Demographic, economic and cultural shifts are permanently altering the profile of the retail work force. Among the primary shifts affecting retailers are the aging of the population and the continued number of women joining the labor pool.

Retailers have traditionally relied on two segments of the population for an ongoing supply of their store-level work force–young adults and female homemakers.

The influence of the baby-boomer generation on all aspects of our economy and our culture has been widely documented. The boomers, the single largest and most influential segment of the population, are entering midlife.

Currently, adults aged 45+ account for 34% of the U.S. population, a figure that is expected to swell to over 40% by the year 2015 and adults 55+ are projected to account for close to one-third of all Americans.

As a result, the proportion of the population under 30, those young adults that retailers have relied on, particularly for seasonal and part-time positions, are in short supply.

In addition, the women’s labor force is growing at a faster pace than men’s (17% vs. 9%), a trend that is expected to continue. By the year 2000 it is estimated that greater than 30% of all households will be headed by single parents and 50% of all households will be dual-income homes.

This does not necessarily bode well for retailers since many women entering the labor force are opting for higher-skilled, higher-paying occupations that frequently offer working conditions and/or schedules considered to be more attractive than those offered at store level.

Recruiting Tactics for the New Age

The changing environment in which retailers must now recruit store employees calls for changing strategies in recruiting and retaining quality store associates. The days of filling the store staff with walk-in applicants or even referrals from existing employees are largely in the past.

In order to attract high-quality candidates in the increasingly competitive environment, progressive retailers are focusing on identifying individuals who possess characteristics that are desirable to the retailer and for whom the retailer is the employer of choice.

The desirable characteristics of the store associate vary from one retailer to another and, therefore, so do the recruiting tactics.

In many cases what makes the retailer the employer of choice for the prospective employee is the nature of the merchandise. Specialty retailers are at an advantage since the merchandise offer is, by definition, specialized. By seeking out individuals who are enthusiasts (and consumers) of the merchandise sold in the store, the retailer greatly increases the chances that the employee will be knowledgeable and take pride in his or her work and the overall operation of the store.

At Borders Books and Music, almost all employees are avid readers and/or frequently listen to music. Moreover, the associate in any given area of the store–say Science Fiction or Children’s or American History–is probably an enthusiast of that subject and he or she is likely to have read many of the titles on hand. Other employers known for seeking out enthusiasts include The Home Depot and Best Buy.

At Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), the largest consumer cooperative with 1.5 million members and 49 stores in 21 states, the motto is to live what you sell. Sales associates at REI are outdoor enthusiasts and product experts who consider it their mission to not only educate customers, but to also serve as a resource for buying staff who often consult associates on their use of certain products. The emphasis on outdoor pursuits is evident in the interviewing process where recruits are often questioned about specifics such as the type of tent or fishing pole they use.

The implications for superior customer service are obvious. Other benefits of employing the enthusiast are that job satisfaction goes up and turnover decreases since employees are able to integrate their personal interests and passions into their work lives.

Providing Opportunities

Another tactic used by some retailers is providing opportunities to individuals who may lack the requisite entry-level qualifications. In the past, there have been many programs, typically sponsored by state and local governments, to provide incentives to companies that employ disadvantaged classes of individuals.

The difference this time is the motivation behind retailers’ involvement in such programs. Past participation was primarily driven by the short-term financial advantages afforded participants–typically tax credits or subsidized wages for qualified associates and the commensurate reduction in store operating costs.

Today, however, as previously emphasized, retailers face a critical shortage of qualified applicants. By participating in programs such as the Welfare to Work Partnership or other similar initiatives, retailers have an opportunity to attract an employee, who, given appropriate training, can potentially remain a competent, loyal store associate for many years.

Wal-Mart and Sam’s Clubs are among the retailers involved in such programs. Wal-Mart has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to participate in welfare-to-work programs as a key element of providing staffing for its stores and clubs. Wal-Mart works with state welfare and employment agencies to find welfare recipients. Once hired, associates at Wal-Mart are encouraged to obtain a GED and are reimbursed for expenses incurred.

