How to Hire Aces in Retail

How to Hire Aces in Retail

ACE is defined in a number of different ways including the following:

  • A combat pilot who has brought down at least five enemy airplanes
  • One that excels at something – ace in the hole – an effective and decisive argument or resource held in reserve
  • To earn a high grade
  • To gain a decisive advantage
  • Of first or high rank or quality

Hiring Aces has been written to help retail managers take a new look at a very old process and show the reader how to go about hiring people that can be described as Aces.

Hiring the right caliber of people is crucial to your success in retail management, perhaps more so than in any other industry. 

Every one of your hiring decisions, as a Store Manager, District Manager or Regional Manager will speak volumes about your organization and your personal values and abilities. 

In retail there is no such thing as hiding behind a desk or a cubicle for any employee and, thus, for their Manager.

Every time a ‘bad’ hire shows up for work you are putting yourself and your organization at risk of being perceived negatively. 

Try to imagine how your customers feel when they encounter an individual, representing your organization, who is improperly groomed or whose attire is inappropriate for your business. 

And that is just the first (although very important) impression.  It can get much worse once verbal interaction takes place.

The individuals’ attitude and manner of speaking can turn a potential customer into a ‘lost sale’ so quickly you will not even know it happened. 

Your ability to increase revenues and produce great ‘key performance indicator’ results is weakened by these individuals. 

You need to hire ‘Aces’ if you want to become a successful, well respected Manager.

Before we continue it should be noted that any Manager may make a ‘bad’ hire every now and again.  Perhaps the candidate was intent on deceiving the interviewer.

Perhaps they did not present their true self during the interview.  Whatever the case, you may have ended up with an employee who is not suitable. 

There is only one thing you need to remember when this happens…fix it fast!  Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to try and make it right. 

Don’t try to fit the ‘square peg into the round hole’.

Don’t beat yourself up for the mistake…it happens.  Just fix it fast! 

You simply terminate the individual in accordance with your company policy and government legislation.

What to look for in a Candidate Before the Interview

  • Punctuality

If they are not on time for the interview you will have to follow your ‘gut’ instinct regarding their reasons.

Sometimes things completely out of the candidates’ control really do happen.  Again, you will need to decide if you’re going to buy the reason.

  • Overall appearance          

The important thing to remember here is that there is no room for understanding on your part. Either they look good or they don’t. 

You must know what your standards and expectations are and then judge the candidate against those standards and expectations. 

Consider grooming and attire – appropriate to age and the image of your business. 

For example, if a candidate is dressed and groomed appropriately for their age and also appropriately for the image of your business then you may have a fit. 

However, if an older candidate is dressed and groomed as a teenager, the fit is probably not right even if you are in the junior apparel business, because this particular older candidate does not understand how to dress appropriately.

  • Enthusiasm

You have to feel this.  There is no way for you to actually measure the candidates’ level of enthusiasm, yet it is extremely important.  

It is assumed that you are enthusiastic about your position and your company and, therefore, you will be able to ‘feel’ whether your candidate is enthusiastic or not. 

If not, continue with the interview long enough to see if you change your ‘feeling’ about the level of enthusiasm. 

If your feeling doesn’t change, use your ‘short version’ interview.

  • Comportment

Candidates should present themselves in a manner conformable to what is right, proper, or expected. 

The candidate is meeting with you for the purpose of obtaining a position with your organization. 

She/he should be confident, smiling, eager to proceed and appreciative of the opportunity to meet with you.

  • Language skills

As soon as the candidate begins talking you will get a sense of their language skills.  This point needs to be examined very closely. 

There are millions of wonderful and talented individuals who speak several languages. 

If their mother tongue, or first language, is not the language used in your business then you have to ask yourself one question:  Does this candidate speak well enough to be clearly understood by our customers? 

If the answer is ‘yes’ then proceed with the interview as normal. 

At some point you may want, or need to ascertain their fluency level, but that is not the priority right now.

