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January 2012 | Vol. XI - No. 1
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How to Find Your Soul Employees, Part I: Hiring

This January, it's out with the old, and in with the new...employees


This article was originally published in December 2010

Looking for a way to improve sales in the new year? Ask Creative Kidstuff CEO Roberta Bonoff what the key to success is and she can boil it down to one word: staff.

"Our staff is the biggest asset of our business. Without them we wouldn't exist," Bonoff told TDmonthly.

Your staff is an extension of your store's identity. More than that, said Steven McReedy of the Brooks Group, "Your employees are a reflection of you — pure and simple." If you want them to be positive and friendly, you must be that way yourself.

Employees not only have to be reliable, efficient and knowledgeable; they must also often deal with out-of-control children (Sidebar: How to Manage Rowdy Kids) and hostile parents, and do so while remaining upbeat and promoting good will toward the store.

However, finding good workers is complicated by the low wages typical of retail as well as the difficult and sometimes heavy labor required to keep a toy store running smoothly.

"A toy store is a lot of work compared with working in a clothing store," pointed out John Naisbitt, owner of Thinker Things in Solana Beach, Calif. "There's so much to stock! Employees have to climb ladders, and then get down on their hands and knees to pick up after kids."

FINDING THE RIGHT STAFF

How do you find a staff as committed to your store as you are, who can learn about new products and teach customers how to use them?

Hire Customers

"We have hired the kids who've been hanging out in the store for years," said Toni Pohle, co-owner with her husband Kevin of The Wizard's Chest in Denver, Colo. They manage a staff of between 15 and 20 full- and part-time workers.

Bonoff of Creative Kidstuff also has found that her customer base is her best source of staff. She rewards both employees and customers for referrals. Money you're not spending on "help wanted" ads can be used as incentives.

Hire Your Mom

Of course, many storeowners turn to help even nearer at hand: their own families. Running a family business can be stressful, said Kim Smith of Red Wagon Toy Co. in Woodstock, Vt., but "it all works out in the long run."

Hire Someone Else's Mom

"Grannies" — older or retired women — have been happy hires for many storeowners. Some advantages are that they tend to have a deep sense of responsibility and a great love for children. A disadvantage is that they may be unwilling or unable to commit to full-time work.

Prepare a Profile

Vincent Pellettiere, president and CEO of HR Design Solutions LLC, said, "A small employer should prepare in advance a profile of what would be an ideal candidate by matching the required skills, abilities and knowledge to the requirements of the position. Once that is established, prepare your interviewing questions to find this information from interested candidates." (Sidebar: Interviewing for Success)

Pellettiere believes business owners should interview at least five potential candidates for any given job. "Hiring the best employees for your organization is the first step in having a motivated, committed workforce."

Ask for Help

While an ad in the paper might serve in a pinch, most experts recommend placing a sign inside your store, letting potential employees know that you're always accepting applications from people who love toys and children.

However, a "Help Wanted" sign in the window is a no-no. First, it communicates to customers that you might be understaffed. Second, it will draw in applicants who are more interested in getting a job — any job — than in spreading the word about specialty toys.

Look for Character

Experts also warn against hiring someone simply because he or she has retail experience. Hire for personality and train for success. You can teach someone about your products, but you can't teach someone to smile and respect your customers.

"A lot of customers come in and they say, ‘I want a game,' but they don't know what kind until we start prompting them," Pohle of the The Wizard's Chest explained. "Our staff has to be articulate and know that their primary job is customer service."

Katie Seleski, also from Creative Kidstuff in Minneapolis, Minn., attributes the success of in-store events to the staff, for instance, because they dress in costumes and actively participate with parents and children. Their excitement is contagious, she said.

Compare Them to Current Staff

Do you have at least one or two staff members you wish you could clone? According to a 2007 KGO-TV article by Heather Ishimaru, Laszlo Bock, vice president of Google's "People Operations," designed an employee questionnaire that asks candidates if they've ever set a world record in anything or made a profit from a catering business. The answers are then cross-referenced with answers from successful Google employees, to measure similarities.