TJX Cos., whose subsidiaries include T.J. Maxx and Marshalls off-price apparel stores, is also a participant in the Welfare to Work program, having hired approximately 3,000 people within the past year and a half. According to Sherry Lang, TJX’s investor relations director, given the success of the program, TJX has pledged to increase that number to 5,000 people by the year 2000.

Chain drug store industry leader Walgreens has hired people on welfare as part of its normal hiring routine for a number of years. As an active participant in “Earnfare,” a subsidized volunteer program administered by the Illinois Department of Public Aid, Walgreens provides food stamp recipients with work skills necessary to find unsubsidized jobs. Volunteers are required to work 80 hours a month for six months to maintain eligibility and, although participants are not paid an hourly wage, they can earn up to $231 per month. While this is not enough to allow participants to live above the poverty level, they do gain job experience. Additionally, of the 100 or so annual participants, Walgreens recruits some as permanent hires. According to Jim Schultz, Walgreens’ director of performance development, these hires typically have a higher-than-average retention rate.

An Unconventional Approach

In addition to contending with a tight labor market, many retailers also fight an ongoing battle with chronic absenteeism. This can be particularly problematic for smaller stores which may have minimum coverage levels, where even one missing person means the store won’t function properly that day.

An innovative solution is being tested through an alliance formed by Simon DeBartolo Group and the Olsten Corp. As part of the test, Olsten is establishing in-the-mall employment service centers in Simon DeBartolo properties. These centers will offer temporary resources as well as recruitment and training services.

Olsten hopes to gain access to a relatively untapped market for its services while assisting retailers with their store labor needs.

On the flip side, the alliance provides retailers with access to a short-term temporary labor pool to address short-term needs as well as screening, placement and training services geared specifically to the retail market. While this approach will not fit all needs for all retailers, it does represent a creative solution to meeting store labor challenges.

Driving Retention

Innovative techniques for identifying and recruiting desirable candidates for store positions are necessary steps to building high-quality store teams. Of even greater importance however, is the need to reshape the working environment at store level to provide a rewarding work experience.

When store employees feel that their individual role is significant, when they understand how that role affects store results and when individual payoff for superior store performance is understood, satisfaction goes up and turnover goes down.

The traditional approaches to training, motivating and managing store teams are changing just as the tactics used for recruiting are. The overriding theme of retailers who are succeeding in improving retention is to provide a focus on the individual associate.

Almost all companies talk the talk of the importance of store associates, but annual turnover rates of 75% and higher are evidence that not many companies are walking that talk.

Those that have been able to reduce turnover have done so through performance-based compensation (for all store associates, not just a few managers), nontraditional training and, in some cases, radical departures from conventional management and decision-making approaches typically used to run stores.

Reshaping the Store Environment

Known by many for transforming coffee into a fashion beverage and introducing a whole new vernacular into the language, Starbucks Corp. is also recognized for its commitment to its employees. Starbucks has created a culture dedicated to challenging employees (referred to as partners) to be their best.

To support employees in their efforts, Starbucks offers a comprehensive benefits package including insurance and partner stock options to all employees including part-timers who need work just over 20 hours per week to be eligible.

All new Baristas or hourly partners receive 25 hours of classroom training including customer-service skills and coffee knowledge, taught by partners that have been specially trained.

Management trainees participate in eight to 12 weeks of classes and receive coaching on leadership skills, advanced customer service and diversity awareness as well as succession planning and career development.

Starbucks’ investment in its partners appears to be paying off as demonstrated by the company’s continuing success as well as its inclusion in Fortune magazine’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in America.

Another example of a truly differentiated store-operating environment is Whole Foods, a high-end chain of supermarkets emphasizing organic and fresh foods.

At Whole Foods, the store organization and decision making processes are anything but conventional. The chain’s mission statement begins with a Declaration of Interdependence, reflecting its culture of decentralized teamwork.

Each store operates as an autonomous profit center organized around self-managed teams. Each management level operates as a team–within the store, across regions and across the company.

In this sense, teamwork encourages cooperation as well as competition. The team concept also applies to hiring decisions. Each store team, and only the team, is empowered to approve full-time hires. Candidates engage in a 30-day trial period, after which time they must receive two-thirds of the team’s approval to become a full-time hire.

