Supermarket professionals do a great job of selling milk, macaroni & cheese mix and rotisserie chickens. But when it comes to touting their own industry as a lucrative, enjoyable and fulfilling career path, many retailers hit a marketing roadblock. As a result—until recently—the best and brightest business minds rarely considered careers in the supermarket industry.
“Retail was sort of the place where you worked after school, on school breaks and that sort of thing,” says Alison Paul, president of the Chicago-based Network of Executive Women (NEW). “Today it has become a viable professional career.”
“The biggest issue with our students, and its one we’ve been attempting to address at the university, is perception,” says Dr. Richard George, professor of food marketing at Philadelphia-based St. Joseph’s University. “A lot of them worked through high school as a bagger or at checkout and didn’t see it as a career path. And unfortunately some of the retailers they worked for were not real fans of higher education because they came up the hard way by working their way through the ranks.”
Unfortunately for the industry, that mindset lingers. When asked if many students at Cornell University show an interest in the supermarket as a career, Edward McLaughlin, Robert Tobin Professor of Marketing and Director of Food Industry Management Program at the Ithaca, N.Y. school replies, “Let me put it this way, undergraduate business is the largest undergraduate major at Cornell, but of the students that go into that undergraduate program, very few of them come to an Ivy League school with the notion that they want to go into the supermarket industry. They have all sorts of career notions in investment banking and consulting and working for Procter & Gamble, but working for the local Acme store isn’t high on their list.”
But as the “sexier” industries of banking, pharmaceuticals, CPGs, department stores and mall-based specialty stores slash tens of thousands of jobs, suddenly a career with Acme doesn’t look so bad. Today, supermarkets have a rare opportunity to snatch up top-level talent as well as cultivate the business titans of tomorrow.
“We often talk about how we can make our industry more attractive to youth,” Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute said when she spoke this fall at the FMI Future Connect conference in Dallas.
“Now more than ever, we must leverage the supermarket’s reputation as a reliable, steady employer that is expected to be around for the long term. In surveys, students are saying they just want a good, steady paycheck. Most job seekers are searching for a safe and secure employer. Let’s capitalize on that fact now.”
“Retail has changed. They are now sophisticated marketers,” says Chris Hoyt, president of Hoyt & Company, LLC, a consulting firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “The retail business now has cut through the tradition of thinking that only people who have done time in the stores can succeed.
“Wal-Mart has even changed that thinking and they really used to believe it,” Hoyt says. “They are now bringing in outsiders. Frankly, with the unemployment situation today, you can get a really competent CPG guy that understands marketing. I think the real opportunity to differentiate your store and build equity is through marketing.”
“The supermarket industry badly needs to attract talent from outside the industry,” notes Dr. David Rogers, president, DSR Marketing Systems, Inc., based in Northbrook, Ill. It’s essential for the industry to not only thrive, but also to survive, he says. “Bi-Lo is going to be absorbed by Delhaize. Jitney Jungle went out, Bruno’s went. Wal-Mart is taking the business away.”
Rogers believes supermarkets can combat that death march trend by bringing in sharp minds from other industries. How do you attract them? “You obviously pay them well and bring them in at high levels and you give them their head,” he says. “You let them experiment. By definition, when you experiment you fail nine times out of 10. That can’t be something you’re shot for. There’s got to be an atmosphere where it is OK to experiment and OK to fail.”
CARS AND OTHER PERKS
To better compete with other fields the supermarket industry needs to sweeten the pot, according to industry observers.
“It is not simply money,” says George. “Food retailers should figure out how they could work in a car with these kids. They would be king! This is the kind of thing which the CPG companies do a great job with and we struggle on the food side and ask how did they do that?”
Aside from company cars, supermarkets can also entice executives with other perks, like stock options. “At the senior level there’s a variety of ways you can compensate people to make the position more attractive,” says Neill Crowley, adjunct professor of marketing at St. Joseph’s. “In my day, I could make the equivalent of my salary in bonus,” says Crowley, who worked his way up the ranks at Albertsons and Skaggs Alpha-Beta to become COO of American Stores.
Flexible hours are also popular. “I have a former student who is now working for Wal-Mart and she noted that Wal-Mart has just changed its scheduling for what they call people that they ‘see’—what I call a shiny-penny type of person—to working three days on and then having three days off,” Crowley says.
Flex-time will also appeal to women, NEW’s Paul says. “The sheer number of women in the workforce has allowed us to say ‘I have to leave at 4 o’clock because my kid has soccer practice.’ That has made it easier and lowered another barrier from going into retail as a career, where you used to think you had to come up through the stores lifting 50-pound bags of dog food,” Paul says.
