June 24, 2024

TDmonthly Magazine

December 2010 | Vol. IX - No. 12

How to Find Your Soul Employees, Part II: Training

Fun, Discipline and Delegation Help New Hires Learn the (Jump) Ropes

By Alison Marek
December 2010


Once you've found the right people, how do you teach them all they need to know about toys?

Use TDmonthly

Computer-savvy employees can go online at and to browse recently uploaded toys, check out videos of new products, and scan pertinent articles … and they probably won't even notice they're being "trained" about the toy industry.

Prepare Manuals

Communication is essential to running smoothly, particularly for those who own more than one store. At Green Frog Toys, staff keep a binder with pertinent vendor information and convey messages via a daily log book.

Hans Masing, co-owner of the online Brain Station and brick-and-mortar Tree Town Toys, recommends developing a series of "use cases" that describe a typical activity that occurs in a store. (Sidebar: Sample Internet Fulfillment Use Case)

"When you compile use cases into a notebook, a ‘system‘ starts to evolve, so you can see how all the pieces fit together," Masing advised. "Use cases allow you to train new staff and adapt to changes better and faster, and that gives you an edge over your competition."

Have Staff Train Staff

New hires "spend one day with the manager," said Mary Duncan, manager of Tinkerz Toy Shop in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho. "Then, for about two weeks they'll double shift with a long-term employee who can give them the experience with working the till, getting to know where the stock is, answering any questions, and reviewing things."

Let Them Role Play

Eddie Miglavs, owner of MudPuddles Toys & Books in Sherwood, Ore., devises role-playing games to keep staff in top shape. They're assigned hypothetical customers — including those looking for toys for special-needs kids — and are sent into the store to find appropriate products. They also role-play situations where a customer will come in looking for a product the store doesn't carry. Salespeople practice the types of questions they need to ask to elicit information that will show them what alternatives might satisfy that customer's needs.

Make Them Sign

Owner David Campbell of Amazing Toys in Great Falls, Mont., ensures that new hires understand what's expected by having them sign a checklist of rules.

"That way there can be no misunderstandings — things like job responsibilities, dress code," he told TDmonthly. "Even though we're a little mom-and-pop shop, we still try to run it like a professional operation. … Why not let people know up front what you expect and have it on paper? That way there can be no dispute."

Make Them Visible

One way to maximize the utility of the staff you have is to make sure that every customer knows who works for you. Even small stores need to let customers instantly spot someone who can help them. If you can't afford actual uniforms, customized tees or aprons can do the trick and can be ordered inexpensively online from sites such as

Private Criticism, Public Praise

It's important to offer any corrections or advice in private, away from the ears of co-workers.

“I once had a great employee who started being neglectful of the customer," said Fiedler. "I brought this employee into my office and quietly explained that I was certain she wasn’t aware of her behavior,” she said. “I reminded her to use the ‘How can I please this customer?’ mindset instead of the ‘This customer really annoys me,' mindset. There was an immediate turnaround.”
For more info on giving employee feedback, see here

Conversely, Fiedler makes sure to pass along positive customer comments to the appropriate staff member in front of peers to inspire them.


Once employees understand how the store is run and which tasks should be performed when, the next challenge is training them to positively engage customers. Independent retailers have to work harder to make a good impression, retail experts Rich Kizer and Georganne Bender noted. Seventy-eight percent of satisfied customers can be lured away by another store that's "more fun," Kizer added.

For new stores, the challenge is even greater. Parents and grandparents told Bender that if an independent toy store's staff failed to be cheerful and accommodating the first time they visited, they'd go to a big-box store instead. There's never a second chance to make a good first impression!

But before they can make customers happy, staff must be happy. This can pose a challenge to owners of small toy stores, particularly those who do not have formal management training. Sharon DiMinico opened the first Learning Express store in Acton, Mass., in 1987 and now has a franchise of more than 140 stores across the United States. Her positive relationships with employees have played a big part in the success of her business, she said.

"For me, it's always been about treating people how you want to be treated," she continued. "Most of it is common sense."

"One of the nice things about the Wizard's Chest," Pohle said, "is that because it's such a great place to work, we have less turnover."

Inspire Them

"The best leaders are inspiring," said McReedy of The Brooks Group. Even in a poor economy, even if the store starts to falter, "you have to be up every day, even when others are down. You have to make yourself do it."

When analyzing his own successful workers, Joe Berardoni Sr., owner of Pun’s Toy Shop in Bryn Mawr, Pa., told TDmonthly: “The trick was to hire a new staff and instill in them the concept of treating customers as if they were guests in your own home, where no reasonable requests could not be handled.”