Whole Foods considers itself a social system rather than a hierarchy in which rules are passed down. It is believed that peer pressure fosters loyalty in ways that a typical hierarchical organization cannot. To this end, all financial and performance measures are available for team members’ review, including salary levels.

Additionally, bonuses are directly tied to team performance and all store team members are bonus-eligible. Evidence of Whole Foods success is demonstrated by its average shareholder return of 23% over the past five years.

An Emphasis on Training

With alternative career-path options available to prospective candidates for store positions, retailers can gain an edge if they offer more than rudimentary training to store associates. That has been one key step taken at Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Sears believes that “unless you have a trained, literate, motivated work force and give them decision-making authority, you don’t get satisfied customers no matter how good the merchandise. The right work force creates customer satisfaction, and that produces superior financial performance.”

As part of its efforts to achieve what is by now a well documented turnaround, Sears invested significant time and resources creating and refining an empirical model that supports the above. Known as the Employee-Customer Profit Chain, Sears’ model plays an integral role in the company’s vision to be a compelling place to work, shop and invest.

In simple terms, the model quantifies the causal relationships (as compared to correlation) between employee attitude, behavior and retention, as well as the degree to which those factors drive customer satisfaction and how that, in turn, drives financial performance.

The model serves as a predictor of behavior and quantifies how change in one component (i.e. increased sales associate product knowledge) impacts other components (i.e. customer retention, market share, revenues, etc.).

Sears has taken additional steps to encourage positive employee attitudes and ensure a customer orientation. These include a strong emphasis on employee training.

Specifically, Sears has initiated an ongoing process using learning maps and monthly town hall meetings to expand employees’ business and economic knowledge and foster customer-focused behavior. All levels of the organization participate in this process from management to in-store associates.

Additionally, Sears has developed programs to cultivate and increase leadership among managers. This includes 3600 performance appraisals based on input from supervisors as well as peer and subordinate reviews, and the establishment of Sears University to offer courses to enhance leadership and shed light on issues essential to smooth operation of the Employee-Customer-Profit Chain.

Finally, Sears has implemented a new reward and compensation program that reinforces desired behaviors and includes a mix of both financial and nonfinancial performance measures.

Even the most advanced data storage can be corrupted, so a backup system is really necessary. Like any other form of data processing and storage, the point of sale setup can be affected by these problems. There are businesses that seek protection by utilizing cloud computing. With this method, an enterprise may or may not utilize a dedicated hardware and software. They have the option to utilize a web-based retail POS software without worrying much about the kind of hardware appropriate for them. The key to the system is the remote server, which is invulnerable to input from unauthorized personnel. Only top professionals from management can add to or revise the information that has been uploaded.

So far, the reliability and safety of the cloud-based point of sale is impressive. With a cost lower than a specialized POS setup, start-up businesses and small enterprises can benefit much from a very sophisticated point of sale system. With more people and organizations having access to the internet each second, dissemination of all types of vital information becomes much easier. In real time, a large group of individual can access a spreadsheet that they need to get on with their tasks efficiently. With an accessible centralized system, a lot of time is saved in the process.

Point of sale systems can be broken down into four categories: retail stores, restaurants, grocery stores and salons. Some brands cater to all of these. Their success depends on quality, payment plans, and the years of experience. When you find the seemingly perfect brand of point of sale systems, is it really the perfect fit for you?

The best way to find out is to first look into universal traits. What features it includes, what processes it completes, what extra equipment it requires, and what customer support you will get afterwards are just a few factors to consider. Simply put, some POS software systems are better because they have fine tuned errors and have more experience. Also, all around brands tend to be more user friendly and polished up.

Point of sales software companies will also include what they are specifically made for. For example, depending on the type of store, it may be advantageous to go with a point of sale system that includes both grocery shopping and retail. It is best to find out for yourself by investigating to see how much the company really knows about maintaining point of sale software. If a company does not seem serious about it, even a great brand can be lacking in what you need. One of those with solid POS software is at www.possoftwaresystems.net.

Even though it isn’t 1998, you’d be surprised by how crappy some web retailers are. Here is an old school list that still has a lot of life in it. Timeless, it is.

 10 Internet Site Best Practice Rules:

* Gather customer information after delivering value, preferably purchase-related data only. Be very selective on the demographic information sought, and declare how it will be used. Make participation voluntary.

