Retail assistant as a career choice? What would you say if a friend asked you?
If your answer is no, you are one of the many whom Terence Yow, the boss of Enviably Me, the Singapore distributor of popular female shoe brand Melissa, is trying to convince otherwise.
“Even before the online craze, the retail industry suffered from an image problem. People do not consider a job as a shop assistant as aspirational. It was a job that people took out of desperation. It was a job that society in general looked down upon, that parents do not feel proud of if their kids said they wanted to pursue it as a career, even till today. We were up against that kind of cultural, institutional biases,” said Terence.
This negative impression affected the quality of workers that joined the industry. According to Terence, it was difficult to push new staff to improve themselves and do better when he first started the business as they were not motivated.
For employers suffering from similar manpower woes, Terence shared these five tips from his past experiences.
- Persist Against all Odds
Experiencing a 200 per cent turnover during its first year in 2009, Enviably Me fought a tough battle against crippling staff retention rates.
Determined to turn the tables, Terence steadily brought the attrition levels down – 100 per cent in the second year, under 30 per cent in the third, and less than 10 per cent from the fourth year onwards. According to Terence, the industry average is around 30 to 50 per cent currently.
Enviably Me has 50 employees at the moment, with 15 in headquarters and 35 at the frontline.
“After a long time, you will finally get one good staff. But, when you keep improving your job environment, such employees will multiply and you will form your core team who will infect others with their positivity and bring in friends that are just as good. Only then, we can get serious about training and career development,” explained Terence.
Terence currently owns two Melissa retail outlets at Wheelock Place and Raffles City. Knowing that the business has to grow too, and for the company to have the capacity to invest in people, Terence branched out to more shoe brands such as Emu Australia and Addicts Anonymous last year.
Now the question is, how did he manage to accomplish all of the above?
- Relook Staff Recruitment and Welfare
Employers should review their onboarding process holistically, said Terence. It starts from the positioning of job advertisements and staff benefits to teambuilding activities and recognition programmes.
Enviably Me made a concerted effort to adjust its scheduling and offer its staff a five-day work week at a time when it was less common. The company also evaluates its incentive schemes to ensure they fairly compensate results and are transparent.
Once a month, all the staff gather at the main office to interact with one another and enjoy a good meal catered by the company.
- Policies that Breed Teamwork
Unlike other retailers, Enviably Me does not subscribe to personal incentive schemes that reward those who make more sales. Describing the method as destructive and negative, Terence said the company had shifted into a group-based incentive scheme very early on, where everyone got to benefit once overall targets were met.
Rather than competing against one another, staff have been more willing to help their colleagues and refer customers to other stores under the company. This has led to better customer experience as well.
To cultivate greater harmony, Enviably Me also rewards best-performing staff for value-driven qualities, such as teamwork, on its annual staff day.
- Support Alternative Career Pathways
According to Terence, retail workers need to be managed differently. Contrary to popular belief, most of the retail staff do not aspire to rise up the ranks and take on leadership roles as they entail heavier responsibilities.
To address that, he developed a career pathway that steers away from the traditional executive-to-manager progression track.
The pathway, which comprises roles such as team leader and lead stylist, grooms leaders in baby steps and helps employees find their specialisations. Moving forward, he is exploring more skills-based roles in customer service and shoe care.
Staff who assume such positions can take time to build up self-confidence while gaining recognition and progressing financially.
Terence added that it is important for employers to stay open to hiring fresh graduates and requests for cross-departmental transfers. By investing in training, he has developed several employees who had little domain knowledge into skilled workers.
Enviably Me has an in-house dashboard that maps out training needs for the year. Selected employees are fully-sponsored for courses and part-time diplomas.
The company is one of last year’s winners of the SkillsFuture Employer Awards, which is newly-split into two categories – Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and non-SMEs – this year.
- Walk the Talk
Terence pointed out: “Treat people well – it’s the easiest thing to say and hardest thing to do. How many employers are able to have that mindset? A lot of them are too worried about business survival and other problems. They view staff as just assets but forget that they are also human.”
He also observed another common mistake made by employers – outsourcing their human resource (HR) planning to a consultant.
“They think that just by appointing or hiring someone, all their organisation problems will be solved. With all due respect, that’s the wrong approach, you have to do it, they work for you. As business owners, we must be responsible. Your HR manager will take direction from you, too.”