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March 9, 2018

BY DAN CALABRESE

It’s a never-ending conundrum for pet retailers, and really for anyone in retail: employee turnover is expensive, disruptive and distracting for you as an owner. Yet high turnover is the nature of the beast in retail.

You want to do everything you can to mitigate it, but you can’t simply change your entire business model to make that happen. You can’t pay retail employees $75,000 a year just to keep them from someday leaving. You can’t refuse to hire young people because you know that some day they will want professional careers in another industry.

But you can’t take a throwaway approach to hiring either. You still have to check references, look for some sort of decent experience and train people well, even though you know that, no matter how well you do it, some of those good choices you make are going to be with you only briefly.

Is it hopeless? Is the inefficiency of high turnover simply a grim reality you’ll always have to live with and factor sadly into your bottom-line projections?

Well, I’m not going to tell you high turnover in retail can ever really be eliminated. Sometimes you’re going to fall victim to it no matter how well you do things, and you’ll probably always have to deal with it more than most other industries.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t employ strategies to mitigate the problem. In fact, I think it’s possible to make employee turnover a strategic advantage at least in the sense that a smart, realistic strategy can make it less of a problem for you than it is for your competitors.

If no one can really make it go away, but you can limit it more than the other guy, advantage you, right? That is actually possible. So how can you do it?

It starts with recognizing that not every employee is a strong candidate for a long tenure working at your pet retail business but that you can probably identify the ones who are more likely to fit the bill than others.

That’s important, because if you’re going to target serious training dollars and advancement opportunities at employees, you want it to be the employees who actually have a chance of sticking with you for the long haul.

I would start by looking for several traits in your employees:

People who show a real interest in animals and in the pet industry. I’m not just talking about people who tell you in their job interview that they love dogs and cats. Most people do, and no one’s going to not say that if they want a job at a pet retailer. I’m talking about people who demonstrate it every day in how they talk about the business, how they interact with the customers, how they talk about their own lives and their futures. Someone who proves over time that they really care about what you do has the potential to stay with you.

People in stages of life that don’t lend themselves to career turbulence. The 19-year-old college student who is majoring in criminal psychology probably won’t be working for you in three years and certainly doesn’t want to be. The 40 year old on his 15th job in nine years doesn’t seem like a strong candidate to settle in. But what about the mom who decided to re-enter the workforce upon becoming an empty-nester and only needs to earn a decent second income? Or what about the 20-something who is very serious about a career in retail management? These might be people who would be interested in sticking with you if you can make the details work for them and for their lives.

People with certain habits—and I mean the good ones. Sad to say it, but at certain levels of pay, you’re going to find it harder to get people who show up on time, don’t call in sick, don’t have transportation issues, aren’t constantly asking you to change the schedule to accommodate the drama in their lives—you know how many employees present you with those problems. When you find one that doesn’t, put that employee in the long-term prospect category, provided there isn’t something else you know that suggests otherwise.

Depending on the nature of your business and its culture, you might add some other categories, as well. Once you’ve defined your realistic candidates for long-term employment, invest your retention resources in them. Talk to them about advancement. Find out how much money they need. Find out what they’d need to make working at your shop a long-term thing.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do your best to retain all good employees as long as you can. Of course you should do that. Try to be flexible with scheduling so people can work the hours that fit their lives. Pay competitive wages—but don’t overpay, because labor costs are an overhead trap if you’re not careful. Treat everyone well. Be available. Have high expectations and train people well, but don’t be unduly harsh in dealing with mistakes.

This might keep a person around for a year or two who would otherwise leave after six months. And yes, there’s lots of value to that when you consider the costs of filling positions and training new employees. The less often you have to do that, the better off you are.

But you want to be strategic about which employees get the heavy retention attention. There’s no sense trying to sell an employee on a future with you if everything you know about his or her life suggests that’s not in the cards. The right focus on the right people will at least keep your core team stable, and if you can do that, you’re probably doing better than a lot of your competitors.

Oh, one other piece of advice about employee retention that might seem counterintuitive: if a new hire doesn’t appear to be working out in the early going, fire him or her quickly. I’m not talking about someone who just makes some mistakes or needs a little help learning things. You should be patient and you should give that help. But you know the signs of a bad employee: attitude, habits and constant issues. You know that sinking feeling that you made a mistake with a hire. Correct it quickly and make a better hire while the disruption the change will cause to your shop is still minimal.

That way, you can invest your attention in the best people who have the best potential for a strong future with you.

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