Are you a current or former manager in a retail business? Do you work in a clothing, shoe, or discount store? Are you managing an electronics, jewelry, or specialty shop? Stand proud. Chances are you don’t get much respect, but you should. Yes, you have a thankless job with terrible hours, mediocre benefits, and a paycheck that barely covers rent, utilities, and the Value Meal Deal. But you work hard. You motivate and train other employees to excel. You are nice, even when others are not nice. You are responsible — day after day, sale after sale, policy change after policy change.
For All Those Reasons and More I Respect You. Here’s Why.
For seven years, I worked as a sales and training manager in a department store. I was young, not teenager young, but late 20’s early 30’s young. I had a college degree (in English), but no real management or customer service experience. I had worked in a bank in the IT Department and in a sub shop, and taught for awhile, but, frankly, I was drifting. I didn’t really have a career in mind. Then one day I was offered a sales manager job at a large department store. It was kind of a fluke actually, but I needed a job and I took it. I’m glad I did. I can’t image doing what I do now without that background, without that training, and without that guidance from thousands of employees, managers, and customers over those seven years. So, here’s my take on why retail managers should get more respect.
#1 Customer Service. If you believe the latest business guru, customer service is dead. We all suck at helping others choose a cell phone, match a tie to suit, or accept a return courteously. Horsefeathers! Most businesses care about customer service. Good businesses talk about customer service. Great businesses train managers in customer service and hold them accountable for outstanding service, not just sales numbers.
Fortunately, I worked for company that preached customer service every day and gave managers the tools to teach those skills to their employees. What I know about customer service I learned during those seven years putting it into practice. You won’t get superlative service everywhere you shop, but if you are honest with yourself, you’ll admit that the service you receive at most retail businesses is consistently courteous and helpful.
#2. Change. Good and Bad. Sales, holiday hours, new trends, new employees, new products. In retail, things change all the time. It can be as simple as stocking new products or setting another sale. Success and necessity demand that you make changes. You can’t wait or the opportunity will be lost, and you’ll be sitting on winter coats in May with no floor space to stock shorts and swim suits.
During my seven years at the department store, the company went through two mergers, a hostile buyout, a bankruptcy, and a fire sale. Every year represented new challenges with new policies and ever changing corporate directives. To survive you had to adapt. To meet your sales and employee retention goals, you had to be creative. Retail managers understand that and, in fact, they welcome it because change represents new opportunities to succeed. Now don’t misunderstand me. Not all change is positive. Just getting an organization to embrace change, even during critical financial times, can be daunting. You want managers and employees who view change as an opportunity and not a burden. Retail managers learn to be flexible, because they have to be.
#3 Hard Work. Retail managers work hard. Not digging ditches, pouring concrete, or picking strawberries hard, but they work long hours, are on their feet all day, and are tasked with a variety of supervisory and non-supervisory jobs. On most days, they receive new products, prep it, and merchandise it. Merchandising may require moving multiple other products, sometime entire sections in order to feature seasonal goods, typically while managing employees and responding to customers.
Most retail managers, especially those in smaller stores, are responsible for inventory, scheduling, training, human resources, budgeting, and security. In addition, they may be responsible for bookkeeping and buying. And just when you thought the job was hard enough, there’s conflict management, negotiating, and mediating between employees, customers, mall management, and all too often, your own family. Let’s face it, it’s hard for your family to understand why you have to work 15 straight days because your assistant manager quit two days before Thanksgiving. Not every retail manager works hard. Some are lazy, but it was my experience that the lazy, the incompetent, and the stupid didn’t last very long.
#4 Independent and Motivated. If you worked in retail chain management, you know that retail management can be cutthroat. Assistant managers want to become store managers. Store managers want to become regional managers. Regional managers want to become buyers or corporate executives. Occasionally, it resembles an episode of Survivor, with group alliances and gossiping and snipping between factions. It’s natural in any organization with a clear path of upward mobility. People want to succeed. Most retail managers want to be promoted. At the very least, they want their stores to exceed “plan” and their staff to be recognized.
Unlike most organizations which operate in one location and are surrounded by functional departments, like Accounting, Marketing, Operations, etc., most retail stores are either small businesses or multi-store operations. Either way, the store manager has no support system or a support system hundreds or thousands of miles away. Most of the time, they operate autonomously and are expected to be self-reliant. No one is holding their hand. The store must open and close every day. Merchandise must get stocked. Inventory must get taken. Employees must be hired, trained, counseled, and occasionally fired.
#5 Human Resources. There’s no substitute for the School of Hard Knocks when it comes to managing people. Someone once told me that business would be easy if it wasn’t for the people. Although some people are inherently better at managing individuals and groups than others, we all get better with experience. We learn that despite our best efforts we can’t change Susan the Slug into Susan the Superstar, we can’t solve Brad’s marital woes, and we can’t force Todd and Amy to “play nice.”
Retail managers gets lots of experience managing employees — young, old, experienced, novices, whiners, go-getters, ex-cons, potential cons, part-timers, full-timers, commission, hourly. The mix, which often changes seasonally, requires retail managers to constantly adapt. What motivates one employee may not motivate another. How one employee learns may be counterintuitive to another. Successful retail managers are always training, always encouraging, always managing. They exemplify the management theory of “Managing by Walking Around (MBWA).”
As a current or former retail manager, you understand. You aren’t asking for a medal or a parade, but a little respect would be nice. If you have a story to tell or would like to pass along your comments, please share. In an ideal world, we’d demand a raise, a promotion, and better benefits . . . although we’ll settle for a heartfelt electronic group hug until the economy improves.
— Mel White