When Wegmans Food Markets recently announced it was hiring to staff a new store in Collegeville, Pa., which will open in October, the company received more than 2,500 applications for 150 full-time and 400 part-time positions, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The report added that the company's new location in Fredericksburg, Va., last year received 5,000 applications for a similar number of openings.
Through generous pay and benefits, as well as perks including scholarship programs, Wegmans has cultivated an enviable reputation as a great employer, becoming a top 10 regular on Fortune Magazine's annual list of the 100 best companies to work for in America. So, the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer has long been accustomed to having its pick of top-notch employees from a competitive field of applicants.
Still, 5,000 applications for a single new supermarket is a pretty eye-popping number. With the country facing a harsh economic climate and rising unemployment, most grocers looking to fill open positions or staff new stores are probably enjoying access to much larger pools of well-qualified applicants than they have seen in quite a while.
And, meanwhile, food has become a hot topic. Today's high school kids and recent college grads have grown up during a decade when the Food Network became a popular mainstream entertainment outlet and sustainable agriculture became a widespread activist cause.
So, food is cool, a lot of people are looking for work and food retail is a recession-resistant industry. There's a rare opportunity here that supermarkets could really capitalize on for their service departments. But, as a couple of leading retail human resources experts pointed out, most supermarkets still need to work on aspects of their training programs in order to retain their most promising hires once the economy begins to turn around.
“A friend of mine just opened a new store, and said it was a piece of cake recruiting. I haven't heard that in years,” noted author and consultant Harold Lloyd, president of Virginia Beach, Va.-based Harold Lloyd Presents. “We are going to get people who never thought of being in a supermarket, because they're desperate to pay bills. So, now they'll come work for us. Now the challenge for us, once we get them in the door, is to try to make it look like we're a professional business.”
Lloyd, a former retailer and restaurant owner, said the industry has allowed itself to become something of a punchline, partly by setting very low expectations for new hires, and failing to train them sufficiently.
“It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, we figure, they're not going to be here that long, don't invest so much time and money in them,” he said. “And when you don't, they won't stay there very long. We have an inferiority complex, and we just don't dedicate the time and money — on average. The old adage is, if you don't pay to train them, you'll pay for it anyway. If you train them and they quit, that's too bad, but what happens if you don't train them and then they stay?”
Broadly speaking, retail has also earned a bad reputation through the active and outspoken lobbying efforts of many retail industries against minimum wage hikes, noted Mel Kleiman, founder of human resources consultancy Humetrics and Kleiman HRExchange, who will speak about hiring and retention at the Food Marketing Institute's FutureConnect event this week.
“What is the message that sends to the entire world? We don't pay well, don't come work here,” he said. “Retailers have proven over and over again that they may talk about being an employer of choice, but they will never become an employer of choice in most cases. In reality, individual companies can become employers of choice, but as a whole, the grocery industry or any service industry will never make it there.”
But it really isn't just about money for most employees. For most employees, job satisfaction boils down to four different factors, Kleiman said. People want bosses and co-workers that they get along with; they want interesting work; they want growth opportunities; and they want a balance between their work and their life.
The first two should be relatively easy for non-union supermarkets to arrange. Do store managers have a history of healthy, productive relationships with their associates? If not, could it be a problem with management, and not with employees? And are there cross-training efforts in place, or can employees request department transfers that would allow them to explore different departments of the store, so that they, along with management, can find the job where they fit best?
Also, while scheduling employee hours is always a challenge, the round-the-clock hours that have become common in supermarkets allow grocers a lot more flexibility to help their employees strike that work/life balance than managers in many other types of retail environments.
So, that leaves “growth opportunities,” arguably where you see the biggest gaps between leading companies and the rest of the industry.
“Great companies have a series of sequential steps that you take in order to become a tradesman or a journeyman,” said Lloyd. “It's not a job, it's a trade. If we treat them like they're signing on to become tradesmen, then we're not going to leave them alone after 8 hours of training.
