied a “tell me more” interview technique and learned the gentleman started a juggling organization at his school.

“Every question should bring you deeper into a decision,” Negen said.
Other experts in the industry have various tricks when it comes to interviewing. Barry Berman, founder of NexPet Retailer Co-op in New York City, offered one additional bit of hiring advice: When interviewing, ensure potential employees have something new to bring, preferably experience they garnered at another, more sophisticated store.

Once new hires have been added to an employer’s payroll, the next task is to be sure the new employees have the necessary skills to succeed in pet retail settings. Because of tight budgets and the busy nature of pet retail operations, new employees may receive no formal training at all.

However, Berman said managers forget to add the cost of losing a long-time customer who spends $500 or more in net business over a five-year period. Compare a loss like that to $150 to $200 of formal training for an employee whose skill level attracts five more customers in the same amount of time. The math supports a $2,500 return on investment.

Pleasing customers is an important task for retail employees, and effective conflict resolution is a necessary skill for them to have. Rickerby brings in communication and mediation experts to teach effective dispute resolution; she said customers’ harbored resentments could cost her store much more so she’s willing to foot the bill.

Sometimes it isn’t necessary spend a great deal for special employee training, however. Scott Click, owner of Austin-based Tomlinson’s Feed & Pets, said manufacturer representatives stand willing to spend one-on-one time with new employees and it’s one of the first calls he makes after hiring a new employee.

Industry Voices

What are the biggest mistakes managers make?
“Not giving employees enough information. Explain why you have certain expectations. Don’t say, ‘Because that’s just the way it is.’”
--Paul Kennedy, owner of The Reptile Store in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

“Allowing the line to blur between boss and friend. I care about my employees, but I’m their boss. If you blur that line, they’ll really take advantage of you, even unintentionally.”
--Aquila Brown, owner of The Yuppy Puppy in Spokane, Wash.

“Consider staff schedules. Tasks must be completed, yes. But in our environment, customer service is the most important thing. Taking their time away with too many to-dos can pull them away from customers.”
--Veronique Michalik, owner of Lofty Dog in Austin, Texas

When dealing with competent employees who are well trained and are ready for more responsibility, the challenge for retailers is to learn to rely on employees who have earned trust. Rob Bray, owner of House of Fins in Greenwich, Conn., said he initially had difficulty delegating some store operations, but he knew it was essential for the store’s future success.
After hiring managers and employees who prove they have good follow-through skills, he said managers must give them freedom to do their jobs.
“I used to take everything that came into my office, but I don’t need to know everything that goes on,” he said.

Other retailers noted they’ve had similar experiences with delegating.

“We found employees wanted additional responsibility,” Rickerby said, adding that new hires at All Creatures Great and Small learn ordering right off the bat, which exposes them to key aspects of the business.
In addition, if someone demonstrates skill with window dressing or computer skills, Rickerby gets them directly engaged in those tasks, she said.

When it comes to personality disputes between employees, Click hands it off to managers.

“I find if I get involved, it just ratchets it up another level,” he said, noting that he also trusts managers’ input on what will sell best.
Having trust in employees is important, and a good tool to use in furtherance of building trust is maintaining written performance standards. Both Bray, Click and Negen are firm believers in maintaining updated, written standards as they give owners and managers support when promoting--and especially when firing--employees.

“When someone is let go for behavior, they know it’s coming,” Click said. “It’s not going to be a surprise.”

Read the full article in the December issue of Pet Product News. To read the article, readers must be a subscriber. To subscribe, click here.

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