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Hiring for Retail: A Guide to Building the Right Team

Amy Nichol Smith
Amy Nichol Smith

It starts with the interview and ends with you.

Hiring the right staff for your retail team requires you to do more than simply post an ad on an online job search engine or in your local newspaper. While an application can tell you a lot about a person's work history, it tells you little about that person. Much of what you need to know happens in the interview, and during the first few months. However, there are several misconceptions about how to hire a great employee – and you may be following some of those ill-conceived rules.

Hiring a staffer who fits in with your culture and your brand is important to maintaining it for other employees and your customers. But you don't just get an employee off the street like that. It's up to you to help make them great.

We'll address five popular myths about hiring for retail, revealing the truth that hides behind those myths. We also have some tips on how you can weed out the weak sellers and customer service representatives from your pool of potentials and set your sight on those who will be enthusiastic, engaged, and an asset for you and your brand.

Myth: You should hire those with previous experience.

Your first thought may be to hire someone with experience in retail because you'll save time and money not having to train them, but that's not necessarily true. Sometimes the best employee is the one whose experience is in a completely different industry.

Training is necessary

A great retail staff starts with your high standards. Employees who know the ins and outs of retail in general can be great to start with, but you still need to train them in your business's way. Sometimes, those with tons of experience can let that experience get in the way. They may believe they know the best way to do something because of that time with a big-box retailer.

Perhaps "training" isn't the word to use here. A better fit might be "employee development." Yes, you're going to train your staff on how to use the point-of-sale system you prefer, how to take inventory and enter it in the software, and which items should be marked for sales, clearance and so on. The development of your staff has more to do with how you want your company to be perceived and how you want your customers to be treated.

Those who aren't tainted, so to speak, by another retailer's way of business, are like clay that you can mold how you'd like them. Helping your employees be better salespeople and brand ambassadors for you is a win-win situation: You get great word-of-mouth marketing, and your sales reps get boosts of confidence from closing sales, plus commission or bonuses if you offer them.

Training your staff benefits your business in a few surprising ways, not the least of which is your sales. According to Harry Friedman, the founder of global retail consulting and training organization The Friedman Group, training can increase sales 15 to 25 percent.

A people person pleases

A resume doesn't necessarily tell you who the person is behind the work history and accolades. The interview is where you're going to find that out. While it's nice to know that an employee has goals for the future and enjoys Netflix marathons on the weekend like anybody, it's also important to find out if they are a people person. Are they going to enjoy working with customers? Someone who spends most of their time alone may not have the skills necessary to work with or relate to customers.

Asking the right questions in the interview can reveal a lot about a person's integrity, people skills, communication prowess, and potential for relating to a customer to help them find what they need. Be sure to ask how they've handled an upset customer in the past. Listen to how the interviewee resolved the issue. Follow up by asking what they wish they'd done differently. This can alert you to whether this person employs critical thinking, reflects on mistakes and recognizes when there's a better way to do something.

Finally, one of the best ways to engage a possible new hire is to take them out on the floor. Perhaps you could get them to try to sell a product to you, or you can simply ask them to tell you a story. For example, if you sell widgets, and a smaller version of these widgets are traditionally given to children, ask your candidate about the first time they got a widget. A great employee can relate to customers through their own experience – whether it's over bad skin, the perfect little black dress, a set of sweet rims for their used car or the newest gadget on the market.

Personality over practice

Of course, you need to hire people who have hard skills, such as basic computer knowledge – otherwise, how would you be sure they would be able to pick up on how to use POS software? Just as important as, say, simple math skills is someone's personality. If a sales rep isn't extroverted, or at least personable, how are they going to interact with your customers?

Take a promising employee down to a local coffeehouse or a yogurt shop for part of the interview and watch how they interact with the employees and wait staff there. Are they kind? Do they make eye contact? Do they ask questions?

A sense of curiosity hints at a desire to learn, which is an excellent trait to have in a member of your team. Courtesy and kindness lend themselves to nurturing, which is another good indication that this person could be an excellent salesperson for your store. Overall, it's a desire to connect with other people that you want out of the candidate.


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Myth: Retail employees are just there until …

One of the biggest beliefs about retail employees is that they're just looking for part-time work until something better comes along. While this is true of some prospects, it isn't true of all. Job-hopping candidates aren't necessarily going to work for you for six months and then bail. Let go of those assumptions, and consider this: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average amount of time a retail employee remains with an employer is three years. Compare that to food workers, who clock in at 1.8 years, or hospitality workers at 2.2 years, and you can see that retail can be a fulfilling career choice for those who love it.

