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Finding the right fit

Staff recruitment and retention can be a recurring headache for many retailers. Lucia Cockcroft looks at how some fashion businesses tackle the problem

Recruiting and retaining good shop floor sales staff can be one of the biggest challenges for retailers - one that can prove expensive in terms of time and money.

It's not a new problem, of course. Retail is viewed by many potential staff as a stop-gap on their way to another career, with few seeing it as a long-term prospect in terms of financial rewards and career advancement. But it doesn't have to be this way. John Lewis and Marks & Spencer are well known for attracting and retaining high-calibre staff, and there are plenty of independents who can also shout about their successes in this area. So what is the secret of finding and keeping hold of sales staff who are committed, enthusiastic and talented?

John Lewis famously refers to its 68,000 employees as "partners", each of whom owns a stake in the business. Each year, profits are distributed between all the staff, meaning that someone earning £20,000 a year will take home an extra £3,000 in company bonuses.

There is no doubt the model works: leakage rates are currently about 15% a year, against an industry average of 50%. Last Christmas, John Lewis's London Oxford Street branch had 2,000 applications for only 180 seasonal vacancies.

Mark Murauskas, personnel manager for the Oxford Street branch, believes the key lies in a strong company culture and in knowing what kind of employee the retailer is looking for. "We spell out the nature of the business to anyone looking to join us, so that they have a very clear idea of what they are entering into," he says. "If prospective employees don't know that, you are far more likely to get people coming in and not staying for long."

A strong, trusted brand can go a long way towards attracting good staff and minimises the need to advertise. "The one thing that makes us different is that our customers trust us and love the shopping experience," he adds.

A competitive employee package is also vital: making sure you are paying wages that match market rates, or exceed them, is a must. But it's not only about money. "People expect a decent rate of pay, but a lot of it is about the whole benefits package," says Murauskas.

John Lewis's 25% staff discount is just above the industry average. Other crowd-pullers include a final salary pension scheme, flexible hours and discounts with other companies.

The retailer's employee selection and recruitment procedure is another point of difference. Once applications have been submitted (normally online), candidates are invited to an assessment centre where they are introduced to the company and given exercises that test their people and selling skills. Natural people skills are valued far more than relevant experience. "The product side can be trained," says Murauskas. "What is more important - and is something you can't really teach - is how people react to other people. Getting a sense of their personality will determine whether that person is right for the business."

It is not only retail giants such as John Lewis with an enviable track record on staff. Kent-based womenswear independent Elizabeth Rose has just seen three staff retire, each with between 14 and 18 years' service to their name. Other long-serving employees have been with the business for a decade or more.

Partner Michael Busby says the key is to try to recruit the kind of staff who are natural customers of your business. "People know what we are about, so they only apply if they feel they will fit in with us," he says.

Training for all new staff is overseen by the manager of each branch and starts from day one. New staff are placed on a probation period for three months; after that, there are constant reviews. Busby also puts much emphasis on listening to staff. "It's all about valuing what they do and listening to their opinions, perhaps through weekly staff meetings. It helps if they feel they are being listened to," he explains.

Morleys Group - owner of five independent stores, including department store Elys of Wimbledon in south-west London - also has a track record of keeping good staff and often promotes from within. HR director Carolyn Elson says there is a policy of not taking people on for the sake of filling the vacancy. "It's easy to compromise standards that way," she reveals. "We put an emphasis on finding the right person we can train, rather than looking for retail experience and product knowledge. The key is to find people who have the right attitude and personality, and who want to learn."

Elson says five years is a typical length of service - and monthly sales awards and training help with this. Every year, Morleys runs a two-year management programme for staff already settled in the business. As well as holding down their normal job, this involves studying for an NVQ and attending monthly training modules that cover both the hard and soft aspects of becoming a manager.

Elson stresses it is a big commitment for the staff involved. However, it also broadens their career prospects and gives them a reason to stay with the company.

Elys' culture and environment are also held up as vital factors for attracting the right people. "People really like the fact they are working for a smaller group," says Elson. "They feel they are a person, not a number. They know the store manager and the managing director."

Jason Kemp, managing director of retail operations specialist Envision Retail, says the cost of recruiting and retaining staff is a "huge issue" for the industry, with some parts of London clocking up turnover rates of a staggering 104% a year. He explains it can be a Catch-22 scenario. "Because there is such a churn of staff, retailers cut back on training. But this is short-sighted. If you're not investing in people, you are letting good people go. Also, how are employees ever going to sell effectively for you?"

Kemp argues that it is vital to find out what motivates potential and existing employees. "Are would-be employees filling a gap? Is it the start of a career for them? What are they motivated by? Is it financial reward, job satisfaction, career advancement? These are all very different motivators," he explains.

Once this is established, retailers can work out what will keep staff motivated and engaged. If they are driven by money, for example, a commission scheme will clearly incentivise. If the culture of the company is important to them, a softer set of benefits is likely to keep them interested.

On a practical level, these questions can be posed to candidates at the interview stage - perhaps in an easily digestible multiple-choice format. The same questions can be asked of existing staff.

Again, the message is that it is not all about salary. "It's a mix of levers, but what is often overlooked is all the different things you can do to attract the right people: a desirable brand, a good working environment, a fun team, staff discounts," he says. "Staff have to feel they are being looked after."

TOP RECRUITMENT TIPS

- Be clear about your brand and culture. What are you looking for in your staff, and how do you expect them to contribute to your business?

- Don't recruit just to fill numbers. This whitewash approach usually invites a temporary outlook.

- Make sure you have systems in place to establish what kind of person the prospective employee is. A multiple-choice questionnaire at the interview stage might help.

- People skills are often more important than product knowledge or retail experience. A natural ability with people cannot be taught.

- Ensure you include all staff in regular company meetings. No one likes to feel that their opinions and input are unimportant.

- Don't cut back on training, despite the obvious expense. If you don't invest in people, they won't stay.

- Commission schemes can motivate some people, but might not be right for your business. Customers can easily be put off by a hard sell.

- Pay market-rate salaries, or just above, and remember that a package of softer benefits can often be equally - or more - appealing. For example, a decent staff discount scheme is often a big draw.

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