Monday, May 5, 2008

Sales Pitch

There’s no optimism in this headline: “The Continued Collapse of the Nation’s Teen Job Market and the Dismal Outlook for the 2008 Summer Labor Market for Teens: Does Anybody Care?” However, retailers looking to hire teens might see a half-full glass vs. the mostly empty glass teens are facing.

Published last month by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, the report has a plethora of facts and figures but the killer stat is this: “The teen employment/population ratio of 33.5% in the most recent quarter was the lowest ever recorded in the 60-year history of national teen-employment data going back to 1948.”

This hit a personal nerve at my house, where we’ve been watching an interesting retail phenomenon unfold. My 16-year-old daughter is seeking her first “real” job and has an interview at her favorite teen-apparel store next week. Whether or not the interview results in a job, it’s been fascinating to witness the recruiting expertise of this particular store manager.

Sorry, revealing the name of the multi-channel mall-based chain would compromise the confidentiality agreement I have with my family—and the point here is that the store manager’s approach could apply equally well to any chain looking to hire.

Case in point: At the mall where my daughter has her interview, another apparel store has a “now hiring” sign posted at the POS—but when an associate in the store asked my daughter if she’d like to take an application to work at that store, my daughter said “no thanks.” Go figure.

Conversely, the dialogue between my daughter and the store manager with the desired job has been going on for several weeks. It started in mid-March, when my daughter was shopping for a dress. The manager struck up a conversation, complemented her on the dress she was trying and then switched from “sell-the-dress” mode to “sell-the-brand.”

She asked my daughter’s age and my daughter immediately took the bait: “Sixteen, how old do you have to be to work here?”

“We prefer over 18, but I sometimes hire mature 16- or 17-year-olds,” answered the manager, who then did a great sales pitch on the value of working in her store, assuring my daughter that she respected and understood that high school students have academic, extracurricular and family obligations. “If you tell me what’s best for you, I schedule your hours accordingly.”

She then turned to me, saying, “And for high-school students, I like it if the parents have input into schedules as well so we don’t conflict with family trips or events.”

Wow, now she’s sold both mom and daughter and we’re thinking this could be the ideal teen job. My daughter left with the dress, an application and instructions to return it the first week in April—which she did.

On that return visit, my daughter reported that the manager continued her sales pitch—again extolling the virtues of working at her store. She ended by telling my daughter that she would not review applications or begin interviewing until the end of the month or the first of May, when she knew which of her college employees would be staying for the summer.

The entire month of April we dealt with typical teenage tenacity—no way my daughter would apply for another job because this was the store she wanted to work in. (Score another point for that store manager—and by the way, want to guess where my daughter shopped when she needed spring shorts in mid-April?)

On April 30 my daughter called the store and the manager promptly scheduled her to come in for an interview. The job may or may not happen—but every interaction with that store manager has left my daughter convinced this would be a great place to work and, if no job happens, it’s still one of her favorite places to shop.

Contrast that to the stores that are on the teen-taboo list. Yes, even when the economy is miserable and reports suggest few teens have viable job opportunities, the notoriously fickle Gen Y gang is choosy about where they will work. Sure, some of it is about working in a “cool store”—but the bigger factor is the store manager. Word spreads fast on stores and managers that are great to work for—and even faster on those that have bad reputations with teens.

Initially, I was surprised to learn that the movie theater and computer-game stores were high on the list of places never to work (after all, they are prime hangouts). But, employment is a revolving door at these establishments, which are all but black-listed by the local teen-texting network. Merchants in our market that have a waiting list of wanna-be associates are those where teens start working in high school and return to work in the same stores over college breaks. Target, Staples, Michael’s and Chick-fil-A are among the most-popular choices.

With unemployment on the rise, why should retailers work so hard to pitch jobs in their stores? Maybe because those teens who are worth stringing along from high school through college are hard to come by. On my daughter’s last shopping trip to the store where she has the interview, three associates were on the floor—one was texting on her cell phone; one was at the POS complaining loudly about the last customer she waited on; and the third was working hard. The manager was not present—but two strikes and one hit don’t produce the same results in store sales that it does in baseball.

—Connie Gentry

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