Finding employees with experience, a positive attitude and a genuine love of fashion can give your business a flying start
The store is almost ready to open. You have your concept, a stable business plan, the Epos system in place and the stock bought. Now all you have to do is employ staff with the right attributes to connect with prospective customers and help the business flourish.
The challenge for new retailers is gauging how many staff to hire in line with the potential growth rate of the business, says British Independent Retailers Association managing director Michael Weedon. “Staff represent a big expense,” he says. “Hire too many and the costs will eat the profits; hire too few and sales opportunities can be missed. This is one of the many areas of expertise that independents need to possess, and accuracy comes with experience.”
Jason McShane-Chapman, newly appointed head of retail at mainstream womenswear brand Viz-a-Viz, advises that the number of staff is dependent on the product type and whether the indie offers assisted service or a one-to-one sales approach.
He suggests publicising job vacancies on social media, the store’s website and on in-store posters. “Online really is the best place to get your role out there. Often the largest volume of applications are received on long bank holiday weekends when applicants can spend time researching and applying.”
Weedon advises any business setting up outside a major metropolis to advertise in local newspapers to reach potential staff members where they live. This was the case for Aine McCaffrey, owner of womenswear boutique Calle 33 in Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh, whose three employees walked through the door and asked for a job on their own initiative without even seeing an advert.
“We live in a very small village so everybody knows each other,” she explains. “Honesty and integrity is number one for hiring people. Timekeeping is also pretty important, as well as showing initiative and good communication with customers. Fashion qualifications are not essential; it’s more important to have your own sense of style.”
Advertising vacancies in the local newspaper or contacting people who drop off their CV in store also works for Giles Henderson, manager of premium menswear indie Six Whiting Street in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
“We’re currently looking for an apprentice for the website, so anyone straight out of college to 40 years-plus,” he says. “It’s good to have an interest in fashion, but it’s more about experience and who they are. They need to be organised and a team player.”
Henderson is responsible for buying, with a further five people working in store, including a store manager and assistant manager, a three-strong online team and two dedicated to administration.
A store manager provides insight and leadership, says McShane-Chapman. “They should be able to communicate the in-store trends with customers and the team, as well as give a balanced view on the business strategy. They have also to provide the right type of leadership to the store team.”
Weedon advises small business owners to think about their management structure and whether the store can support a manager. “Proprietors have to be out and about, researching, buying and promoting, so somebody has to be in charge,” he says.
“Some independent owners even aspire to having a holiday once in a blue moon, so having that management resource in place comes in really handy. Anyone with ambitions to have more than one shop will need to be thinking about shop managers from the outset.”
Independent kidswear retailer Pud has nine employees split between its three stores in Nottingham, Radcliffe-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, and Doncaster. Co-owners Frances Bishop and Rachel Mawby are set to open its fourth store in Newark, Nottinghamshire, in May.
As well as benefitting from word-of-mouth recommendations, Bishop advertises vacancies on the store’s website, Twitter and Facebook. Being well-spoken, having a genuine passion for the product and getting on well with children are the key attributes she looks for.
“A lot goes on first impressions and whether they’ve done their research,” says Bishop. “When I first started hiring people, I would look at their grades, but now we look for life experience rather than school experience.”
Life experience is in abundance at Northeast lingerie and swimwear independent Sadie the Bra Lady. The majority of staff have worked for 78-year-old owner Sadie Ayton for more than 40 years. Employing 16 people across five stores in Ashington, Consett, Sunderland, Darlington and Guisborough, Ayton looks for presentation, personality and a general good gut feeling.
“We had three 70-year-olds who left the Christmas before last, so we started hiring by putting an advert in the paper, as well as on Facebook and Twitter,” says Ayton. “I like to train new employees myself. We have very particular ways of doing things. We can show them in about a month, but it takes about a year for them to have been through every aspect of it.” .
Building longstanding customer relationships is the philosophy at mainstream womenswear boutique Bridge in Solihull, where the current longest-serving employee has been with the business 15 years. Good wages, no late nights or Sunday openings, a generous staff discount and a bonus scheme helps owner Janie Theaker retain her staff.
Since opening the store in 1988 with the help of her mother, Bernice, Theaker has doubled the size of Bridge and opened a standalone Oska store next door. She now employs seven people, including one manager and a mix of full- and part-time staff. “The full-timers give us continuity, while the part-timers offer flexibility and can work extra days to cover holidays,” says Theaker.
“Previous experience and training with a larger retailer is useful, but a warm smile, an open personality, an ability to get on with people and an interest in fashion goes a long way.”
To find staff that will be a good fit for men’s denim indie Utter Nutter in Romford, Essex, owner Kashif Qazi finds advertising in the shop window or on social media is better than working with agencies: “Agencies are only useful when we are looking to fill higher positions. I think agencies work a lot better for bigger companies.”
