Grooming Professional Sales Associates

Retail is one of the few fields in which a college degree is not a prerequisite to success. But success in the retail world does require skills and knowledge, including communication skills, product knowledge, a neat appearance, a commitment to teamwork, and the ability to handle money, monitor inventory, and help make the retail premises inviting to customers.

Sales associates at independent retail stores generally learn the skills and gain the knowledge they need through on-the-job training. But that takes valuable time away from selling for those who are charged with conducting the training-or worse, new associates are put in a “sink or swim” situation if the store is busy and they’re pressed into service without adequate advance preparation. Either way, the jeweler does both his store and his employees a disservice.

One way around the dilemma is to hire one of the industry’s sales training consultants, who typically educate full-time workers in areas such as selling skills, effective communication, conflict resolution, product display, succession planning, and family businesses. Programs usually include some combination of lectures, role-play, discussion groups, problem-solving sessions, mentoring, and written handouts. Many consultants can custom-design a training program, ranging from single sessions to a weekend retreat or a weeklong visit to your store, making sure you get the most out of their-and your-time. The downside is that a custom training package, while profitable in the long run, can be quite costly in the short run. If cash flow is tight, it’s easy for a jeweler to rationalize skipping the consultant and teaching the newcomers in-house.

Industry associations such as Jewelers of America and the Gemological Institute of America also offer training options (see sidebar). These, especially for only one or just a few individuals, are generally less expensive than the custom consultant, but they require a greater time commitment from the employee and a higher degree of supervision or dedication on the jeweler’s part. Finally, there are two other training alternatives that jewelers may not be familiar with: college and university programs and retail skills centers.

A degree in retail. Your associates may not need a degree in retail to get ahead, but formal educational opportunities in retailing are available. For the past 20 years, Barton Weitz, Ph.D., director of the Center for Retail Education and Research at the University of Florida, has taught sales and marketing to students working toward certificates in retailing. He and other instructors cover subjects such as retail strategies, store locations, merchandise purchases and displays, and how to manage employees. Courses include “Introduction to Retailing Systems and Management,” “Principles of Management,” “Principles of Marketing,” and “Business Finance and Information Systems.” Students also must complete an internship in the retail field of their choice.

Weitz says the best way to learn is through trial and error, so he makes extensive use of role-playing exercises, which receive post-“performance” review and analysis by Weitz and his students. “I lecture to students, but they’re not as involved as when we’re role-playing,” he says. In addition to lectures and role-play, students learn the retail business through on-the-job experience and written assignments. For information, contact Barton Weitz at (352) 392-0118.

At the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas-initially funded by Don Zale almost 20 years ago-officials from Wal-mart, Helzburg Diamonds, and Zales talk to students about making retail a career. Moreover, each year, 40 different retail companies nationwide accept about 100 students for internships. After graduation, some students find full-time employment at the companies that sponsored their internships. Cindy Billington, financial and student programs coordinator for the center, recently saw two students go from internships at Zale to assistant buyer spots. She also recalls a former marketing student who interned with Walgreens, got a job with the company after graduation, and was managing her own store 15 months later.

Director David Szymanski says Wal-mart is one of many companies that regard the university as a gold mine of good hires. “Students with retail certificates already know what they’re looking for in a job, as opposed to someone who hasn’t completed a retail internship,” he says. “[Interns] are already familiar with company culture and can handle more advanced tasks than someone without that work experience.” For information, contact Szymanski at (979) 845-5584.

Associate degrees in retail also can be earned from community colleges. For example, students at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., can earn a certificate in retailing after 30 credit hours of coursework, including “Business Mathematics” and “Writing for Business and Industry.” Spokane Community College, Spokane, Wash., offers an associate’s degree in applied sciences for retail management. Many colleges and universities have four-year bachelor’s degree programs in retailing or fashion merchandising. The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia University (formerly Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science), are three examples. You may not be ready to foot the bill for a sales associate’s tuition, but such schools can be an excellent source for recruiting employees who choose retailing as a career rather than a stopgap job.

For a nationwide list of other retail-oriented courses, speakers, presenters, and resources,

Retail skills centers. In some areas of the country, a trip to the mall can mean more than a shopping spree-it can also mean expert retail training. The National Retail Skills Center in King of Prussia, Pa., instructs employees on customer service skills, teamwork, appearance (both personal and store), time management, and other subjects. As part of the center’s curriculum, 20 trainees interact with each other and an instructor for six weeks in a classroom. Instructors use role-play, group discussions, field trips through the King of Prussia mall (adjacent to the center), and testing to illustrate points to students. Students also have the chance to question genuine retail experts. Recently a student asked center director Beth Margulis how to deal with a “know-it-all” type on the job. Her response: Compliment the person on his knowledge and collaborate with him on a way to share the information with others. “Those who start the program with a negative attitude lose it by the end,” Margulis says. “Once trainees know we’re enthusiastic about their success, they’re receptive to this opportunity to grow.”

Students at retail skills centers include high schoolers, senior citizens, people in welfare-to-work programs, and salespersons from all retail sectors, including jewelry. Graduates find jobs with chain department stores, such as J.C. Penney, Lord & Taylor, and Sears, as well as with small retailers. One man, an engineer who’d been laid off, saw an ad for the center on a bus. Margulis helped him find a salary-plus-commission spot at a suburban Philadelphia jeweler. “He sought out this change,” she says. “Now he’s been working with the jeweler for more than a year.”

At the Aroostook Retail Sales Academy in Caribou, Maine, also located in a shopping mall, students take a 225-hour curriculum, which includes 60 hours of interning. And in Madisonville, Ky., students have the option of training from home on the Internet or cable TV, or in a classroom under the Adult Centers for Educational Excellence, part of the Business and Industry Technical Assistance Center at Madisonville Community College.

The National Retail Skills Center in King of Prussia, Pa., is affiliated with the National Retail Federation. For information, contact Margulis at (610) 337-7449. For a comprehensive list of retail skills programs nationwide, visit the National Retail Federation Web site at and click on “Retail Skill Standards at Work, Success Stories.”