Don’t get hung up on language/accents as long as you know, for sure, that the candidate will be clearly understood by your customers. That’s what counts.

You are on your way to hiring an ‘Ace’ if your candidate:

  • Arrived on time
  • Is a good fit as far as overall appearance
  • Appears enthusiastic
  • Comports him/herself well
  • Speaks clearly

These are simple, but powerful, indicators of a candidates’ potential for success in the retail environment. 

Consider these things to be the foundation and your training program(s) to be the building blocks of future success.

The foundation must be in place so you don’t have to spend precious labor/wage dollars to bring new hires up to this level.

Preparation… the pre-interview stage:                      

There are many, many interview guides in use today.  Unfortunately, too many of them are lengthy and not necessarily relevant to you or your business.

You will not hire ‘Aces’ if you follow a format which is full of canned questions that are not customized to your management style or expectations.

Of course, there is merit to the saying ‘the way to predict future performance is to examine past performance’.

Because of the merit to this statement, you should keep an open mind regarding interview questions. 

Just remember that you want/need to know certain things about the candidate and all of your questions should lead you in that direction.

Some of the questions that are designed to find out about past performance are really not very useful and you should not waste time with those ones. 

It is important to note that many interview guides are produced by Human Resources personnel. 

With all due respect for that area of expertise (refer to your company’s Human Resources Department regarding questions which are NOT ALLOWED to be asked) it is wise to remember that Human Resources personnel may not be in the best position to develop an effective interview guide for field (store/district/region) personnel.

Human Resources personnel, who are charged with developing this important tool, should always solicit extensive and detailed feedback from management in the field before publishing and launching it. 

Let’s look at an example:

Interviewer:  Tell me about a time when you had a problem meeting a deadline.  Tell me what the situation was and how you dealt with it.

Candidate:  Well, a couple of months ago I had to get a sales report in but several of my staff members became ill and it was impossible to meet the deadline. 

I called my superior and explained the situation and asked for an extension.

She was very pleased because I let her know in advance and that allowed her to make adjustments to her schedule for the compilation of the sales reports.

What did this response teach us about this candidate?  Not much.  And what we did learn is not very relevant.

In fact, questions like this provide a perfect opportunity for the candidate to dream up a good response.  Do you really need this? 

Canned questions provide an easy way for the candidate to formulate responses but if the possible responses are not going to provide you with solid information that you really want/need to know, don’t waste your time.

Why put yourself, or the candidate, through this type of interview? 

Ask yourself what you really want/need to know about the individual you are considering hiring to represent you and your organization. 

The answer to this question – “What do I really want/need to know?” will provide the basis for your interview questionnaire.

Another positive outcome of keeping your interview questions in line with what you really want/need to know is that the candidate is able to form a clear understanding of what is important to the interviewer and the organization.

This helps to set the stage for a harmonious working relationship should the candidate be hired.

Review the following examples of possible interview questions/scenarios for retail managers.  Use whichever ones are relevant to you and your business. 

Again, the important question for you is “What do I really want/need to know?” 

Interview Questions / Scenarios

Customer Service Orientation

  1. What does customer service mean to you?
  2. Tell me about your worst customer service experience, as a customer.
  3. Tell me about your most positive customer service experience, as a customer.
  4. What are the elements of a positive shopping experience?
  5. Can you give me some examples of things that can make a shopping experience negative?
  6. How would you prioritize the following functions?
    1. a last minute markdown
    2. receiving a shipment and getting it out on the floor
    3. a customer to be attended to
    4. a staff query regarding her schedule
  7. What would you do if you were approached by an irate customer who has waited too long for service?
  8. What basics do you think a customer has the right to expect when in your store?
  9. How would you handle a declined credit or debit card? What would you say?
  10. Tell me a few things about telephone etiquette.

