Summer 2007
You’re Hired!

Coffee and the Works

Coffee and the Works started 25 years ago as a coffee and kitchenware shop in Washington, D.C. The 450-square-foot shop is crammed from floor to ceiling with owner Michelle Camden's eclectic mix of merchandise.

Camden's product mix includes offbeat stemware for every type of drink, ceramic bowls, giftware, many types of exotic coffee beans and bulk teas, spices, chocolates, candies, candles, dinnerware, baking dishes, and a huge wall hung with kitchen gadgets and implements.

Camden says her salespeople are her biggest assets. Through the years she has hired "attractive, nice, warm, very personable and friendly young people." Often they are college students, mostly women who are sharp, eager, enthusiastic, intelligent and conscientious, and who live in the neighborhood and were customers already. Camden never has a moment's worry about them when she isn't in the shop, which is several days a week. She trusts them implicitly. Her employees, Camden says, are one of the secrets of Coffee and the Works' success.

As a gift shop owner, you know one aspect of the business cannot be overemphasized: stellar customer service. Success and longevity depend on making your customers feel that your shop is the best place in town to buy whatever niche items you sell, and on turning the majority of first-time customers into repeat buyers. Customer service doesn’t begin and end with you. While you are away, your employees carry forward your store’s image and your principles of sound customer service. Hiring the right personnel is one of the most vital aspects of gift retail management.

Beginning to look

There are specialized training courses in almost every aspect of retailing, including hiring and training personnel. You will find evening courses or weekend seminars at local colleges, through counseling organized by the Small Business Administration and chambers of commerce, and some by checking retail trade organizations on the Internet. In addition to learning about hiring employees, you will learn about their legal rights and yours, tax-reporting requirements, and what types of insurance you need to cover accidents, worker’s compensation, et cetera. Being knowledgeable about the legal aspects of hiring will give you confidence to hire the right people, whether they are full-time or part-time employees.

Whom to look for

The right salesperson must reflect your overall business attitude. She or he must always be enthusiastic and perhaps even excited by the merchandise, caring, helpful, resourceful, and knowledgeable about stock. In time, such employees become part of a loyal family and treat each other with warmth and respect. Your employees, in short, should know that they are caretakers of your business reputation.

If you are new to the business, it may take a little time—and some trial and error—before you recognize good personnel and put together a loyal and caring staff. After all is said and done, hiring good salespeople will involve trusting your own instincts as much as anything else.

Where to look

Be wary of veteran salespeople, who just might be too jaded by the time they reach your hiring desk. Make sure they retain the enthusiasm for selling that they once possessed. A great place to look for hires is right within your customer base. How many times have you had customers come up to you and say they wished they could work in your shop, instead of where they were working? Or they might need to work only when their children are in school or over weekends. These are marvelous candidates because they will appreciate your hiring flexibility and have the potential to become loyal employees.

Be on the lookout for people who can attract their friends as customers. A young mother who knows several others and, with her enthusiasm, can be a live advertisement for the shop, is an invaluable hire for the word-of-mouth business she can attract. Also, keep your eyes open in the places you frequent. A waitress or a secretary at a law firm just might need a change from the type of work she is doing, or a change of venue. Such candidates can become enthusiastic salespeople, handling merchandise they enjoy and indulging in conversations with customers who are different from those they had dealt with in their former jobs.

What to look for

A star employee can increase the number of customers as well as the number of purchases. And even if that employee leaves, the customer is already hooked and will remain faithful to the shop.

Characteristics to look for during an interview include:

  • An enthusiastic nature
  • A positive attitude
  • A smiling countenance
  • A creative bent
  • A helpful and alert attitude

A helpful attitude is the foundation —the core—of good salesmanship. Some employees are just order takers; they stand at the checkout counter waiting for the merchandise to be brought to them for payment and wrapping. Salespeople with this attitude are nothing more than “shop sitters,” and what owner can afford such a costly indulgence?

Then there is the salesperson who approaches a customer and engages in conversation to find out as much as possible about that customer’s likes and dislikes. It also gives the salesperson a chance to perhaps show the customer an item or two. A good salesperson also knows when to leave the customer alone to browse after making sure the customer knows he or she is available to answer any question.

Good salespeople know one of the important aspects of making a sale: add-on sales through the power of suggestion. Politely pointing out items that will match or coordinate with a purchase is a technique some salespeople come up with instinctively. This method can also be taught by good training.

You’ve made the hire. Now what?

Once you have hired a new employee, it is incumbent upon you, the owner, to conduct a training session in which you explain all sales techniques in detail. Clearly state all expectations you have of the employee. Do not take for granted that he or she knows something. Make sure the employee knows the necessity of handling a phone inquiry well. The person answering the phone should convey warmth, enthusiasm, accuracy and helpfulness.

The best time for a training session is probably before the shop opens, when you can offer coffee and a Danish and encourage employees to let their hair down. Surprising ideas and suggestions can emerge from such a session if there is adequate give-and-take.

Training sessions need to include the subject of downtime, when business is a little slow. During downtime, personnel should attend to day-to-day housekeeping chores. They should be willing to dust shelves, clean glass items — especially important in gift shops to keep the shop looking attractive.

Other responsibilities may include: changing one or two interior displays a day; looking through customer requests, the guest book or registries (such as bridal, baby, shower, engagement or housewarming registries) to see what needs to be followed up. Following up on requests is a sure way to make and keep customers.

One training session is a must. It should be followed by a refresher session later on. A salesperson is sure not to remember everything you say on their first day, so plan a follow-up. It would behoove you to make notes of everything you want to talk about or to teach the person, so that you can hopefully use it for your next new employee as your business expands.

Once you have the right employee, make sure you treasure him or her. Trained and skilled employees are invaluable resources to every gift shop, and can make all the difference in yours.

Adapted from The Specialty Shop: How to Create Your Own Unique and Profitable Retail Business by Dorothy Finell. Copyright

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