By Jack Kazmierski
We think of them as the men and women who walk around uttering "May I help you?" countless times, and who come around when we're trying on clothing with "How are you doing in there?" or "Is everything alright?" But what's a career in retail really like?
For close to a decade, Cindy Janus has been working in retail for well-known national chains like Gap and Club Monaco. She started at the bottom and has steadily climbed the ladder to a position in management.
Janus has a love/hate relationship with her job. "I love my job because it's different every day. You meet new people, and you're always moving," she says. "However, the hours suck. You have to be available to work days, evenings and weekends -- it's mandatory in this job."
As with many retailers, experience counts as much as education when hiring personnel. In some cases, it even pays for the education. (Photo, La Senza)
Vibrant and energetic with a positive attitude, Janus is a true 'people person,' quick on her feet, able and willing to learn fast.
"Introverts and people who are very quiet and shy don't flourish in this business," she says, "only because you have to want to talk to people to be successful."
Besides personality, retail employees must also possess a need for speed.
"It could be that someone has a fantastic, bubbly personality, but on the job they work at a snail's pace," she says. "You have to work fast in retail, because once the customer leaves your store, you've lost the opportunity to make a sale."
Retail attracts a broad demographic. Younger people go into retail for part-time work and usually work in junior positions. More mature individuals usually occupy management positions, but they have to pay their dues before getting there.
"At the store level you can be hired to work as a stock person, a cashier or a sales associate," Janus says. "To get into management, you have to work the sales floor. You have to perfect that aspect of the business. Then you can advance from sales associate to assistant manager, then to a co-management position, then to manager. After that would be district manager." With each step up the ladder comes a raise in pay (see side bar).
No matter where you are on your retail career path, if you're good at what you do, expect to be approached by the competition. This is known in the industry as recruiting.
"Every retailer wants the best of the best, so we recruit everyone from sales associates to district managers," Janus says. "It's something that goes on all the time."
Janus goes from store to store posing as a shopper while observing the staff. If she sees someone doing an exceptional job, she'll get that person's name, and phone him or her later to see if they'd be interested in working at her store.
"We offer them a bit more money than they're making with their present employer," Janus says. "It's the best way to get a raise. Generally they'll pay you whatever you're asking, but within reason -- a couple of dollars more per hour for sales associates, and at least $5,000 more per year at the management level. Everyone makes a bit more money when they jump ship."
If you're thinking about a career in retail but are afraid that you don't have the education, Janus offers hope.
"Retail is not about education so much. If you have any kind of business or retail management courses under your belt, that's fantastic, but even so, it's all about experience and performance. Whether you went to school or not, a lot of stuff in retail can be taught, so we're looking more for experience rather than education."
Anne Pitts, senior vice-president of operations, La Senza Inc., agrees. "Depending on what the position is that we want to fill, we can take someone without a college or university education, put them into a part-time position and we will mould that person. I think that's one of the most beautiful things about retail -- you can prove yourself in this industry; you do not have wait to have the qualifications to move forward."
In some cases, La Senza also pays for its employees' education. "Anybody can apply for any courses they want to take that will advance their career," Pitts says, "and if we approve it, we do pay for the course."
When looking for a store to work at, choose a retailer that carries a product you believe in. If you don't believe in the product it will be hard for you to sell it. Keep in mind that you'll likely be required to buy (at an average discount of 50%) and wear your employer's clothing while on the job.
"People don't usually mind," Janus says. "Part-timers still in school are interested in making a bit of cash, but they're also looking for a discount on the clothes because they like the clothes."
Also, look for a company that believes in the quality of life of their employees.
"Although the hours in retail are demanding, some retailers understand better than others that employees who are allowed to have a life and spend time with family make better workers," Janus says. "A lot of retailers don't get it and are like slave drivers."
How can you tell which retailers offer better working conditions?
"It's hard to tell, because every retailer sugarcoats themselves," Janus says. "You learn from experience or ask someone who works there. You can also talk to the people at the information booth at the mall. They'll be able to tell you which retailers are a good pick."
But keep in mind that a career in retail encompasses more than what the average consumer sees happening at the store level. At the head office, opportunities exist in IT, finance, marketing, public relations, event management, human resources and more.
"I think retail often gets a bad rap as far as career opportunities go, but I think it's quite the reverse," Pitts says. "It opens the door to a lot of different opportunities -- opportunities that go way beyond part-time sales."
Income, Commissions and Bonuses
In Ontario, the average sales associate starts at around $7.50 an hour, and contrary to popular belief, doesn't make anything extra if he or she convinces you to buy.
"There's no commission," Janus says. "Ninety per cent of the retail environment is commission-free, but every sales person has a quota."
"We start our salespeople just above the minimum wage," Pitts says. "It varies by province and by city sometimes, depending on the cost of living."
As you climb the corporate ladder, with every level comes an increase in pay. However, if you stay in the same position, you also have an opportunity to get a raise after your yearly review.
On average, general managers make between $45,000 and $50,000. Again, no commission is paid, per se, but they benefit from a bonus program based on store sales.
A district manager, responsible for stores in a given geographic area, makes $60,000 and up, and also gets extra perks including a car allowance, since he or she has to travel from store to store. A bonus based on sales figures of the stores under the district manager is also paid out.
La Senza says everyone, including salespeople, benefits from its bonus program.
(Jack Kazmierski (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.)
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