The Search for Top Talent

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Many retailers today are having a difficult time finding, hiring and retaining qualified job candidates. Follow these suggestions to keep your business at full employment.

African American executive in a gray suit stands smiling with his arms crossed

Despite a growing number of store closures and talk of a retail apocalypse, “nearly 16 million people work in retail, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly one in 10 working Americans. This includes e-commerce giants like Amazon,” says Manish Dudharejia, president and co-founder of San Diego, California-based digital agency E2M Solutions Inc. 

The fact is, Dudharejia writes in a May 2019 article for news website Total Retail, “retail companies are everywhere. With so much product diversity falling under the ‘retail’ umbrella, talented employees have no shortage of options when they’re seeking out a new opportunity.”

Add to that an unemployment rate hovering near the lowest level in decades — 3.5% in February, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — and retailers can have trouble filling positions, from retail sales associates and store managers to category buyers and fulfillment specialists to operations, marketing and finance executives. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to hire — let alone retain — retail workers,” Dudharejia says.

So, where can you find qualified candidates to keep your operation running smoothly today and well into the future? You don’t have to look high and low, but you might need to get a little creative in your search.

Post on online job boards, career sites and recruiters. There’s a seemingly endless number of online job posting and career sites. Some of the largest include CareerBuilder, Indeed, ZipRecruiter and Monster, which give you the broadest visibility but also can overwhelm you with applicants. 

“If you’re hiring minimum-wage, unskilled labor, sites like Craigslist or standard job boards can help you attract students or young individuals looking to gain some extra cash and experience. If you’re looking for more experienced retail workers, try more targeted job boards or LinkedIn,” writes Erica Hayton, a specialist in recruitment, marketing and technology in an article for Harver, a New York-based company that provides pre-employment assessment software. 

If you are seeking senior level managers or executives, good sites include Ladders and Glassdoor. Sites like SalesJobs, SalesGravy and Nexxt are geared toward sales positions, including commission-based jobs, and the National Retail Federation has its own job board for specialized retail positions at Jobs.NRF.com. If you’re trying to diversify your workforce and want to reach specific groups, you may want to post openings on sites such as VetJobs, AbilityJOBS, RecruitDisability or Diversity, according to a job site compilation posted on FitSmallBusiness.com in March 2019. Some sites offer free job postings, but most charge a few hundred bucks for a month or two, so you’ll want to use the right site to target qualified job seekers, perhaps posting to one of the large sites and then a second more specialized site.

Use social media.

LinkedIn, which is a hybrid between a job search site and a social media platform for professionals, is an obvious place to let connections know that you’ve got an opening and is a good place to recruit. You also can use Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites to get the word out that you’re hiring. The key here is to tailor messages to the medium. For instance, on Instagram or TikTok, you might want to post a fun video of your team with a short recruiting message. Encourage your employees to post about openings on their own social media feeds to help spread the wor

Bring employees up from the “minors.”

Follow the ways of Major League Baseball and promote from within. Obviously, when hiring for managerial positions, it makes sense to look to your own team first. A promotion to management is a way to reward talented employees in whom you’ve invested time and money, and they already know your business. You also may have people on your staff who would succeed in lateral roles: an RSA naturally skilled in operations or a store manager who has experience in marketing. Many employers make the mistake of pigeonholing staff, which hurts both employer and employee if the employee leaves prematurely in search of new challenges, better opportunities and a higher paycheck

Knowing you offer a path to promotions and new roles can make hiring entry-level employees easier, too.

“If a team member feels as if their job is a dead-end one, they’re less likely to stay committed and stick around for the long run,” writes Lauren Levine in an article for Spark Hire, a provider of a video interviewing platform and other hiring tools based in Northbrook, Illinois. “Even if you have an employee who’s working an entry-level position, it’s important for them to understand the career trajectory they could take if they put in enough hard work and continue to develop. Consider putting a management training program into place, have senior members of the team mentor new hires, and carefully detail opportunities for growth during the hiring process. When your team members can see themselves advancing within the company, they’re much more likely to stay committed to the organization.”

Ask around.

Your own employees, who know what it takes to succeed in your company, can be a great source of recommendations for new talent. John Sullivan, an educator, author, speaker and talent management adviser, suggests formalizing your referral process. “The key to referral success is directly asking each of your top-performing employees to identify, assess, sell and then recommend at least one quality potential recruit each month. To encourage referrals, offer a reward for each referral who is hired. … Also, give every employee an “Exceptional Service Referral Card,” so that they can give them to any top retail employee who they meet during their everyday interactions with retail people,” Sullivan writes in a June 2018 article for ERE.net, an online publication for talent acquisition professionals.

You also can tap your own network for referrals. If you’re part of a chamber of commerce or other professional group, let members know you’re recruiting and seek recommendations. Cast a wide net. Ask business owners at church, in your neighborhood, at your kid’s school or in your adult sports league if they know good candidates for positions you have open.

Shop around.