* A Web strategy must mirror a store or category strategy as the customer expectation already exists. If your store has the reputation as the headquarters location for a particular type of merchandise, your Web site cannot be preempted by another retailer claiming greater assortment.

* Web-based purchasing must mirror customer-purchase logic-only the medium has changed.

* Supply product information in an easy, drill-down, point-and-click format, meeting individual customer’s needs.

* Generate repeat usage through Web-only value and offerings, refreshed regularly.

* Always include explanations of payment processes, returns and shipment tracking.

* Confirm purchase and thank customer electronically within 12 hours.

* After product receipt send completed on-line warranty registration and purchase information.

* Avoid “Las Vegas” flash-unless you’re a casino operator.

* You would not open a store unless it was something to be proud of-treat your Web site the same way.

Barnesandnoble.com is a strong site because its strategy mirrors customer logic, allowing customers to use the Web much like they use a store, searching for books based on subject matter or gift-giving occasion. It makes it easier than walking a store.

Its strengths are that it has concise navigation with only selective inundation, it always maintains the navigation bar. it clearly points out savings, how to purchase and obtain fast shipping, does not require fill-in of demographic information and it maintains strong consistency across all pages.

Barnesandnoble.com is a winner because it is easier to navigate than rows of shelves, it accurately reflects customer purchase logic and does not fall victim to the “too much information” syndrome.

The strategy of Wal-Mart.com is to feel like the store. with no frills, lots of merchandise and a sensitivity toward price. It uses the store-within-a-store concept, forcing people into categories.

Its strengths are simplicity, distinct product categories and a clearly displayed navigation route.

It’s a winner because of excellent product organization, strong consistency among pages, and a price sensitivity that is in line with Wal-Mart’s heritage.

SkyMall.com, on the other hand, has problems. It is a Web site marketed in a consumer catalog. Skymall.com tries to be all things to all people. It assumes the retail catalog is handy. The site organizes search results by price, and attempts to gather demographic information prior to establishing any customer value.

It does not work effectively because it depends too heavily on its in-flight catalog. It does not accurately reflect purchasing logic and it generates a feeling of disorganization, causing discomfort with purchasing.

Sonicare.com is an example of a manufacturer that has conquered the Internet challenge. The site distributes product information, including the option that customers can buy the dental product on line, by telephone, through dentists and through retailers. On-line ordering is through FactoryMall.com.

Strong product information with minimal steps to purchase, and an easy-to-negotiate order entry are strengths of the site.

Timex.com goes beyond Sonicare.com. It’s not just an information site. It provides easy-to-use on-line purchasing ability, while also enabling customers to order by phone, fax or mail. It supports its retail relationships by selling watches at the same price as its retailers and by directing surfers to its retail customers.

The site’s strengths include substantive information well organized by type and/or selection criteria. The comprehensive listings also produce actual-size pictures of the watches offered.

A product line ripe for exploitation on the Web is toys, and etoys.com is showing that it can provide greater efficiency than wandering the aisles of a store while providing a similar visual input and feel. Its strengths include the fact it replicates the toy shopping purchase logic-customers can search for specific toys, type of toys or toy collections, or they can receive criteria-based recommendations.

Cdnow.com, a pioneer in on-line music retailing, has a strategy of offering deep discounts, such as 30% off most releases. It has a maximum shipping charge of $4.97. The pricing tries to compensate for site slowness.

Cdnow.com maintains a comprehensive selection from multiple search paths, provides sound clips from popular titles, and has a simple order-information process. Its pricing strategy encourages repeat use. The site quickly drills down to precise titles and is a strong music-recommendation engine.

Though interstate commerce restrictions must be overcome, one of the best sites is from Virtual Vineyards. virtualvin.com offers a wide selection of wine with appropriate information for both novice wine purchasers and aficionados. It captures the entire wine experience by offering related food and gifts.

Its strengths include providing an order calculator prior to order confirmation, and an exceptional order-response mechanism.

Overall, the site is powerful because it has easy navigation though varietals, vineyards and price points, appropriate extended product-line and shipping options to meet any occasion, and order confirmation and fulfillment often result in early delivery.