“How do you go from never driving a car to driving a 4,000-pound vehicle 60 miles an hour in a month? There are steps you have to take. First you read about it, then you ride with somebody, then you drive and they're riding, then you go daytime only, then daytime and nighttime, and eventually, you're a skilled driver. You just don't go from not knowing where the gearshift is to driving down the highway 60 miles per hour. But that's what we do to people. And they crash and burn and quit and tell their friends, ‘Don't work retail.’”
The supermarket industry, as a whole, averages about 8 hours of hands-on training per new employee, Lloyd said. But the best chains average about 20. And each of the four supermarket chains that landed on this year's Fortune list of the 100 best companies to work for emphasizes ongoing employee training. Wegmans and Stew Leonard's each average about 50 hours per year of training for part- and full-time employees, while Whole Foods Markets and Publix Super Markets each average 60 hours per year.
“We should look at those chains and say, ‘Maybe I can't afford 40 hours of training before they go live solo, but can I do better than 8?’” Lloyd said.
And while hands-on training is ideal for employees who are just starting out on the job, training modules designed to boost the knowledge of more experienced employees are becoming increasingly common on the Internet, particularly for service departments. Similarly, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, for example, has produced its “Beef Training Camp” series.
The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association has an extensive series of downloadable, on-the-job training guides, as well as informative podcasts on food trends, merchandising and operations for department managers, and on topics ranging from cheese and beverage pairings to whole grains and upscale cakes for associate level staff. And several commodity boards, such as the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, host educational videos on their site that both consumers and dairy or cheese department associates would find entertaining and enlightening.
Lloyd and Kleiman said that these types of free tools could be used as part of a department's training program or even, Lloyd suggested, an internal certification program that would reward employees with a special certification or rank upon completing the training regimen.
“If you're a store manager and you have no budget, does it matter?” said Kleiman, noting that managers must still find ways to challenge employees and ensure that they are well placed within an organization. “Motivation is giving people things they like to do and letting them do it.”
For the past 20 years, Riesbeck's Food Markets, St. Clairsville, Ohio, has helped employees interested in learning a trade by offering them the opportunity to train as an apprentice butcher, where they spend 6 months to a year training with experienced butchers to learn different cuts, along with merchandising fundamentals.
“If you're willing to put forth the work, you have the chance to better yourself and you can learn a trade,” Phil Cappella, a Riesbeck's meat department manager who completed the program 10 years ago, said in the company's latest newsletter. As SN reported last year, Riesbeck's recently launched a similar apprenticeship program for its bakery departments.
Many leading retailers also make special efforts to get their top associates out of the store to study their profession. Some chains like Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, send associates and managers as far away as Europe to take special classes, meet growers and importers, or observe artisan producers at work.
“They take them to Italy to see olive oil being pressed,” said Lloyd. “Who needs that? Well, those employees are going to talk about that trip for three months after they get back, and whenever any customer asks about olive oil after that, they're going to hear them say, ‘Let me tell you about the differences in olive oil, because I saw it happen.’”
But employees don't require a trip to Europe to get more excited about food. For example, as SN reported a year ago, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., enjoyed a lot of success taking staffers on a tour of artisan cheese producers arranged by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. And many produce departments have begun organizing tours of local farms, to help associates cultivate relationships with local growers.
Store managers who lack the budget to allow even a short field trip like that should consider nominating their top department managers or associates for some of the many competitive award or scholarship programs that pay for travel and expenses to industry trade shows.
Or, better yet, petition to make trade shows and related industry events more of a priority for your company. As Lloyd noted, retailers should regularly consider sending their top two or three store-level department managers to relevant trade shows each year to keep them on top of major trends.
“We say our employees are our greatest asset, but then we don't send them to the top conferences in their field once a year to see what the world is doing? The [low] number of department managers at IDDBA and store managers at FMI is appalling,” he said.
“You have to continue giving people challenges,” Lloyd added, noting that when he was running a 14-unit retail operation, he made it a priority to send his top employees to conferences. “Employees will stay with you, even for less money, if given a culture of growth and recognition.”