Ringing up a career in retail – includes information on four retailers who offer job opportunities

Ringing up a career in retail – includes information on four retailers who offer job opportunities – Career Opportunities

Ylonda Gault Caviness

Avid consumerism has made this industry a new option for aggressive job seekers. Here’s how you can register a good career move.

HIS UNIFORM: A $2,000 FOUR-BUTTON EUROPEAN pinstripe suit, custom-tailored. His calendar: filling up quickly as the busy fourth quarter approaches. His client list: People who spend more money in half an hour than others make in a year.

His business is not stocks or high-yield bonds. It’s high fashion. And as one of the leading sales associates at Saks Fifth Avenue, Andrew Grier trades in major stakes deals. His department–women’s couture collections, on the third floor of the flagship store in Manhattan–epitomizes Saks’ international image. It is here that designs by Valentino, Prada, Versace and Gucci are displayed with museum-style reverence, and prices for a single outfit can range from $1,500-$20,000.

In this rarefied world, Grier, who lives with his wife and son in a middle-class Brooklyn enclave, must look and speak as though to the manner born. Grier, 36 is one of only a handful of African American faces in a sales field where fashion sense, attention to detail and good people skills can translate into annual salaries of $60,000-$100,000.

Although there is plenty of money to be made in the multibillion dollar retail industry, for many African Americans the “service” concept is shadowed by unwelcome connotations of an era gone by when subservient roles were the only employment options available to people of color. “Suggesting retailing to a black person is almost an insult,” says Hyman D. Albritton, manager of human resources at Sears Roebuck & Co. in Hoffman States, Illinois. “Students look at you with indignation as if to say, `I didn’t go through four years of college to work in a store.”‘ Such negative impressions belie the fact that retail is one of the fastest growing job sectors today.

The industry has rebounded from the hiring bust of the 1980s, a time when it was wracked by a troubled economy, downsizing and bankruptcy. Today, retailers are scouting out professionals who can cater to the diverse and growing consumer market. While many companies scour colleges and business schools for individuals to bring into the managerial fold, candidates with strong people skills, a knack for business and loads of enthusiasm can also fare well. Some gain entree into the management ranks of the trade via coveted, yet competitive, training programs, while most parlay hard work on the selling floor into strides up the corporate ladder. Opportunities abound in all industries, from automobiles to hardware to food.

Grier found his rewards in the glamorous field of high-end apparel sales. Regularly cloaked in gratis designer suits, he courts the gilded set and meets their exacting service standards while maintaining a computerized log of his sales. Sizes, style and color preferences, home and business phone numbers, credit card account numbers and other details are meticulously noted.

Choice customers get star treatment in this commission-driven arena. In addition to high-powered executives, many of Grier’s clients are celebrities. He has serviced such notables as Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin and Sharon Stone. His best clients but several outfits a season. For them, Grier–who was recruited in 1995 by Saks after five years in the wholesale arena and two years in retail sales at a New York leather company–sets aside choice items before they even hit the sales floor. He coordinates outfits with shoes and accessories, then schedules a fitting time. He may have their packages sent to their home or business via messenger. If need be, he’ll send them by express mail to a business meeting in London or a summer home in the South of France. “It’s customer service of the highest order,” says Grier, who remembers his customers’ birthdays with flowers or perfume–at Saks’ expense. “The better you can serve them, the more money you make.”

A GROWING MARKET

And more money can be had by many. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs in the retail trade is projected to rise 13% from 1994 to the year 2005. This increase will be fueled by a growing population that will have more money to spend. Much of this growth is projected to take place in the food and apparel/accessories industries.

To address the projected personnel demands, companies are shoring up their staffs. For example, Federated Department Stores, operator of Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Rich’s, will hire nearly 500 recruits for its executive training classes this year. But with few visible African American role models in high-paying retail positions, many never see the buying, merchandising and operations opportunities beyond the more common jobs of clerk and cashier.

