Motivating Your Retail Employees

By Julia Burnett


President Teddy Roosevelt will forever be tied to Big Stick ideology, which has the mantra “speak softly and carry a big stick.” It was his foreign affairs philosophy that you negotiate peacefully while threatening the “big stick” of military action if needed.

Prior to his appearance on the hit TV show “Undercover Bosses,” CEO Mitchell Modell of Modell’s Sporting Goods was more of a leader who spoke loudly while carrying the big stick. As the fourth generation leader of his family-owned business, he aggressively cut spending with the goal of driving profits. As of the episode’s filming, Modell’s operated 154 stores in 11 states. Revenues exceed $600 million.

What Modell didn’t realize, however, was that his no-nonsense, profit-driven approach had become too far removed from the everyday operations of his business. He went undercover to find out why some stores were underperforming, but learned a great deal more in the process about his associates.

One of his first assignments was working with an assistant manager in Connecticut. The manager, James, called Modell’s New England stores the “red-headed stepchild” of Modell’s, a New York-based company. The stores were understocked and James felt frustrated by upper management’s lack of attention to the problems happening in his store.

Taking the “Big Stick” approach, Modell got on his cell phone and started complaining to someone on his team that district managers were not doing their part to audit stores.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Team Effort

Digging deeper, Modell discovered a systemic problem affecting not only his retail associates, but also his warehouse employees and truck drivers. The issue was low pay. Employees who were not managers were making minimum wage, even though their jobs required hours on their feet and other physical demands. One retail associate has resorted to living in a homeless shelter in order to support her young children.

“When I look at the situation at our distribution center, I’ve got to change this,” said Modell. “I’m going to make sure that we’re a company where people feel good about coming to work and feeling that’s if they’re going to work hard, they’re going to be recognized and rewarded. Right now, that is not the case and I feel horrible.”

Remember Your Associates are People, Not Numbers

In retail, employee turnover is high and margins can be tight. It’s all too easy for senior management to just focus on the latest reports.

One truck driver named Kirk said upper management was clueless. “They only look at the bottom line and when they only look at the bottom line they lose focus of what really happens,” he said.

Rather than try to solve the problem from the “ivy tower” of a New York City office, they have to take action as Modell did. This doesn’t mean they have to shave their heads and wear a walrus moustache in disguise. Instead, they need to enable their district and store managers to be their eyes and ears in the field.

Perhaps motivating your retail employees comes down to three basic principles:

  1. Pay them enough to reduce turnover and incentivize your motivated talented employees to stay.
  2. Take the time to ask your employees how you can make their job easier.
  3. Energize your employees by motivating yourself. Show them you care enough about your business to follow through on their feedback. It sends the message: “What we do here is important and you are a part of our success.”

Following the show, Modell decided to motivate himself to lose weight, given the physical demands of his associates’ jobs, which he found challenging. He changed the employee compensation structure of his company, and emerged from the experience re-energized, re-committed to his associates and full of lessons for his two young sons, the future leaders of the family business.

Subscribe to Zenput's Blog