As we all know, point of sale software is important to all businesses whether big or small. There is a lot of information that you need to handle in a business and therefore you require good software that will make your work easier. For you to get the right software there are some pointers that you need to remember. One, you need to look for compatibility of your hardware. Some latest hardware available in the market today like paperless signature pads, wireless scanners and receipt scanners are the best when it comes to point of sale software. They are very convenient and they improve customer service in general. Secondly, you need to consider the user interface. Some software have complicated user interface, which is not user friendly. Good software should be designed in a way that any new use can learn fast with less hassle. It is pointless to have software that will take you plenty of time training the end users. Last but not the least; you need software that is compatible with other software packages like accounting software. This makes it easy for you to handle all your information in the right way and handle all your business databases appropriately.

In the supermarket industry, observers usually cite such chains as Wegmans, Dick’s Supermarkets, Dorothy Lane Markets and Wal-Mart, whose site reinforces the chain’s brand image of sharp pricing and broad selection and, at the same time, is easy for customers to navigate. Other sites of note include Barnes & Noble, which was late getting on board, but is now successfully using its site as an adjunct to brick and mortar and, in grocery, Marsh Supermarkets and Ralphs, both of which are still in the early stages of development.

“We’re in business to sell merchandise, not technology, and our goal is to have a clean, well- developed site,” Andy Martin, vice president, development and chief technical officer for Garden Escape Inc., an on-line seller of gardening equipment and supplies, told attendees at the recent Retail Systems conference in New Orleans.

David Lord, CFO and CIO of the Holt Co., a Waltham, Mass., toy and teaching supplies retailer, agrees. “It’s not about technology. You build the technology to get customers to your site. If you build a good one, 50% of people will come back,” he says. “But remember, vision is more important than resources. You can buy resources (to develop Web sites). But if you don’t have vision, then don’t bother doing it,” adds Lord.

Unfortunately, a relatively small number of supermarkets have developed sharp Web vision, according to Robert Hemphill, president, Webstop. com Inc., Palm Harbor, Fla.-based consulting and design firm. “Most sites look as though they could use an upgrade. It’s ironic, since most of these retailers have attractive stores. It’s usually the manufacturers that have a high-quality site and look as though they’ve been designed by professionals.

“Retailers, especially those in the food industry, have invested heavily in technology and tend to do the work in-house. They figure they’ve got a strong technology department and can use it to develop a Web site,” says Hemphill. “I think many retailers should begin by spending more time up front learning what the Internet is about. They know their industry, marketing and operations, but haven’t a clue about how to use this new technology. Think about it. If we never had television before and the technology suddenly became available, we’d be doing as poorly with TV ads as we do with the Internet. It’s still new, and before you make choices, you have to know more about the technology,” he adds.

On a technical level, one of the major pitfalls in operating on-line sites is lack of accessibility. “Some sites are very hard to find, and until recently, there were a lot of retailers out there who didn’t own a domain name or had one buried under someone else’s domain. Building a Web site is one thing, but you have to go out of your way to get it found easily. Some retailers have done things like reserve three or four domain names-all of which link to a primary domain,” says Hemphill.

Although it’s getting hard to be recognized on the burgeoning World Wide Web, search engines are still an effective way of being found, according to Hemphill. “We were involved with a small travel business that didn’t invest in anything except search-engine technology. But when someone typed in the phrase, `plane tickets to Europe,’ this company always came up in the top 10, and they got between 50 and 100 visitors a day without any advertising,” he says.

Hemphill notes that many people tend to go overboard on graphics. “Downloading takes too long when you have too many images on a page. It may look nice, but it’s hard to navigate around sites with a lot of high resolution images, even with faster modems,” he says. Additionally, he feels that people don’t make the graphics small enough and many 80k pictures could be reduced to 20k images without a loss of quality.

Another major issue in Web site development is the frequency with which it’s updated. “How often do you go to a site that says, `visit us often,’ only to find out it was last updated in July 1997. I think they should be updated at least once a week. You have to think of a Web site as a destination, and you have to spend enough to keep it live and fresh. This can be as simple as dropping in a new recipe every week, then creating an archive people can browse through. Or highlight five or six new items each week. It gives consumers a reason to come back,” says Hemphill, noting that another effective method is to have a weekly ad linked to recipes that use ingredients or highlighted items.