Still, they do exist. The nation’s largest retailers boast many African Americans at the store manager level. Depending on the chain, size of the store and the market, store managers make $60,000-$120,000 a year. Buyers at major chains are responsible for several hundred million dollars worth of sales. Trainees for such positions start at around $30,000, but can double their salaries within five years. There are also great prospects for merchandisers who determine which items are displayed on a showroom floor, and product developers who develop store-brand designs and goods. African Americans are less represented in these two careers, which can easily garner six-digit salaries at most large retailers.

There are almost as many paths up the retail career ladder as there are retailers. Some stores such as Nordstrom, renowned for its strong “promote-from-within” philosophy, enlist virtually every hire for a tour of duty on the selling floor. Others, such as Federated and Target Stores, a general merchandise discount chain, have stringent professional training programs that take college graduates through rigorous cross-disciplinary training where they learn everything from advertising to distribution to sales. Human resources executives in the industry say that while some hires come from undergraduate business or M.B.A. programs, most come from liberal arts backgrounds.

Take Darrell Tucker, who graduated from Northwestern University in 1977 with a degree in philosophy and sociology. After school, Tucker entered discount retailer Montgomery Ward as an assistant buyer trainee and was quickly promoted to associate buyer before he moved to Target in 1981. After starting as an assistant buyer-distributor, he rose to buyer of patio furniture, then senior buyer of health aids, diapers and household chemicals. For Tucker, his job was more than sales, it was knowing how key retail elements–such as advertising and distribution–all fit together. By looking at the retailing big picture, Tucker bought products that would be easy to promote and frequently ran special promotions to move them. His successful marketing strategies (combined with the long hours he clocked each day) did not go unnoticed by upper management.

Three years later, he was tapped as director of merchandise planning for the 800-store chain’s home and electronics department. Today, he is one of the $20 billion company’s 13 divisional vice presidents and general merchandise managers, overseeing a staff of 35 who buy all the chain’s books, videos and music. “I’ve been fortunate to find my niche,” says 42-year-old Tucker. “I tell everyone thinking of a career in retailing that all stores are not the same. Just like any corporation, each one has a culture. Make sure theirs matches your personality.”

PLAYING CATCH UP

By its own admission, the retail sector has done a poor job of including and retaining African Americans in its ranks. In positions of senior-level management, blacks make up less than 3% of the total, estimates Kirk Palmer, founder of the New York-based executive search firm Kirk Palmer & Associates, which specializes in the retail industry. “Blacks are invisible in this industry,” adds Toni Wilson, senior director of global diversity at Gap Inc., based in San Francisco. “This makes the job of attracting African Americans with the appropriate skills that much harder.”

Several industry leaders are out to change that by putting their money where their good intentions are. Sears Roebuck, Target, J.C. Penney and others have contributed $15,000-$50,000 each to initiate the Center for Retail Management, a comprehensive retail curriculum at Florida A&M University. Launched in 1994 as an elective minor, the university and participating retailers hope to see the center become a degree program within the next two years.

Dozens of schools across the country offer specialized retail studies programs, including the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University and Indiana University. In addition, many two-year programs in fashion merchandising and buying are offered at such schools as New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and Parson’s School of Design.

The industry is also one that welcomes mid-career professionals with sales or management experience who are looking to ply their talents in another industry. Yet, many people find themselves in retail careers as a result of happenstance rather than planning.

No one knows that better than Ann-Marie Campbell, one of Home Depot’s 150 national district managers. In 1985 while a student at Florida International University, she took a job as a cashier to make extra money. Her astute customer service skills and ability to quell almost any customer problem set her apart from her peers. Within a year, she was offered a department manager’s post. As the do-it-yourself warehouse retailer began its aggressive growth, so did her chances for advancement. Campbell, an accounting and business major, ended up leaving college in order to take advantage of the opportunities. Today, she heads the operations and merchandising of five Home Depot locations in the Miami area. “Retail is, first and foremost, a people business,” says Campbell, 32. “If you keep that in the front of your mind, you can do extremely well.”

