LIVE FROM NRF: Retail Execs Discuss New Recruitment, Retention Tactics


While in the past, striving to hire the right retail talent has been seen as something limited to higher-up offices on the totem pole, today it stretches across all levels, from c-level down to the store floor. To succeed today, grocers need to make sure they're examining their hiring and training at all position levels.

That was the central message delivered by Bill Brand, president of Home Shopping Network parent HSN Inc., who moderated “Building Tomorrow's Workforce: How Retailers Are Attracting and Retaining Talent,” a Jan. 15 keynote panel discussion at the National Retail Federation's 2017 “Retail's Big Show.” Also on the panel were Greg Foran, president and CEO of Walmart U.S.; Terry Lundgren, chairman and CEO of Macy's Inc.; and James Rhee, executive chairman and CEO of apparel retailer Ashley Stewart.

“We must change how we approach talent development,” Brand said, noting that today, technology is fundamentally altering the way we consume, organize and work, not only in retail, but also in every economic sector. With retail anticipated to change more over the next five years than it has during the previous 50, it's more important than ever to recruit people with nontraditional backgrounds who never even thought retail was “for them,” while also not losing sight of the fundamental skills needed to succeed in the industry.

Walmart’s Foran: ‘We're only as good as that last transaction’

Training is a huge focus for many of the larger retailers in today's market. For instance, of its five points of critical employee investment, Walmart focuses on training with two. As examples, Foran pointed to Walmart's Pathways, an entry-level program rolling out nationwide that gives new or existing associates base business skills, and Academies, a managerial-level institute that uses 200 Walmart locations as training facilities, which 140,000 department managers will attend this year.

And the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer doesn't simply seek to bring people on and only train them, but also retain them – it wants to address turnover not at just the store manager level, but also floor-level associates. Paying the right amount is one way of doing this, as the retailer is investing $2.7 billion over two years and examining what it does with department and assistant managers. And providing the tools and mobile devices needed for them to complete their jobs quickly also is a strategy, as is distilling the complexity of the various duties in an omnichannel business into simplicity for the sake of training.

While such focus on training and equipping can seem daunting for a retailer with hundreds or thousands of stores, Foran says he starts small.

“I only ever think about it a store at a time,” he said. “And I know that if we get one store right, chances are we'll be able to get 10 right; we'll be able to get 100 right. And that's the way that we focus on the business. … We're only as good as that last transaction. Therefore, you're totally reliant on your associates.”

For Cincinnati-based Macy's, training is essential even to employees already considered experts in their roles. The company has already been focused strongly on attracting great talent dedicated to technology – particularly women, which has made it a top company for promoting female technologists. But it continues to encourage education: Over the past year, it has trained 600 of its technologists to focus on everything from website development to when and how it is best to use cloud technology for measuring peak-period demand. It also created its Leadership Institute, which helps mid-management associates continue training for even more-developed leadership skills.

Macy’s Seeks STEM Candidates

But considering that the retail industry is not top of mind for STEM students, it can be difficult to recruit for this field. Addressing this, Lundgren pointed to the benefits of retailers coming to the students: Macy's has selected a small number of universities where it spends its time on campus, believing that if it can capture the interest of even the top 10 percent of students, then it has done well. True, retail fundamentals are still the drivers, as Brand said. But as Lundgren added, you also need to balance the skill of merchandising with technology, distribution and all other tools needed today.

Training and technology aside, though, great talent can often be best attracted and retained through creating a sense of community. This is the case with Rhee, who reinvigorated Ashley Stewart, a women's apparel chain focused on urban communities that is known for its deep connections with and hiring from local communities. What made him fall in love with the brand was that it had nothing to do with clothes – at its best, Ashley Stewart was about respect, community and empowering women. He knew that these are traits that, when instilled in them, make great associates.

Although it was tough to do, Rhee convinced team members that they had loyalty and a strong sense of friendship with the community and among each other – things money can't buy.

“And for the last three years, it was about taking that ember of loyalty, and I restarted a business from scratch,” he added.

While Rhee had several jobs in his career, including teaching high school, he admits that his time in private equity did help restart the company, which is now a venture business. But it wasn't the foundation.

“The culture is rooted in being a high school teacher,” he stressed. 

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