He might have been the greatest toilet paper salesman in history, but Mr. Whipple didn't do much to sell retail careers.
The doddering grocer from the Charmin television commercials -- who in a 1978 poll was named the third best-known American behind former President Nixon and Rev. Billy Graham - made a lasting impression of the grocery store manager in the minds of millions of Americans. Today, experts say, the store manager job is still suffering from an image problem which, combined with the tightest job market in 30 years, has made finding enough store managers a challenge throughout the supermarket industry.
Competition for college graduates with food marketing degrees has grown fierce not only between retail chains but well-heeled manufacturers, sources say. And though educators say the number of students in food marketing programs has held steady or even grown over the years, students today tend to pursue careers in sales, marketing or technology rather than retail management. In response, some supermarket companies are re-thinking their approach to attracting new hires and others are working toward changing perceptions of the business.
"When I talk to students about a career in food retailing, the first thing they say is, 'I'm not going to be a cashier or sweep floors or work in a McDonald's. I did that in high school,' " said Tom Gillpatrick, executive director of the Food Industry Leadership Center at Portland State University, Portland, Ore. "Students today see dot-com this and high-tech that, and they don't want to work in a retail store. That's a real challenge for the industry."
Food marketing students are seeking starting jobs in positions once reserved for industry veterans, said Frank Gambino, associate professor of food marketing at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich. Gambino estimated that around 60% of WMU's Food Marketing graduates today will wind up with manufacturers, with 30% getting into retail management and another 10% taking jobs in category management or analysis.
"Fifteen years ago, 98% of the students wound up with retail jobs," Gambino said. "But let's face it -- it's not perceived as a very glamorous business compared to what else is out there."
Moreover, that 10% of students seeking analysis or category-management jobs is, according to Gambino, "exploding."
"The retailers still tend to want their buyers and category management people to come up through the ranks and learn the business," Gambino said. "But the number of students looking at those jobs continues to grow."
Peg Malone, student placement coordinator at St. Joseph's University's Academy of Food Marketing, Philadelphia, said that while job preferences tend to vary from year to year, students this year are looking more toward sales than retail. "They feel that retail positions require long hours and weekends," Malone said. "Young people today want to go out and have a life."
A booming economy, with unemployment near record low levels in many parts of the country, has allowed students in many cases to find precisely what they're looking for. Malone said she placed 82% of the Academy's June, 1999 graduates in industry jobs by September, with most of them having jobs lined up well before graduation. The other 18%? "They either stayed behind for graduate school or took some time off in Europe," Malone said. "Just about every one who wants a job can get one."
"There's a tremendous need for staff," Gambino added. "One retail company told me they could hire every student I graduate this year and still not meet their staffing needs."
That atmosphere is forcing supermarkets to rethink their approaches to attracting young hires, sources said.
"I think retailers are getting better at presenting themselves to potential hires. They're still not real good it at, but they're getting better," said Gene German, professor emeritus of marketing at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
The companies that have been successful at attracting young hires are those willing to alter the industry's traditional career paths, said German.
"The old tradition of supermarket recruiting was to give someone an opportunity to work in various jobs and after five or six years they'd become a store manager," German said. "They were presenting it in a way that the ultimate goal was to become a store manager. That manager job used to be the carrot.
"Today, companies are taking a more professional approach. They're showing young men and women taking positions in the company are winding up as directors of warehousing or category managers," German continued. "Graduating seniors want to see a broad range of opportunities like that ahead of them."
Margaret Kelaart, corporate staffing manager and head of recruiting for Supervalu, Minneapolis, told SN that education is essential to recruiting students to join the company's retail division.
"Retail is a very hard sell today," Kelaart said. "The perception is that it's a job that involves long hours and weekends, that it's not very exciting, and that it's not a professional career path. We have to show them that it's more than that."
Supervalu targets universities with food marketing programs and schools with campuses geographically close to areas where the company is growing, Kelaart said. Typical of Supervalu's on-campus efforts was a recent day-long promotional visit to Western Michigan University, during which the company provided case studies for various class discussions, met with faculty and presented job opportunities at a luncheon that attracted more than 100 students, Gambino said.
"Retailers are coming onto campus more and more and they're becoming more active in food marketing and retailing courses," Gambino said. "And they have to be, because Wal-Mart and Target are also here, and they're very aggressive."
Kelaart said it's easier to hire a buyer than a store manager today -- but the company needs managers.
"We talk to them [recruits] about competitive pay. We remind them they'll come in at around the same salary level as a buyer, and that if they're running their own store they're bonus-eligible. We try to debunk the myth that retail doesn't pay well," Kelaart said.
For smaller companies, like Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas', attracting professionals is a matter of selling the chain's uniqueness, said director of human resources Mike Gantt. Bashas' works just as hard to retain people, he added.
"We fly the flag that we're local family owned, and understanding," Gantt said. "We tell our employees we promote on ability and not seniority and we offer flexible work schedules. We try to have a five-day work week here and I think it helps us have lower turnover."
Despite rapid industry consolidation, the number of U.S. supermarkets has held steady at around 126,000 and employment in the retail food industry is expected to grow by 6% by 2008, according to the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C. Responding to the industry's need for employees, FMI in May will launch an "e-cruiting" Web site, Superjobmarket.com, that will connect member companies with job seekers while promoting careers in the field in general, said Grace Klonoski, director of convention marketing for FMI.
"Our goal is to give potential new employees a sense of our industry," Klonoski said. "We know that newcomers to food retail will find that our industry compares very favorably with other employers."
The site will use the search engines to allow recruiters to target job openings to specific groups or type of jobs. Job seekers will be able to view company profiles and industry statistics, or take advantage of scholarships and other benefits, Klonoski said.
"We've got a great story to tell and superjobmarket.com will help communicate these opportunities to Internet job seekers," she said.