Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hiring Woes: A Drone Who Suffers For Her Art

A long time ago I asked y’all what you wanted from your chain bookstores (which I cannot find the link now), and a lot you said you wanted older, knowledgeable sale staff. You wanted somebody other than a tattooed twenty-something who couldn’t care less about their job. You wanted somebody who loved books.

Well, it’s hiring season, and let me tell you that it is damn hard to find someone with these qualifications who will work for minimum wage. Why? Because they are too qualified. Chances are those twenty-somethings are too qualified as well—almost everyone I work with has their bachelors or will soon—but they aren’t at a point in their lives where they are worrying about insurance or how to support their families; they’re just enjoying (or not) a down period before they move onto the next stage.

There are other problems as well. Book people—serious book people—tend to be introverted. Most of the kids who walk through my door with shiny eyes and ink stained fingers would never dream of walking up to a customer and asking them if they need help. They balk at the idea of making meaningless small talk, or stumble over their attempts. Eye contact—which any salesperson will tell is necessary to prove your sincerity—is uncomfortable for them.

And the kicker is that I’m not hiring them to read all day, or lovingly shelve uninterrupted. I’m hiring them to interact with customers. I’m hiring them to sell stuff to people who may be on the fence about buying.

So maybe I should not worry about their book knowledge. Maybe I should hire people who can do the selling and trust that they’ll learn the product on the job.

It’s a hit or miss prospect at best. One of my best salespeople didn’t come in with a lot of book knowledge, she doesn’t have an undergrad degree, and she’s been living on her own since she was sixteen. I wouldn’t throw in that last part, but I know it affects her work ethic. Here is a girl who has always had to support herself. She treats each job like it is important, and gives it her all. She’s friendly, understands the sales process, is a numbers fiend, and loves to learn about new things.

She is the exact opposite of a lot of the people who walk through my doors looking for work. Often the people I get give the impression that this will be their throwaway job, and while I’m not asking that it be the most important thing in their life, I’m asking it be the most important thing while they in my store. I’m asking them to do the tasks assigned, to be proactive and seek out more tasks if they look like they need to be completed, and to help customers. I’m asking them to not check their brains at the door, something that happens more often than not because, hey, it’s just a bookstore in a mall. This complete lack of work ethic doesn’t fly with me because of the way I was raised, but it seems to be pretty engrained in a hell of a lot of the job applicants I screen because it’s a mall-based bookstore and not what they want to do with the rest of their life. Their just trying to make some money, not work.

Besides it’s not like an Indie or anything.

And let’s face it, a certain amount of prestige comes from working at an Indie. You work at an Indie and it says that you’re book people. You love books. You’re sacrificing for your medium.

You work at a chain store doing the best job you can and chances are that once a week you’ll be asked a.) why aren’t working at the Indie in town, and b.) what are you really going to do with the rest of your life?

The amusing thing about this is these very same people expect someone older to be in charge. I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve been working with one of my older employees—most often our part-timer who has young kids—and people automatically assume she’s in charge. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, time and again applicants for jobs, customers, etc will assume she’s the one running the floor or the manager of the store. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting there doing paperwork, or we’re both just grabbing stock to put out. Nine times out of ten they refer to her as the person in charge, and it is a pretty safe assumption that it is because she’s got a decade on me age-wise.

So here is what I have learned, contradictory all the way: I should hire people who love books, but they must also be able to talk to people (introverts need not apply) so maybe I should just hire people who can sell and hope the eventually learn the rest; I should hire older works, but I should expect them to work for minimum wage and on a part-time basis; I should hire people who will work for minimum wage, but expect them to put in the effort they only reserve for higher paying jobs.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

I’m feeling a little ranty because last night Barrista Chick came over and we put together a resume for her using all our skills at corporate double speak. Luckily she has a specialty in Starbonics—a specialized form of corporate double speak—that translates well into the resume format. We both agree that she needs to get out of food service, and that her qualifications (education, work history, etc) are such that she can land a higher paying job.

Every job she’s applying for would pay—starting salary—four to five dollars more than I make an hour. Every job she applied for had regular hours and weekends free.

And with every job she applied for I was reminded that I must really love books, love my customers, and love you guys because the life of the bookseller does not pay well.

And the life of a chain bookseller does not earn you a hell of a lot of respect.

Good thing I’m rather attached to the discount.


Trish Ryan said...

My local chain store must be taking hiring tips from your blog readers. I was just there at lunchtime and no less than THREE older, wiser, untatooed employees asked me if I needed help with anything. Too bad I was just passing through the store because it's between the parking garage and Ann Taylor! I'll be back tomorrow to buy, though :)

Yay customer service!

Susan Adrian said...


Ah, yes. I totally remember this struggle, and I feel your pain. I too worked at chain bookstores (Crown and Walden) and had the same issues 10 years ago.

I usually ended up trying (ha) to hire a mix of the following, if I could:

--college students (if you're lucky enough to be in a college town) They're short term, but often you can find a few that have both sales smarts and book knowledge
--older booksellers looking for part-time. We usually had a few of these, just working for the discount, but these were book lovers. You do have to watch that you get ones who can sell.
--salespeople who are not necessarily book people first.

Then, of course, as you well know, you have to schedule accordingly to try to balance their talents AND hours. I never minded hiring young people, even really young people, but they did have to have that work ethic and not be afraid of customer service.

Just try not to end up with the people-haters. {g} I know you know what I mean.

Ms. Librarian said...

Maybe if you hire one of the young, bookish, introverted types, you will open up a whole new world of work for him or her. I know that I never knew I was good at customer service until I started working part-time in a fabric store. I knew fabric, but I'd never sold anything. Who knew I was good with people!!??