In the intense battle for market share, the area of service is one in which more and more retailers are trying to distinguish themselves. Seattle-based Nordstrom has built a national reputation on providing such complimentary perquisites as live piano music, valet parking in some locations, personal shopping and the industry’s most liberal return policy. Employees are encouraged to do “whatever it takes to please the customer,” says Delena Sunday, the company’s director of diversity affairs. “We basically look for personable people, regardless of their experience level, hire them and let them go. People don’t thrive here if they need a lot of structure,” adds Sunday, who began her Nordstrom career as a salesperson in 1980. “There aren’t a lot of rules.”

In such an environment where operations are decentralized with separate buying and management staffs serving each region, a tacit rule for anyone looking to advance is “be aggressive and be visible,” says Tim Gary. The former Kinney Shoes sales manager took the same position in Nordstrom’s highly touted shoe department in 1981. His savvy knowledge of the women’s shoe market gave him an advantage over his peers. Within three months, he was the assistant manager of the department, and no job was too small for Gary. He straightened racks and helped his supervisor with all different types of projects. All the while, he asked questions and learned all he could about the market. A year later, he was promoted to manager and after two years, became a shoe buyer. Gary, now 40, says he was never formally interviewed for any of the promotions.

“I just let everyone I reported to know I wanted a career, not a job,” says Gary, who has a degree in business from California State at Fullerton. “I did my best and when positions became available, I got the slots.” Since 1985, Gary has moved to four cities, including Brea, California, and Vienna, Virginia. Two years ago, he transferred to Denver to manage Nordstrom’s first site in the Rocky Mountain state, becoming its most senior-ranking executive. With Nordstrom’s strict “promote from within” policy, Gary’s responsibilities are most certain to increase, particularly as Nordstrom’s Colorado-area expansion continues to unfold.

A VOLATILE HISTORY

Of course, not everyone in the industry realizes such promising career goals, and few can project the industry’s employment climate 20 years from now. The industry is now riding the wave of a healthy economy and strong consumer confidence. But retailing has and will always be a cyclical field, tied to economic trends such as housing starts, unemployment and, often, merely the fickle winds of fashion.

Ten years ago, stories like Gary’s or Campbell’s may have been virtually unheard of. The entire retail industry was in the middle of a drastic period of volatility and consolidation. Stalwart chains including Montgomery Ward, Sears and others were in a state of flux, while department stores such as Macy’s and Bonwit Teller were forced to file for bankruptcy protection, or in some cases, liquidate entirely.

To a degree, the industry’s current hiring spurt is a reaction to the sharp downturn that began in the late 1980s. With a cautious eye on the bottom line, most large retail organizations were loath to spend money on recruitment and training programs as in previous decades. Now, as the economy has begun to improve, the industry has come to a startling conclusion: Its pool of talent has diminished and its image is tarnished. This sentiment is fueled in part by years of low wages at the entry-level and limited growth opportunities for a select few.

“Young people, black and white alike, have a less-than-positive view of retailing. It would probably place dead last in a study of the most desired fields,” says George Auzenne, director of professional development in the economics department at Florida A&M University. “To a great extent, they’ve [the retail industry] done it to themselves.” Recent years have seen an upswing on the part of national retail corporations’ efforts to recruit African Americans, say industry insiders. And the trend is likely to continue.

That’s because the industry knows that as the population of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities begins to generate more and more consumer spending, they’ll need the in-house ability to produce goods and services people of color will want to buy. Furthering the need is the fact that most retailers–frustrated by oversaturation and stagnant overall sales growth–are scrambling to tap opportunities in African American and other minority markets.

“If you really want to target the market, you have to have a diverse makeup,” says Albritton of Sears. “We’re on the way to improvement, but we as an industry have a ways to go.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Industry Glimpse

Many of the leading retail chains have set their sights on aggressive expansions through the next several years. And more retail stores means more retail job opportunities. Two apparel retailers who are increasing their management sales force are The Gap and Nordstrom.

Toni Wilson, Senior Director of Global Diversity

The Gap

One Harrison St.

San Francisco, CA 94105-1602

415-952-4400

COPYRIGHT 1997 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

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