Finding skilled workers has edged out access to capital as the top small-business challenge in several recent surveys. Now the retail industry is doing something about it, and every consumer who waits patiently while an unskilled clerk attempts to ring up a sale can rejoice.
The nation’s first “retail skills center” is opening in April at the mall in King of Prussia, near Philadelphia. The National Retail Federation is partnering with American Express, Kravco (the mall developer) and the state of Pennsylvania to sponsor the hands-on training program.
“I’ve heard from employers time and time again that they can’t find workers with the skills to succeed,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge told members of the National Retail Federation meeting here recently. “This unique partnership helps to ensure that this is not the case in King of Prussia. And for those desiring the skills to go to work, the program lends them that helping hand.”
Entry-level employees will be taught the basics of dealing with customers and how to make a sale, among other things. Retail federation leaders said the center is designed to help small retailers, whose training resources are typically limited and who often hire the greenest, lowest-paid workers. If the center is successful, it could serve as a nationwide model.
News of the training center was just one topic discussed by the thousands of small, independent retailers who were among the 15,000 attending the trade group’s annual gathering. In workshops and in the exhibit hall, the smaller retailers grappled with how to compete with the giant discount stores invading their cities and towns.
Participants emphasized the need for retailers to join forces and partner with one another to survive - and thrive - in the current competitive market.
But working together isn’t easy, according to James Baum, owner of Baum’s, a small dry goods and clothing store in Morris, Ill. In fact, he said, trying to get independent retailers to work together is a lot like organizing a “cat parade.”
“They don’t call them independent for nothing,” he said.
Baum said that 10 years ago he didn’t feel the need to join a group like the retail federation or speak to his neighboring store owners. Now he does. Baum said he realized the retail landscape was changing and that he had to look beyond the four walls of his store for answers.
“I’d lost sight of the larger picture and how I could fit into it,” he said.
Today Baum is a member of national and local retailing groups, travels widely to visit other stores and attends seminars on technology of interest to store owners.
“Getting out helped me redefine the focus of what I was offering to my customers,” he said.
Getting closer to the customer is also key to boosting sales. Martha Morgan, owner of Morgan’s in Wilmington, Del., was broadsided when she found out May’s Department Stores was closing two of its downtown Wilmington stores last February. That meant steep discounts on winter merchandise and direct competition for her small, upscale women’s apparel shop.
Morgan’s competitive strategy was twofold: She discounted her winter clothing before Christmas to beat May’s sales. Then, in the midst of a brutal winter, she filled her store with fresh flowers and her windows and racks with colorful spring fashions.
She also reached out to the community by organizing a used clothing drive for the local YWCA.
“I encouraged my customers to clean out their closets and make a donation,” she said. In return, they received a tax deduction and gift certificates for her merchandise.
“With tax deduction receipts in one hand and my gift certificates in the other, customers felt justified in coming in to shop for their spring wardrobe,” she said.
The marketing ploy boosted sales, and she not only survived but flourished during the going-out-of-business sales.
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