When it comes to RSA positions in particular, some mattress retailers avoid hiring people with previous mattress sales experience because they don’t want them to bring the ways of their former employer onto their sales floor. 

Jane Hurst explains the reasoning this way, “You may think that hiring someone who has worked for your competitor is a good move because they have experience and training. But they don’t actually have the training to work for your company, and there is likely a pretty good reason why they are no longer working for your competition.”

“You need people who are fresh and new,” Hurst writes in a March 2018 article for RetailNext, a provider of retail analytics based in San Jose, California. 

But the idea of hiring someone away from a competitor — or picking up a competitor’s employee after an unfortunate store closure — can be a good option for some mattress sellers, who can bring someone aboard who already is skilled in sales and knowledgeable about mattresses. We’re talking about top performers here, not just anyone. 

“Top talent working at other top firms are superior because they are fully trained, and they have already proven themselves,” Sullivan says. “And this means that if your own firm provides a superior work environment, it’s relatively simple to convince the best retail employee at your competitors to join your team.” 

When “shopping” for qualified job candidates, don’t limit your search to mattress retailers. As you visit home furnishings stores, automobile dealers, even banks and restaurants, be on the lookout for good salespeople and sales managers who might be interested in a new opportunity.

Turn customers into hires.

During the sales conversation on a mattress showroom floor, you can learn a lot about your customers, including whether they are in the market for a job in addition to that new bed set, and if they might be a good fit with your company. 

Don’t be shy about approaching customers, especially regular and longtime customers, to gauge their availability and interest in joining your team. “When your employees are passionate about your brand and products like loyal customers often are, they can help increase sales and educate new shoppers about what you offer,” Hayton says.

Sullivan agrees. “Your best customers make great recruits because they already know and like your firm and its products,” he says. “…Let them know that you frequently hire customers by putting a sign inside your facility. Rather than the hideous ‘Help Wanted,’ instead place a sign that reads, ‘If You Like Shopping Here, Maybe Someday You’d Like to Work Here.’ In addition, ask employees to wear a ‘Ask Me About What It’s Like to Work Here’ button or T-shirt to encourage inquiries.”

Reconnect with an ex.

“Because retail traditionally has a significant turnover rate, it’s common to lose employees for a variety of reasons,” Sullivan says. “Fortunately, there is a high likelihood that some of your top-performing former employees would love to return when their conditions change. They are great hires because you already know their performance and that they fit with your culture. Periodically reconnect with your best former employees to determine if they’re willing to return.”

Similarly, Sullivan suggests revisiting candidates you might have passed over once before, or what he calls “silver medalist” candidates. “You already know them and their interest,” he says. “And after a six- or 12-month delay, they are now likely to be more skilled and experienced.” One of Sleep Savvy’s staffers confesses that she was once a “silver medalist” for a great job. A year later, the “gold medalist” who had been hired originally instead of her was let go because of performance problems and she was called back in to see if she was still interested in the position. She was — and went on to have a successful tenure in the post.

New tools

Regardless of how you find candidates, you may want to use some of the various recruitment tools available to track and screen applicants. “There are many different recruitment tools out there, each with a different purpose,” Hayton says. “Applicant tracking systems, pre-employment assessments, chatbots and more can help you connect with your applicants on a stronger level. It is becoming increasingly difficult to hire – let alone retain – retail workers. Technological advancements have created an opportunity to overcome the biggest challenges in retail recruitment.”

“Hire for Attitude and Train for Skill”

We don’t need to tell you that retail jobs are tough. The hours can be long; dealing with customers can be, well, a challenge.

Perhaps because of the nature of many retail jobs, there’s a recruiting adage that goes: “hire for attitude and train for skill,” and, over the years, Sleep Savvy has heard from many retailers that some of their most successful hires, particularly for retail sales associate positions, were chosen for their attitude and personality rather than their background or skill set.

If you have a solid training program, you can teach almost anyone about mattress constructions and selling strategies, but it’s much more difficult to turn a sullen salesperson into a sunny one.

In an article for Vend, a San Francisco-based provider of cloud-based retail software, Francesca Nicasio lays out a list of qualities human resources experts say companies should look for when hiring RSAs and retail managers:

  • Willing and eager to learn
  • Patient
  • Comfortable with people
  • Competitive
  • Team-oriented
  • Emphatic
  • Can-do attitude
  • High emotional intelligence
  • Passion for the brand and its products. 

“When you’re a manager in a retail setting, make it a point to keep an eye out for new talent and then develop this talent accordingly,” writes Lauren Levine in an article for Spark Hire, a provider of a video interviewing platform and other hiring tools based in Northbrook, Illinois. “…Retail work requires a certain personality type, focus and set of skills that not just anyone possesses in order to do well. Make it a point to zero in on people who have these traits, and then develop them and support them as they grow.”

Disappearing Act

Has a job candidate ever ghosted you? In other words, has a strong prospective employee disappeared on you during the hiring process? In the March issue of Sleep Savvy, we explained ways to keep candidates engaged and on board.

Read more on managing staff, How to Win the Hiring War.