Acceptable Responses (what you’re looking for)

1. Customer Service means many different things to different people.  You want to know exactly what the candidate believes about customer service.  You need to hear answers similar to:

  • Making sure the customer has a positive experience while in the store
  • Showing concern and respect for the customer from the moment she enters the store until the moment she leaves
  • Building a relationship with the customer
  • Building loyalty for our store/product

2. The candidate must certainly have experienced bad service/treatment at some point and you want to assess what they believe to be bad service.

3. The candidate should be able to tell you about a positive customer service experience he/she has had. 

You will be able to assess what they believe to be positive customer service.

4. The response will help you understand whether or not the candidate understands what a positive shopping experience is. You should expect to hear things like:

  • Cleanliness
  • Friendly staff
  • Being greeted
  • Merchandise should be well displayed and tidy
  • Knowledgeable staff who can answer questions

5. Listen for:  pushy staff, neglect, slow or inefficient check out; poor selection.

6. These are very basic functions and the priority should be:

  • A customer to be attended to (always number one)
  • Receiving a shipment and getting it out on the floor (merchandise won’t sell from boxes in the backroom)
  • A last-minute markdown (have someone put signage up immediately)
  • A staff query regarding her schedule (the staff member cannot be ignored; handle it while doing the shipment or markdown)

7. Irate customers don’t always approach the Store Manager.  Sometimes they let off steam to whoever is closest to them. 

Some of the possible acceptable responses are:

  • Gently encourage the customer to move away from other customers.
  • Empathize immediately.
  • Listen and show understanding and offer to get the Manager.

8. Basics are very important.  Some acceptable responses are:

  • Respect
  • Enough staff to help them
  • Friendly people
  • A clean, well maintained store
  • Presentable and knowledgeable staff

9. This is a delicate matter that is often handled very badly. 

Let’s not forget that, in fact, sometimes the customers’ card is not the problem even when all indications point to that. 

Whatever is said, it should be said discreetly; there is no reason for other customers to be made aware of this customers’ situation. Some acceptable responses:

  • There seems to a problem with either our system or the card, would you like to try again?
  • Our system is not able to process this card right now. Would you like to try a different method of payment?

10. A good customer service person should have good telephone manners.  Listen for:

  • The greeting
  • Never put a customer on hold if you are not going to be able to get back to them in the specified time
  • Never discuss personal issues while customers are present.
  • It is unacceptable to have a telephone conversation while dealing with a customer who is in front of you.

Ability to sell the product, service or company/ Ability to Coach Selling Skills

  1. What are the steps in the selling process?
  2. Elaborate on those steps.
  3. Do you consider yourself a good salesperson?
  4. What indications do you have that support your answer?
  5. I’d like you to sell this pen/product/notebook to me?

Acceptable Responses (what you’re looking for)

  1. The selling process varies from one organization to the next, but the steps generally follow a certain path: Greet, Approach, Determine Needs, Present Options, Trial Close, Handle Objections, Close
  2. The answers here will help you to assess how well they understand each of the steps.
  3. You expect the candidate to say ‘yes’.
  4. The candidate should be able to tell you about some success stories, i.e.: won sales awards, always met their targets
  5. This is just a simple way to find out if the candidate has the personality for selling.  If the candidate is a salesperson, they will be confident with this scenario.

Relationship/Team Building

  1. Tell me about your past relationships with your subordinates.
  2. Tell me about your past relationships with your superiors.
  3. Tell me about your past relationships with your peers.
  4. What type of Manager would bring out the best in you?
  5. How would you describe your communication style?
  6. What would be the best way for the management team to communicate with the sales/service associates within the store?

Acceptable Responses (what you’re looking for)

1), 2) and 3) These questions are designed get the candidate talking about their relationships with team members.  

Listen for words like: 

  • Friendly
  • Professional
  • Good communication
  • Respect
  • Admiration
  • Competitive
  1. The answer to this question will likely tell you something about this candidates’ working style. Instead of asking for

strengths and weaknesses (or areas of opportunity), this question let’s the candidate design the ideal superior; one which would bring out her strengths.

