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Stores Struggle To Improve Associate Retention High Turnover Hurts Customer Service, Bottom Line

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One downside to the strong economy for U.S. retailers is high turnover among store associates, which is the worst in 25 years, according to Herb Cohen, Chief Executive Officer of MOHR Retail Learning Systems, Inc., Ridgewood, NJ. "Associate turnover cuts across all retail segments and hurts both customer service and company profits," Cohen said. "There are no quick fixes for high turnover," warned Cohen, whose firm is the largest training provider to U.S. retail companies. "Training helps and so do incentives. But the best place to start is recruitment and selection. Because the job market is so competitive, many retailers find themselves settling for whomever they can get, even though these may be the individuals least likely to stick with the job. In retailing, moreover, a lot of hiring is done not by HR professionals, but by field managers. And field managers are often desperate for people. Retailers need to be assertive in hiring and not sacrifice standards. In the end, the best people get the best people." But most important, Cohen believes, is the attitude of top retail management. "Unfortunately, they've considered associates as a disposable commodity seldom worth training and peripheral to creating the shopping experience. What top management needs to keep in mind is that without employee satisfaction, it's impossible to have customer satisfaction." Need to Convey to Associates a Sense of the Bigger Picture "In practical terms," Cohen said, "management should make associates feel competent and reinforce that confidence ... explain the standards and expectations ... do so regularly ... and handle performance problems in a motivating kind of way." Cohen pointed out that even a modest improvement in retention can have a significant bottom line benefit. "Stores that keep associate turnover in check at about 100- 125 percent a year for a department store or 40 percent for a specialty chain will also hold the line on training costs, which escalate when turnover is ignored. But retailing is all about margins. If the store is able to improve retention by, say, four or five percent - this would not only reduce recruitment and training costs, but also indicate a more contented workforce. And employee retention generally translates into customer retention." When employees feel connected to the store they are less likely to leave the job, Cohen observed. "Coaching and training play a role, as do building skills and rewarding performance. But equally key is to convey to associates a sense of the bigger picture and that they're valued. That's how to attract and keep good employees." Based in Ridgewood, New Jersey, MOHR Retail Learning Systems, Inc., is the largest provider of training programs to U.S. retail companies. Among MOHR clients are Bombay Company, Bose, Brooks Brothers, Coach, Dayton's, Disney, Escada, Gap, JC Penney, The Limited, Nordstrom, Reebok, Saks Fifth Avenue, Staples, Target, Victoria's Secret and Wal-Mart. MOHR is a division of PROVANT, Inc., a leading provider of training and development services and products.