Marta said...

Many of us have had jobs (often in the arts) that we loved, but had to leave because they didn't pay enough to cover the rent.

The problem is not with hiring. The problem is with the pay. Bookselling isn't profitable enough to draw really motivated employees who don't have a trust fund, a generous spouse, or no living expenses.

My suggestion? Add a financial incentive. Employees will be allowed to run their own businesses alongside the book biz.

I'm thinking gambling, crack sales, prostitution, and booze. People will say that this will bring in the wrong element -- but the wrong element are exactly the people who can benefit the most from reading. It's a win-win situation...until competing bookstores start doing drive-bys off course. (And I don't mean drive-by signings.)

lady t said...

I know what you mean about customers assuming your older co-worker was the one in charge;many times I was the youngest gal on the sales floor(not in my twenties,believe you me)and if someone approached a couple of the other staff members with something they were not sure about,it got tossed over to me.

It's not all that glamourous working for an Indie(and the pay not so great;atleast some of the book chains offer benefits which I couldn't afford,even when I was a manager). I wasn't able to hire people or have a say about it but the stories I could tell about some of the folk that were hired that crashed and burned,or in one instance,called in sick and never came in again. Later on,we recieved a letter from the state,investigating her for identity theft! It takes all kinds:)

jill said...

I'm glad to see that some stores will hire younger employees. My 17 year-old daughter has an application in at a chain store and her 15 year-old sister is hoping she gets it so she has an 'in' when she's old enough to apply.

Both are book lovers and good with people. They haven't worked sales yet, so that's still to be determined.

The younger daughter almost started drooling when I mentioned that one of the colleges she's considering would put her in a prime location to apply at Powells.

Anonymous said...

Folks, it's illegal to make hiring decisions based on age!

Nicole said...

anonymous, but you can make decisions based on experience, and I think that's what most really mean when mentioning age.

I work at a chain used bookstore now and similar things apply. We do luckily pay more than the minimum wage here and have decent benefits. But I can't imagine just living on this one paycheck (DH makes the big bucks in our household). You've definitely got to love books in order to stay.

Anonymous said...

Pay is certainly a factor. I just recently gave notice at my chain store. I've been there almost 4 years, the last year as a supervisor, and I make less than $10 an hour. I got no raise this year because of the performance of the store. I couldn't afford this job if I didn't have a spouse who makes great money. Pay was not my determining factor (burn out was), but I'm definitely not going to be looking at retail when I re-enter the job market. The reason love can carry you farther in a non-chain bookstore is that you don't have all kinds of bureaucratic BS to deal with.

Also, let me put in a plug for the tatooed and pierced people. I have no ink on my body, and just the one hole in each ear, but I have worked with some fabulous people who had plenty of ink, holes, and metal. You give that person a job where they can actually wear the lip ring, bare their tattoos, and keep their hair rainbow colored, and you may just end up with a loyal employee who will work their ass off for you.

On age - on the whole, the employees who are at least a year or two out of college are more dependable than the 18-23 crowd. They understand that you have to show up for your job, call when you won't, and give notice when you leave. They get that a job can't just be conveniently pushed aside if something fun comes along that you'd rather do. I work with some fabulously responsible young folk, but almost without exception they've been twits about attendance at some point, and I just haven't seen that in the older employees.

Kanani said...

Does this position have a written job description? Everyone in my small biz has a job description, which pretty much rolls out what I need to get done and points to what sort of qualities and skills they must have. Periodically these are updated as we find out what works, what doesn't or new things need to be added. But when it comes to the hiring process, it's invaluable because I know what to advertise for. I use craigslist. My ad can be as long as I want, and it's still $25.00 (though in some areas it's free).

I also give regular raises to the employees that I really value --it's much more expensive to hire and rehire than it is just to keep someone who is good and enthused with their job.

And... all employees are hired with a 90 day probationary period. During this time, I ascertain whether or not it's a good fit. If not, then I make sure to release them before the 90 day period rather than letting it drag out. This was a lesson that I learned the hard way.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1 -- careful how you phrase that. In the US, people OVER 40 are protected from being discriminated against BECAUSE OF their age but under 40 can be discriminated against. An employer can discriminate for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason AS LONG AS IT'S NOT ILLEGAL. We all discriminate every day -- do I want to wear the blue t-shirt or red polo? for example. And yes, lawyers and those of us who have to work with them can go on at length about labor law and the little nuances but nothing that BSC has ever said makes me think that she would discriminate based on anything but qualifications (which is legal -- is this person qualified? no? well, go next door and get some experience).

Oops, off my soap box. (Which means that I'm not going to get into the probationary thing that kanani mentioned but I could . . .)

One thing to consider with your better/more experienced ees is perks that don't cost you anything -- first pick of scheduling, picking them as the lucky one to go to fun conventions, whatever. Be creative.

BenefitsChick :)

Sam said...

I have been in a public library for about 10 years and we also have a hard time finding people when a position is opened. The pay is low and mostly what we have are older married women who don't really have to work, but just can't stand to be home all day. Mostly they just stand around and talk all day-I'm not sure it it would be different if they really had to work like the rest of us or if that's just the way they are. I must really love books because I spent 4 years in college only to end up taking home only $19,000 a year. People have asked me why don't I go back to school for a Master's, but I'm not sure it would be worth it. Call me lazy, but I like cataloging and don't want the responsibility of dealing with the board and all that. Plus no college within hundreds of miles has an accredited library science program. Also, I don't really think this is much of an issue in bookstores, but as far as hiring here I do wish we could get some men. I think the lower pay keeps them away.