Thanks to low unemployment and the lure of more lucrative jobs outside retailing, top-notch sales associates are increasingly hard to find -- and even more difficult to keep.
Store executives said they were frustrated by not having enough help and weary from an often fruitless search to fill those ranks.
Reasoning that some help is better than none, though, stores increasingly are forced to hire sales associates with less than stellar credentials.
And like a domino effect, consumer complaints are on the rise about rude and apathetic employees who often are ignorant about the merchandise they've been hired to sell.
Human resources experts called the lack of acceptable sales associates one of the biggest challenges in retailing today.
Their suggestions for attracting and retaining the best sales associates go much further than just placing ads in the newspaper to find employees or rewarding them with money to keep them.
"Staffing is the number-one issue in human resources, including retailing -- trying to get people and then keep them," said Lee J. Colan, president of The L Group, a consulting firm here that specializes in human resources issues. "Many firms tend to look at employee attraction as just a recruiting issue. Effective recruiting is necessary, but not sufficient."
Colan recommends that companies beef up their applicant selection and interview processes, enhance employee referral programs and incentives and increase advertising outreach programs to include the Internet.
Monster.com, which includes retail among its myriad career categories, and Retailclassifieds.com, which is dedicated exclusively to the retail profession, are just two of the many new job-search Web sites that have emerged.
For the food retailing sector, Food Marketing Institute, Washington, recently said it will launch a new Web site, SuperJobmarket.com, in an effort to better educate the job-seeking public about food retail career opportunities. FMI will introduce the site during the 2000 Supermarket Industry Convention and Educational Exposition in May.
"The food retail industry faces great challenges with the recruitment of employees in all job functions and titles, from part-time unskilled positions to highly experienced senior management," said Tim Hammonds, FMI president and chief executive officer. "SuperJobMarket.com will communicate to the job-seeking public that our industry offers many great career opportunities, and one of the most flexible and inclusive working environments available."
Colan said many of the best companies in the United States also encourage nepotism -- hiring family members of current employees -- because positive work traits seem to run in families.
"The goal is to become an employer of choice, a company that naturally attracts strong applicants and has low turnover."
To fill a position, Colan suggests interviewing at least three candidates in three different locations by three different interviewers for nearly every type of job -- even sales associates.
"The 'three by three' process will show how employees act in different settings. It's a reliability process that helps validate really good job candidates. Many companies say they don't have the time for such a process," he said, "but ask them if they have enough time to keep repeating the hiring process when an employee doesn't work out."
At the job interview, Colan said, companies should spend 80% of the time listening to the candidate respond to prepared questions that illuminate behavior in hypothetical scenarios. An example would be to ask prospective employees how they would handle an irate consumer. Interviewers who do all the talking to sell the company are more likely to hire the wrong candidate.
Once you've found a great employee, keeping him or her involves work, said Colan. One important factor is to explain to sales associates how critical their role is in the overall health of the company, he said.
"Tell them how the sales of their particular merchandise contributes to the larger sales goal of the company. And ask them their opinions on company issues, including ways to increase sales."
"If you're going to ask employees for their opinions, though, you better listen. Taking employee attitude surveys and then not doing anything about the issues only leads to employee cynicism."
Some human resources experts said the best solution to the retail hiring problem was not to lose good current employees.
"If you do good things to keep employees, then you'll be more desirable as an employer," said Rosemary Maellaro, a professor of human resource management at the University of Dallas, who also has a private consulting practice. "Keeping good employees has to start at the top. It has to be a corporate mind-set that employees are valued, rewarded and recognized. It also has to be evident in how managers interact with their employees. Managers can get so focused on the business and making the sales plan and other issues that the employees' well-being comes low on the priority list. And sales associates are the ones who are closest to the consumers."
Maellaro recommends treating sales associates with respect, taking an interest in their opinions and empowering them, when appropriate, to make decisions.
"The way you treat sales associates is often a direct mirror of how they'll treat customers," she said. "Don't tie their hands with too many rules and regulations. And invest the time up front to select and train your employees."
When interviewing sales associates, Maellaro's said to focus on the candidates' interpersonal skills: "Do they make eye contact? Are they friendly? Observe their body language. Get an insight into their thought process."
Like Colan, Maellaro said finding good employees should be a dynamic process that incorporates several search avenues.
"Word of mouth can never be overlooked," she said. "If you're doing the right thing now toward your present employees, they won't mind referring friends. Hiring bonuses? Absolutely. I also recommend referral bonuses. If a current employee recommends someone who is hired, though, don't give them the whole bonus up front. Tie some of the bonus to a retention factor."
Maellaro said some retailers are banishing commission sales in favor of higher base salaries or creative compensation packages that include profit or gain-sharing, which she says gets employees more involved in the business.
"See what the competition is paying sales associates, and see how much more you can afford to pay. You have to make an investment in your employees. You get what you pay for."
Most importantly, Maellaro believes retailers must always make time to interview potential sales associates, even if they have no current job openings.
"Never miss an opportunity to hire a good employee, even if you you bring them on part-time. You never know when two people will quit tomorrow."
Retailers in all retail sectors consider the search for sales associates a consuming and often frustrating process, as evidenced by some remarks from retailers in the apparel sector.
"Finding good sales associates is challenging and complicated," said Crawford Brock, president of Stanley Korshak here, a women's and men's designer apparel, home furnishings and shoe store.
"The economy is so good right now, and there are lots of jobs out there, especially at Internet and stock-related companies."
"Bringing in a human resources person was definitely precipitated by the new hiring challenges in a strong economy," he said.
Brock said finding great sales associates requires cleverness and creativity and that offering higher pay is only the first step.
"You have to play up the organization and tell them why they'd want to work for you. It takes a real entrepreneurial spirit and a totally different mentality to work in sales in a high-fashion environment. You have to understand the clientele and the merchandise. We don't hire clerks and order takers."
At five-unit Tootsies, Houston, a bridge and designer store, fashion director Susie Calmes said the chain was always searching for effective sales associates.
"Retail sales is an extremely demanding career, but a lot of people don't realize how profitable retail selling can become," she said, noting the chain had generally good retention among its employees.
"The key is that we run Tootsies like a family and are very conscious of our associates' personal needs. Flexibility is important. And the sales associates return the favor with loyalty."
Calmes said some arbiters for finding worthy sales associates include friendliness, poise, knowledge of fashion, punctuality and great references. Job candidates at Tootsies must go through three interviews, the last two with store managers.
Calmes looks for new employees while shopping and relies on references from personal and professional associates.
"Finding enough good sales associates has always been a problem, and it's acute right now because our business is going through the roof," said Joanne Teichman, a partner in Ylang-Ylang, a better-to-designer jewelry store at the prosperous Galleria Mall here.
"The low unemployment isn't helping the search, and we stay so tied up in the business that there's no extra time to look for employees. When things have been a little slower in the past, we would visit schools or network with friends who might know," added Teichman, who owns the 15-year-old business with her husband, Charles.