Goal-oriented employees are great to have because they're striving for something more, something better, and they appreciate an employer who enables them to do that. Whatever they're working toward, be it the training to work their way up to manager or the education to get a degree in a related field, could translate into a way to help your company and the sales staff. Are you interviewing an artist? Great! That person can be the one to decorate the chalkboard that sits outside your door. Have an aspiring filmmaker on your hands? Perfect! They can be in charge of unboxing videos for your YouTube channel or Facebook Live videos.

Empowering your employees to sell your products and your brands helps create awareness and inspires the personal investment you want them to have in your company. Everyone wants an employee who goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Myth: Part-time is preferable

Many benefits come with hiring a handful of full-time employees rather than a lot of part-time workers. Although big-box companies and media shows that the rate of turnover is high for retail, there are untold stories about why an employee leaves. Look at the situation logically, and you'll see why full-time almost always wins over part-time.


A part-time employee is simply not going to be up to speed with day-to-day procedures or standards as quickly as a staff member who is working double the hours. The more opportunities your new worker must learn, the better trained they will be – and more quickly.

Earning potential

Full-time employment is more desirable than part-time, so you're more likely to attract a better crop of potential employees. They know that they can make more money and earn benefits, such as medical insurance, vacation and sick time. A part-time employee is going to be on the lookout for something better and longer-term.


If you take care of your staff, they'll take care of you and your brand. Your trust in them is potentially returned to you in loyalty. A lot of that also depends on you as a manager. No one really quits a job; they quit a manager.

Myth: Hire for knowledge and expertise.

A sales representative who knows everything there is to know about, say, smartwatches is a great choice to have working in electronics. However, technology is always changing, and you want to make sure you've hired someone who keeps up with those changes. When smartwatches go by the wayside for something better, your employee needs to go with the flow. Expertise is great if the sales team uses it properly. You want employees to help guide a customer toward a purchase without trying to compete with the customer on knowledge. Sometimes, even better than expertise is the ability to manipulate the conversation.

Is the customer always right? It's a good question for each candidate, and how they answer it can tell you a lot about who you'd be hiring. The correct answer, of course, is yes, the customer is always right. That's not a complete answer, though. Even when a customer is wrong, it is the sales rep's job to manipulate that wrong into a right.

If a shopper comes to your store to buy a dress and insists she's a size smaller than she actually is, are you going to insist she's wrong and tell her that she needs to buy something larger? You're going to employ a bit of creativity. Offer a few styles that are in the size she claims but fit a little loose, or explain that sizing is different across all brands, and yours happens to be a bit smaller. Then suggest she try that same dress that doesn't quite fit in the size she claims she is in one or two sizes larger. You can make a sale, make a customer happy and hopefully get repeat business. Was that customer right? No, but a good salesperson makes her feel as though she is.

Myth: It's easy to hire for retail.

You may have hundreds of resumes to sift through, which makes you think you have the pick of the litter, but that may not be so. Just as you're interviewing prospects to add to your team, those candidates are interviewing companies to choose the right fit for them. You need to sell yourself, your brand.

For all the articles out there that tell job seekers how to sell themselves in the interview, you rarely see anything about how a manager needs to sell the job to the candidate. The interview is almost over, and this one person seems perfect for the job. They already know your company and they're a fan. So, push that sale into closed territory by introducing the prospect to some of your current employees. This is a great way to show the candidate your business's culture, and it gives your employees a chance to pick up on things you may have missed. You want to make sure the prospect sees for themselves what sort of service you expect and how your employees speak with you. It's a slice-of-life moment that can help sell you to them if you offer them a job.

How to stand out in a sea of competitors

Part of building the right team for your retail business is providing customer service that becomes legendary. Three of the most talked-about businesses for customer experience are Disney, Nordstrom and Zappos.

Disney does not hire employees; it hires "cast members." You may have heard or read about those who work at Disney theme parks being "assertively friendly." It's an over-the-top expression that may raise an eyebrow or two. An example of this is not waiting for a customer to approach with questions, but anticipating their needs and providing them. Disney cast members are keenly aware of what is going on around them, so when a couple wants their photo taken outside a storefront or near a ride, a cast member will offer to take it for them before being asked.

