Our store manager has just returned from an Oxford summer school run by the BSSA for all the bright young things of retail. More than two hundred delegates from all walks of retail life gathered to be taught new skills, hone existing ones and listen at the feet of the masters in the glorious surroundings of Keble College.
We were probably one of the only independent shops represented at the summer school, but that mattered not a jot; the issues are all the same. Marketing, finance and building a team are all common ground.
I find it a fascinating conundrum that in tough times, we seem to cut costs by erasing elements such as training and advertising - the two things that, in fact, we need most to try and keep us ahead of the game.
Back in-store, the new season is under way and so are our product training sessions. Each day, members of staff try on the new stock. This ensures they have a mental picture of the garments and allows any faults or flaws to be seen on immediate arrival, rather than when finally tried on by the customer.
In the more formal training sessions, we role-play customer scenarios, asking staff to find the merchandise that best suits the occasion being enacted. This encourages them to look for the features and benefits of the pieces suggested.
Because our store has different departments for separates, coats and so on, each member of staff also spends time working in different areas of the store. This ensures that he or she can talk with authority to a customer and direct her to the area best suited to her needs.
While it may be my name on the door (well ... its my mother's, but you know what I mean) and my name on the order commitments, it is not necessarily me that customers will meet when they visit the store. Therefore I want any interaction with our customers to be conducted with as much knowledge, information and skill as if I were doing it myself.
None of this in-store training costs a bean to implement. Nor does offering each member of staff an appraisal session at which they have the opportunity to talk about their needs and expectations and to have the chance to offer their ideas for the business.
What does cost money, however, is the staff member who misses a sale, doesn't satisfy the customer and doesn't know her stock.
But of course, we can't quantify that. What we can do is ensure staff have all the tools in place to ensure they are representing us to the very best of their ability; giving customers what they want and getting personal satisfaction from their job because they understand why they are there and what is expected of them.
We have invested in the stock, so we must invest in selling it. Here's to a good season.
- Hilary Cookson is the owner of womenswear store Maureen Cookson in Whalley, Lancashire.