Pay Them to Quit

Zappos, an online shoe and clothing store that relies on super customer service from its call-center personnel, has a unique way of weeding out employees who aren't fully committed to giving amazing customer service in a high-stress work environment. According to a blog posted by Bill Taylor, after an intensive four-week training program at full pay, Zappos offers new hires $1,000 to quit. About 10 percent of employees take the bribe, he said. But by September 2008, the offer was up to $2,000, with only 2 to 3 percent of employees succumbing to the easy cash, said Keith McFarland of "Business Week." And, according to ABC News, in 2011 Zappos raised the amount to a whopping $4,000. Even still, company CEO Tony Hsieh says that the acceptance rate is only 2 to 3 percent.

Scare Them Off

Prepare a document that explains to a potential hire how working at your business will differ from other experiences, recommended retail expert Jon Schallert. "Some potential hires will simply go elsewhere if they understand that there are above-average expectations at your business," he said. "And that’s exactly what you want — those problem employees to go elsewhere!"

When an owner doesn’t write down in detail the performance expectations, employee standards and other details of the position, they are setting themselves up for lackluster employees, as employees sense the “wiggle room," he stressed.

Beware of Teens

Teenagers might be excited about the toys themselves, but they can be more difficult to manage and also have erratic schedules.

"It's a challenge to get good qualified help in here, and then try to motivate them to sell," said Mark Deutschmann, co-owner of Kaleidoscope Kids in Falmouth, Mass. "[The teens] all want to come here and hang out."

"It's tough to find someone willing to do customer service and who likes kids," agreed Naisbitt of Thinker Things. "Their friends say, ‘Wanna hang out after work?' But when they're in my store, they can't talk on cell phones, can't text. They've got a job and they're here to work."

Another frustration with teenagers is that they don't plan in advance or even know what their schedules are going to be, continued Deutschmann. "Kids will call up last minute to tell you they're going on vacation the next week," he said.

Check Them Out


Though it may seem a hassle, background checks are essential for a business where your money is passing through someone else's hands.

Eight years ago, Diana Nelson, owner of Kazoo & Company went through a major employee problem that included embezzlement. She now does security checks on each and every employee and today is able to list her staff as one of her biggest successes.

Please Them

Just as you must please your customers, said McReedy, you must also please your staff and meet their needs if you want them to become the employees of your dreams. He cited the example of Chick-Fil-A, a fast-food chain with outstanding service (20 cars can get through the drive-through in three minutes, he said).

"They give employees flexible scheduling," McReedy told TDmonthly. "They're closed on Sundays (that's family day), and the longer you stay, the more they pay for your college."

All expectations and bonuses are laid out clearly as soon as an employee is hired, he said. This way, employees have their own reasons for meeting the goals set by their employers: doing so consistently benefits them as well.

At Zappos, what deters people from taking the $4,000 payout? Benefits like free food in the cafeteria, free access to a life coach who can help workers prioritize their busy schedules, and medical and dental benefits that are paid for 100%.

If you want friendly people, emphasized McReedy, you have to offer things that attract them. "It costs more initially," he admitted, "but the return on investment is good."

Pass the Chore On

If the stress of running a toy store depletes you of the resources you need for hiring, delegate the task to someone else. Haen, of AppleOne, told TDmonthly, "If you put out an ad, you're going to get a lot of applicants. We weed them out, and we charge a fee, but we only present the top three or five candidates for each business." Fees are negotiable, she said, based on the size and type of business.



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Alison MarekWriter's Bio: ALISON MAREK is an award-winning writer, director and cartoonist whose work has been published by Fairchild Publications and DC Comics (Piranha Press), broadcast on Showtime and other cable networks, and viewed worldwide in film festivals. See her short films and print work on www.alisonmarek.com. Watch her nefarious villains in the web series www.MuggsMovers.com. Get inspired by her cartoons "Daily ARFFirmations to Unleash Your Inner Fido" at www.ARFFirmations.com. Phew! And then ...  Read more articles by this author

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