Last week, I wrote of a looming retail skills shortage which drew responses from a number of unhappy campers. In defence of the industry, I should point to another side of the story. Not all retailers are b*stards.

At the corporate level, almost all retailers espouse values that are at odds with the feedback. The problem seems to occur when there is a disconnect between stores and head office. If more companies could push their culture down to the shop floor, we might see more happy endings instead of horror stories. What these stories may indicate is that it’s some managers who are the problem, rather than some companies.
Many retailers provide training, development, inspiration, reward and recognition and careers for their team members. I cannot attempt an exhaustive list, but in particular, Bunnings, Ikea, and the sometimes maligned Scottish hamburger chain McDonalds should be applauded. JB Hi-Fi has tens of thousands of applicants wanting to work in their stores. Boost Juice turned squeezing fruit and washing dishes into a fun environment.

The new Myer Melbourne basement, when developing their stunning new youth offer, very secretively hired a sales team that mirrored the demographic of their target customers. An industry source told us this week that their staff turnover since opening was zero. I guess there are happy people in that team.

Most of the mid-sized rag trade chain stores (such as Jeans West, Just Jeans and General Pants) do it very well. They want team members who match their target demographic, but who can also engage and converse with customers. They want a team with strong communication skills. They know that grumpy, disaffected, estranged or disloyal staff will neither engage nor maximise sales.

This week Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews encouraged retailers, facing a shortfall of 22,000 workers, to look to flexible arrangements and to attract people who might not have traditionally been in the workforce to bridge the gap.

At a time when Australian companies are struggling to keep staff, the long term winners will be the retailers who create an environment that attracts and retains the best people. There may well be a shortage, but I am sure it will not be an even distribution. The companies who become employers of choice will get first pick of the best people.

A disconnect between HQ and the front will become a critical flaw. Remember that people join companies, but leave managers. Bad managers will be very expensive.

Analysts will probably never report on the alignment of a retailer’s brand values and people practices. However, the experience of these people might just be more important than merchandise mix, pricing strategies or distribution efficiencies.

And who are this country’s most trusted retail brands? This week a report sponsored by Readers Digest was released. Why is Bunnings one of the most trusted Australian retailers? One reason is that customers experience the eye contact, engagement and other consequences of a company that has a strong connect between the company values and the team members – and you never seem to meet many ex-Bunnings people.

My company Orex finds people for Bunnings, Just Jeans and Ikea, but not JeansWest, General Pants, Boost Juice, Myer or McDonalds.

Peter Fray

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