Retail author and sales trainer Peter Smith was conducting in-store training when a sales associate revealed the unusual place she’d been scouted: a chicken-wing restaurant.
“She told me she was shocked to be recruited from there,” he recollects. But the jewelry store owners were good customers of the eatery, where she was working as a waitress. Apparently, they were as impressed with the service as they were with the food, and they gave her their business card — proving how fruitful it can be for merchants to keep some handy.
While great eye contact and a warm smile are good things to look for, there’s clearly much more to consider before hiring a new employee. Two top retail sales consultants and a jewelry store owner with 50 years of experience share their most successful tips for recruiting quality staff.
Ask your inner circle
After half a century honing his employment skills, Jim Woodard — owner of Woodard’s Diamonds & Design in Tullahoma, Tennessee — has a go-to method for finding just the right sales associates: He asks those he trusts and respects most. These individuals are often from his church, Rotary club, or local chamber of commerce, and after so many hits hiring this way, he rarely has to look outside his inner circle when sourcing staffers.
In fact, his first employee is still with him today: Lisa Dye, his now-“work wife,” whom he hired in 1991 via his church. Shortly after buying his store from the previous owners, he needed a bookkeeper — as well as a babysitter for his young, growing family at the time — and a church friend recommended her. Another church gem is store manager Blair Rogers, who’s been with him for 13 years.
“Our pool of people is pretty small,” says Woodard of his town, which is an hour south of Nashville. He’s since added to his secret formula by giving $500 minimum finder’s fees for great hires who stay a while. “A third of my employees have been found that way,” he says.
Focus on traits
It’s hard for retailers to find someone with both jewelry experience and the time-tested traits of a good salesperson. But the good news is, they don’t have to, according to Smith.
“One in four people is essentially wired to be good in sales,” reveals the trainer, who authored the book Hiring Squirrels: 12 Essential Interview Questions to Uncover Great Retail Sales Talent. He points to three top traits employers should seek in a candidate, regardless of experience.
First, he says, look for individuals who are highly accommodating of others — those motivated to inspire and influence people. Second, they must be empathetic; it’s not something that can be taught, he maintains: “You can ask people to be aware of empathetic behavior, but if they don’t have it, they shouldn’t be hired.”
Third, they must be resilient; clients don’t always buy, which means the job comes with a high volume of rejection. On that note, appropriate assertiveness is another helpful trait. “You don’t want clients walking out of the store empty-handed,” Smith remarks.
James “Jimmy” DeGroot agrees that a jewelry background isn’t the top criterion. His favorite new-hire story comes from a store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which hired a former landscaper.
“He didn’t want to work outside in winter anymore,” says the retail sales trainer. “He had no experience and didn’t know a sapphire from a ruby, but now he is so good that he could have a job anywhere in the world.”
[One new staffer] had no experience and didn’t know a sapphire from a ruby, but now he is so good that he could have a job anywhere in the world.
Don’t get desperate
The number-one thing not to do, say the experts, is hire just for the sake of hiring someone. “It’s better to cut store hours to accommodate the people you do have,” says DeGroot. “That way, you can fully serve [your existing customers] well, as opposed to hiring poorly. There are many national retailers just hiring ‘warm bodies,’ and their quality of service has fallen so much.”
When it comes to avoiding desperate decisions, Woodard urges store owners to trust their inner voices — and to do some digging. After one interview that went well, Woodard looked up the candidate on social media and saw she had publicly bragged about ditching work and getting paid for it anyway. That was a big red flag. “Why would I hire a person who’s telling everyone she played the system?” he says. “That’s not honest or trustworthy. You need someone who will fit your culture.”
Main image: Jimmy DeGroot training retail staff. (Jimmy DeGroot)
This article is from the November-December 2023 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.