Nordstrom is also well-known for treating customers like royalty. Customers rarely have to look for a sales rep to help them find a particular size or style they need, and the sales representative turns into a personal shopper. One of the biggest complaints customers have is standing in long lines to pay for purchases. Nordstrom answers that by empowering their employees to check customers out once they're ready – no waiting in lines or hunting for a checkout counter. If a customer is looking for a product that Nordstrom doesn't sell, they aren't just turned away – a good sales rep at Nordstrom helps them find that product and secure it, regardless of whether the store carries it.

Zappos is an online shoe store that is famous for putting the customer first. This people-centric plan has resulted in high-profile customer satisfaction stories. In 2011, a best man in a wedding ordered the shoes the groom picked out from He paid for three-day shipping, but after a few snafus with the delivery service, he wasn't able to get them before his flight. He called Zappos and explained the issue. The customer service representative offered a better solution than getting the package from the delivery service's destination warehouse. She offered to send him the same shoes overnight to his destination and simply have the other package rerouted back to Zappos. All of this was done at no extra charge. The rep didn't stop there, though. She also upgraded the best man's account to VIP status, which granted him free overnight shipping on all other orders, and she refunded him the money for the shoes. It was one customer, but he is now a self-proclaimed customer of Zappos for life, and the story lives on as an example of what Zappos is all about: excellent customer service.

From greeting customers or guests by name to sending handwritten thank-you notes, Disney and Nordstrom do it best – and the businesses aren't simply surviving, they're thriving. Disney reported a 12 percent increase in net income for its fourth quarter at the end of its fiscal year in 2016. Nordstrom had only a slight increase in sales in 2016 from 2015, from $14.44 billion to $14.76 billion. Compare that with 2013's report, though, and the company is doing quite well. In 2013, it made $12.15 billion in sales. Technically, Zappos is owned by Amazon, and we all know how that company is doing – $135,987,000 at the end of 2016, up from $107,006,000 in 2015.

The big takeaway here is that customer experience is paramount to gaining and retaining customers. Whether you have a happy customer or an unhappy customer, they will talk. Which customer would you rather have talking about your business?

The road to retention

Although this is a hiring guide, it's important to note that part of hiring the right people for your team means understanding their motivations and giving each person what they need to remain loyal to your brand and business. After all, just as it's more cost-effective – in time and money – to retain a customer, so is retaining an employee.


Aside from insurance, sick leave and vacation time, employees are looking for other benefits, such as incentives, flexible schedules and even profit sharing. All of these benefits make you look better than the next guy, and if an employee can earn more over time, you're likely to keep them with you longer.


In addition to an incentive program, do you offer discounts on your merchandise to employees? Can employees extend that discount offer to family members? If you're operating a small business, you likely can't afford to build a gym extension onto your retail store, but you could offer an employee discount to a local gym.

Feel free to get creative with your ideas. The top sales rep for the month gets an extra day off the following month, or a gift card bonus – in addition to other bonuses or commissions. Perhaps a spa day? Find out what your employees want, and then deliver!

Path to promotions

Depending on the size of your business, there may be plenty of room for growth. If so, make it clear to employees how they can get there. Provide clear paths, and help them achieve their goals. Matt Parmaks relayed his story of how he started in retail as a sales representative making $7 an hour and worked his way up to national sales manager, making a six-figure salary. Everyone loves a success story – now imagine that success story is linked to your business!

The bottom line: Retail details

The truth is, you don't hire the right team – you make the right team for your retail business. Employees aren't going to come gift-wrapped and ready to go straight out of the interview. You must devote time and money to shaping each individual on your retail team yourself. The effort is well worth it in the long run.

Aside from selling your products, you want to find an employee who understand the importance of the customer experience – whether you sell in a brick-and-mortar retail shop, online, or using a hybrid of the two. An enthusiastic, well-trained team is going to reap rewards for itself and your brand. You'll get the staff you want and need, your customers will get the service they expect, and you'll have a powerful team of brand ambassadors who want to see you and your business succeed – all because you give them the tools to succeed themselves.

Image Credit: Image from Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock
Amy Nichol Smith
Amy Nichol Smith Contributing Writer
Amy Nichol Smith is a freelance writer who covers business, technology, food, sports, pop culture, and much more. She's a former features reporter and editor for The Monitor newspaper and has a love of football and video games.