If you're dissatisfied with your staff's attitude and performance, he continued, look within, continued McReedy: "I've never seen an average sales force with an outstanding manager."

Generate Excitement

Julie Gannon, owner of The Toy Box in Hanover, Mass., recommended that retailers contact the manufacturers of toys that are slow sellers and request someone to do in-store training sessions.

Gannon also encourages her staff to explore new toys and games. "It makes it easier to sell a game if you've played it yourself," she explained.

Let Them Buy

"Every person I hired always had buying responsibilities." —Sharon DiMinico, Learning Express

"Every person I hired always had buying responsibilities," DiMinico said. "They would manage a couple of vendors, depending on how many hours they worked. For the most part, we would give them more responsible jobs than just ringing the cash register, straightening shelves and sweeping the floor. They felt more included in the business."

Think About the Long Term

"If you want to do what the customers want, you have to do what the employees want." —Steven McReedy, The Brooks Group

"Why are some individual retail stores better than others?" asked McReedy. "It's the owner's attitude. So many stores are focused on what they have to do now. Think about the long term instead. Think about what happens down the road: ‘If you're here three years, I'll give you $2,000.' It's a process, not a short-term thing. If you want to do what the customers want, you have to do what the employees want."

Send Them Traveling

Nancy Groth Kersten, owner of Groth Music Company in Bloomington, Minn., sends her staff to trade shows to find out what is new and innovative, and continually expands her inventory selection. If caught without an item requested, she and her staff attempt to locate it through thousands of vendor contacts. The store's motto is: "We know what you want and we have it."

Accentuate the Positive

Managers often make the mistake of focusing on and correcting mistakes employees make, rather than acknowledging them for the things they do right.

"There should be a blend of each, with the focus of coaching employees to develop themselves, which provides a more effective workplace," Vincent Pellettiere of HR Design Solutions LLC noted.

Give Them a Starter Kit

The work atmosphere should be fun, Pellettiere continued. Employee contests, such as who sells the most board games that week, can keep work fresh and exciting. You can start the relationship right by giving new hires a bag stuffer with toys and games, and offering generous employee discounts and other fun-related benefits.

Pay Them Well

Make sure your compensation is at or above market rates. Create plans that reward the store team for success. At Creative Kidstuff, all stores work as a team to achieve their goal and then receive a bonus based on their success.

Offer Flex-Time

Business consultant, author and lecturer Rick Segel believes that most people would be willing to sacrifice some money to work for people who listen to their ideas, respect their family life and offer a pleasant place to work. Creative Kidstuff promotes the importance of employees "being there" for their own families.

Many people who work for small businesses do so because they want flexibility in their work schedules, agreed Dr. Gerardo A. Okhuysen, a professor at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

"Unfortunately, the small size of these businesses can be an obstacle to offering flexibility, since many require on-site presence or coverage of shifts." Okhuysen suggests that owners remedy this problem by hiring two part-time people instead of one full-time employee. This increases freedom in questions like scheduling.

Find Out What They Like

You're an expert at discovering your customers' desires. Do the same for your employees, to find out what motivates them. "For some, a set of golf clubs may mean more than the cash to buy them," Okhuysen said.

Don't Give Commissions

Debbie Potter, sales associate for nine years at MudPuddles Toys & Books, said that she and her co-workers would quit if Owner Eddie Miglavs ever offered commissions on the toys they sell.

"We feel real strongly that what we do is a service for our customers: We help them find the perfect gift," she told TDmonthly. "That's what makes it so pleasurable — not how many toys we sold off the shelf. We're focused on making customers happy."

Miglavs focuses on making staff happy by offering incentives, rather than commissions.

"We get ‘Good as Gold' certificates," continued Potter. "If we see someone's going above and beyond great customer service, we recommend them and they get discounts in the store. We all shop here because we're moms and grandmoms!"

As for the atmosphere that Miglavs creates in the store, Potter said, "This is like coming to Disneyland every day."

Know Where the Buck Stops

"I talk to owners all the time who feel like their employees are out of control," said Schallert. "Guess what? It’s not the employees who are out of control. It’s the owner who is flying by the seat of his or her pants. Want better employees? Look critically at how you’ve gotten the ones you have, and restructure your employee hiring and training system."

Always Say Thank You

Finally, just as you don't let your customers leave without giving them a cheerful "good-bye," never let employees leave at the end of the day without thanking them. Employees need to hear that you appreciate their efforts. "Thank you" goes a very long way toward retention.

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