As to who updates and runs the Web site, Hemphill says the process should not be left in the hands of MIS directors. “I was vice president of MIS for Randalls and American Stores. But most technical guys don’t have a graphics background, and you can’t develop good Web sites unless you do that for a living,” he says. Ideally, the person in charge should come from marketing or operations or a committee that includes one technology person-but he shouldn’t be the one in charge, adds Hemphill. “I can usually tell which sites were developed by them in-house. Tech guys love things like Java, but retailers should stick to mainstream use of the Web. You can’t force customers to have a lot of plug-ins installed on their browsers to do fancy animations. It’s all very nice, but the more exclusive things you put in a Web site, the harder it becomes for people to use,” says Hemphill.

Interestingly, a site like Adobe, which specializes in imagery, isn’t heavy on graphics, according to Hemphill. “They make it very easy to navigate and find what you need. They don’t use frame technology (a separate scroll bar) because it can be disastrous for a person not using an up-to-date browser. Also, one of my pet peeves is that most designers have glorious 21-inch monitors. But most people don’t even know how to turn up the resolution. It drives people crazy when you force them to expand their window and start scrolling left or right. Designs are often done for a very limited audience,” he says.

Hemphill is convinced that the best sites are information- based, rather than sales-based. For instance, Porsche used its site to post information on the 24-hour Le Mans race. “They literally posted an article every hour so die-hard race fans got immediate information. They also made it easy to get the information and share it with others. And it was pleasant on the eyes because they did it without a lot of excessive stuff, such as advertising banners,” says Hemphill.

Toyota also has a well-developed site, according to Hemphill, but not without a lot of trial and error. “They tried new things every few months to find out what customers care about-not just to sell them a car. The company really wants to find out what they can supply that is of value or a good source of information,” he says.

In fact, these are two of the six dimensions of successful Web sites outlined recently by Ernst & Young. “I’ve always believed that supermarkets stood for something other than a point at which consumers can get food. I’m talking about six criteria-knowledge, intuition, interaction, com- munity, customization and currency,” says Craw- ford.

Explaining each dimension, he notes that knowledge is power for Internet shoppers, with studies showing that nearly two-thirds of on-line consumers research products on the Internet before buying them through traditional channels of distribution. Consequently, on-line retailers are providing consumers with information quickly and easily.

Intuition means that sites should be easy to navigate, since on-line shoppers only visit five sites on a regular basis. Ernst & Young’s surveys indicate that on-line shoppers can have a limited attention span and become easily frustrated with sites that are not well-organized.

Interaction refers to the exchanges between consumers that Web sites provide. However, Crawford warns that interaction doesn’t mean that shoppers should be required to fill out lengthy registration forms. This interaction between retailers and consumers should be more like “drip irrigation” or the slow watering of an information field, Crawford says, noting that retailers can begin by simply collecting zip codes and building their databases over time. “You might consider making registration optional at Web sites. Some people love to get junk mail. For them, it’s a way to stay connected and it generates value. But don’t make it the cost of entry for people who don’t want any part of a mailing list,” he says.

Community is considered the central theme of the Internet which is used by consumers to share information. And effective Web sites will surround consumers with communities focusing on content, chat rooms on numerous issues including health, nutrition and diet counseling, as well as menu planning and links to other sites. “The key to success for any Web site is its links to gateways that promote awareness. For instance, Amazon.com has a wonderful site, partly because it is linked to America Online, as well as to other providers and search engines,” says Crawford. He also cites Procter & Gamble for providing consumers with product tips and interactive information on related issues in a collection of “lounges.”

Customization will be increasingly in demand as leisure time diminishes and consumers “minimize aimless surfing through irrelevant information,” says Crawford. As Ernst & Young states in a recent report: “This presents a major shift for retailers, which are used to managing the shopping experience through merchandising, traffic flow, signage and the location of product assortments.”

The sixth and final dimension of successful Web sites is currency. “The most effective Web sites provide a systematic stream of information in the context of a design with a consistent look and feel,” Crawford notes in the latest report. “The point is that while sellers want to maintain the familiarity of experience on Web sites, they must constantly update the site’s material to give shoppers a reason to return on a regular basis,” he says.