  1. Listen for words like:
  • Open
  • Honest
  • Clear
  1. Listen to the suggestions. Do they make sense?


  1. How important was your contribution to the goals and objectives of the business unit you last worked in?
  2. Can you give me an example of a company procedure or policy that didn’t make sense to you?
  3. How do you communicate your agreement/disagreement with company initiatives?
  4. How do you react when customers challenge your companys’ policies or procedures?

Acceptable Responses (what you’re looking for)

1. You are not looking for “oh, very important” The answer is expected to outline what was expected of the candidate and how she thought her contribution was viewed.

For example: “Each day I had a sales goal and I always did my best to meet it so that I wouldn’t let the team down.” 

This answer reflects a positive attitude from someone who cares about their performance and the success of the team as opposed to someone who may not even understand why they were assigned targets. 

The latter may respond with something like “They always gave us targets and sometimes I achieved them.” 

2. You want to know that the candidate understands that there is likely a good reason behind all company policies and procedures and that she understands it is up to her to ask questions if it doesn’t make sense.

3. You want to hear that she discusses these agreements/disagreements with the Manager. 

You do not want to hear “Well, the company can do whatever it wants so it doesn’t matter if I agree or not.” Or “That’s really none of my business.”

4. You should expect the candidate to offer a couple of different possibilities dependant on different situations.  You certainly do not want to hear “I just tell them that I agree with them!”

Professional Development Goals

  1. How do you think most people perceive the retail industry as a career?
  2. Why do you suppose they have that perception?
  3. What professional plans do you have for your future?

Acceptable Responses (what you’re looking for)

The questions in this section are intended to give the candidate an opportunity to tell you about their career goals and aspirations. 

The one thing that you should look for during this discussion is whether the candidate has a healthy, positive opinion about retail careers. 

Even if it is quite acceptable to you that the candidate is not planning a long term retail career, they should still see it as a very respectable, lucrative career enjoyed by many professional individuals.  

The Aces You Already Employ

If you are fortunate enough to have some aces working for you already, then you have a great advantage in the interviewing process. 

There is a lot of merit to examining the traits and behaviors of your top performers and then comparing candidates against those traits and behaviors. 

This examination does not need to take on a life of its’ own. It does not need to be provided by your Head Office. 

In fact, it will be more relevant, for you, if you develop your own list of desirable traits and behaviors.

Close observation, over a period of a week or two, is all that is needed.

Here is an example:

Craig …

  • Is constantly updating his product knowledge; always seeking information; first to read the mail from Head Office; subscribes to a magazine related to our business.
  • Never fails to greet a customer; always ‘heads up’, always friendly.
  • Always considers the future value of the customer – even when he is not successful in selling to the customer this time.
  • Looks impeccable; always presents the image appropriate for the store/organization.
  • Never chats with co-workers while customers are in the store and tries to discourage others from doing it as well.
  • Displays a sense of urgency in everything he does.

Questions/scenarios to determine if candidate possesses the above traits/behaviors:

  • How do you keep yourself up to date on business issues/world affairs?
  • What are the important steps in the selling process?
  • How do you handle rejection by a customer?
  • Describe your relationships with co-workers, both in and out of the store.
  • Tell me what ‘sense of urgency’ means to you.

Obviously you cannot ask direct questions such as “Do you keep up to date with product knowledge?” nor “Do you chat with co-workers while customers are in the store?”

Only a fool would answer these unfavorably. You need to ask questions that will give you an idea of how well the candidate would compare to your top performer.

Motivating Your “Aces”

  • Pay them a fair and decent wage.
  • Evaluate their performance and provide useful feedback regularly.
  • Show them respect.
  • Assign them as a ‘buddy’ to new employees.
  • Give them training assignments.
  • Offer them challenges regularly.
  • Ask for their opinions/feedback on store issues.
  • Offer praise in public and criticism in private.
  • Send congratulatory cards to their home.
  • Discuss career paths with them.
  • Make yourself available to them; don’t always be too busy for a coffee break with them.
  • Take their concerns seriously and follow-up promptly.


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