Honesty, fashion sense and an outgoing personality are essential attributes, along with maturity, a reason why Qazi rarely employs anyone under 18. The popularity of Utter Nutter’s website means he also recruits for content managers, online merchandisers and photographers. He looks for photographers to have experience shooting clothing rather than still life. It is not essential for online merchandisers to have merchandising experience, but rather basic fashion knowledge, says Qazi.
Weedon believes it is worth investing in a separate online team. “Some retailers are lucky enough to have staff members with experience in shop floor retail and online business who can do both. But go beyond even fairly basic online activity and tasks become more difficult so, if there’s enough to do, specialise. The great thing about independent retail is that there are a number of entry points and fewer barriers between the shop floor and the boardroom.”
This opinion is echoed by Deryane Tadd, director of premium womenswear boutique The Dressing Room in St Albans, Hertfordshire, who makes a particular effort to promote retail as a career choice for young women. Having risen from the shop floor to business owner, Tadd is well placed to offer in-house training and development.
“I train our staff up from the entry-level position of sales consultant to stylist, which involves styling customers from head to toe,” she says. “One day they will be styling, another they will be processing deliveries. Working for a small company means you see all elements of the business, so it’s never boring.”
Hiring staff is about getting the right fit for your business. While the candidates don’t need to have any formal qualifications, a passion for people and product goes a long way. As an employer, showing your staff there is room for personal development and career progression will help ensure you have a loyal and happy team.
Rene Gray, senior consultant, Freedom Recruitment
- Experience should be a fundamental attribute when screening potential applicants. A vacancy represents an opportunity to bring new skills into the business and once hired the new staff member should start adding value immediately.
- Consistency should be one of the first things you look for in potential candidates. Long periods working within a single company or in a similar role displays commitment and loyalty. This is normally a good indication that they will remain happier for longer, maximising on your investment in training and development.
- It might sound clichéd, but passion and a genuine interest in the brand and position being offered is vital.
- There are a number of free advertising job boards that you can quickly and easily sign up to. These sites allow you to post your advert and will normally have a function for CVs to be forwarded directly to your email. This is a great option if you don’t have a recruitment budget. However, be prepared to sift through a large number of CVs, many of which will not be suitable for the role.
- Adverts in local newspapers can work well if you are trying to recruit for a specific area. If you do pay for advertising, ask for as much information as you can on who will see it to make it worthwhile..
- Having a structured interview process will help you ensure that you hire consistently good staff. Start by defining how you are going to attract applicants. Next create a set of interview questions for each role. By using the same questions over time you’ll start to see similarities in the answers, which will help you to highlight the best candidates.
Laura Willis, store manager at premium womenswear boutique Jane Davidson
How did you get your job?
In 2009 during my last six months studying Textiles & Fashion Design Management at Heriot Watt University I was applying for jobs in all different parts of the fashion retail sector. Then I saw the position of personal shopper advertised on the Jane Davidson website and it was an opportunity too good to miss. I knew all about the store as it has been an Edinburgh institution since it opened in the Grassmarket in 1969.
What attracted you to the role?
The diversity was the main draw. I knew the variety day-to-day would give me a great deal of experience, which I wouldn’t learn elsewhere. Also the responsibility of being a personal shopper would teach me so much about fashion retail first hand. Six weeks into the job I was offered the additional role of web manager. It was an opportunity I never could have asked for, but it has broadened my horizons greatly.
Do you think having a degree helped you better understand the role?
I think the practical aspects I learnt at university have been a great advantage, especially on the technical side. My knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and ecommerce toolkit WooCommerce has helped me in my role as web manager. However, I do feel fashion is a passion led art and you really have to have that fire and creativity inside you which can’t be taught in a classroom.
How has your role evolved?
Since 2009 I have been lucky enough to go from personal shopper and web manager to assistant manager eight months later and denimwear buyer in 2010. I rose to the role of store manager in July 2014.
What tasks does your role involve as store manager?
Every day is different. One day I could be working on the shop floor, the next planning our latest event or fashion show. That is what’s so great about working at an indie, you never know what your day holds.
How does this differ from being a buyer?
Buying is the side which I love the most. It’s almost like a puzzle working out what you think the customer would like to see next season and perhaps looking back at what you missed from this season. Sometimes you need to take risks.
How big is your team?
I manage eight lovely ladies ranging in age from 16 to 70.
What are the three essential attributes to work at an indie?
I think flexibility, reliability and passion. The ever changing environment needs someone who can adapt to different roles and situations. Also, when working in independent retail one needs to be reliable as the team can often be small and you rely on each other a lot. And finally, be passionate. An independent is all about the people working there and without the right people it won’t work.
How do you see your career progressing?
Ideally, I’d love to stay at Jane Davidson and grow the business even further.