She cites Safeway and Wal-Mart as two chains that have done an outstanding job of creating career paths for women. A principal at Deloitte, Paul built her career at Procter & Gamble. “The way that you get good talent is that you focus on getting good talent,” she says. “Astute retailers have put their back into it and have said they are going to up their game and diversify their talent from other points of view. They believe that is going to help them competitively. That have made it a priority and that is really key,” she says.
“It is not unlike P&G, where we had a very, very rigorous recruiting process, at least for the sales management ranks, where we identified schools, built relationships with those schools and over the long term built a pipeline of candidates into our organization at the entry level,” Paul says. “I’m seeing more retailers do that as well.”
That’s just the type of well-crafted program Hoyt says retailers would be smart to poach. “Is it effective [for supermarkets] to recruit people right out of school like CPG companies do?” he asks. “Probably not. If I were a grocer I’d let the CPG companies spend the money on the training and then hire them after five or six years.”
SELLING THE JOB
While supermarkets have much to offer career-wise, they need to do a better job of selling their benefits, says Beth Ann Kaminkow, president & COO of TracyLocke, a brand-to-retail marketing agency with principal offices in Wilton, Conn. and Dallas.
“You have to package the job so that it is appealing to top talent,” Kaminkow says. “Some of the things that set supermarkets apart are empowered leadership and room for entrepreneurship. You can be a bit of an entrepreneur within the realm of the company. That is something supermarkets definitely have to offer.” Collaboration, creativity and being open to envisioning the future are other key selling points, she says.
“If those things are packaged in the right way they could really create a more compelling job description and opportunity at supermarkets to bring in more top talent,” Kaminkow says.
Much of that talent could come from CPG companies. “Supermarkets should play up and package the role that they now have over suppliers,” Kaminkow says. “Whether it’s the Pepsi-Colas and Coca-Colas of the world, all the way through to GSK and Big Pharma, on the supermarket side there are the same kinds of mirror-side roles that one would get in those big companies. In many ways now retailers hold the power for how you go to market.”
Sometimes the next executive or outstanding store manager can be hiding in plain sight—or behind the bar at Applebee’s. Rose Mitchell, senior vice president, education and government affairs, at West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee found a potential future manager when she went out to dinner with her husband after attending a football game in Madison, Wis., where Hy-Vee just happened to open a new store.
“We’re in the restaurant and watching this young man with his sleeves rolled up rolling containers of ice to the bar and managing the checkout,” she says. Mitchell asked him his story and found out he was a business major graduating next May. She handed him her business card. “He is the type of person that we want. All you had to do was observe his work ethic. I thought let’s hire him into the store we just opened and by next fall we could ship him to the store we’ll be opening across town and he could be a manager. This kid has a 3.25 GPA and his profile is perfect. One of our recruiters has already made touch and our AVP of operations has talked to him.”
Working for a supermarket can be much more exciting than most people think, Mitchell says. “Sometimes you don’t tell your story well enough, and people walking in the door can’t readily see it,” she says. “Our company was one of the leaders in creating our own internal software to track perpetual inventory and automatic reordering systems. That’s leading edge stuff that our programmers designed. It takes a lot of critical analysis and astuteness to work these programs and assess the needs.
“You have a large HR department at the store level, promotion and advertising work. Just think of all of the departments within a store,” Mitchell says. “Each one of them could stand as an independent small business. We have to get out there and sell that.”
And apparently the industry is starting to do a better job at just that.
“We’ve seen an increase in the enrollment in the last year of our food industry classes and a decline—a fairly marked decline—in those students expressing an interest in investment banking,” says Cornell University’s McLaughlin. “So yes, the food industry is benefiting from the duress in other parts of the economy and the expression of student interest in our food industry program has been growing.”
Social media for hire
So what’s the best way to attract top-notch executive talent? Placing an ad in Sunday’s paper? Hiring a headhunter agency? Tacking up a job posting on the break room memo board?
Try going the social media route.
“You can certainly go to the same headhunters that are filling positions for some of the top companies, but that’s not necessarily going to be an innovative way of getting talent directly,” says Beth Ann Kaminkow, president and COO of TracyLocke, a brand-to-retail marketing agency with principal offices in Wilton, Conn. and Dallas. “I would suggest going to Facebook, Monster, Linked-In and some of the other links. Appear in those arenas. Create a brand for yourself, create a conversation and attract talent that way.”
Hy-Vee seeks out young people with management potential by holding an annual Career Day for its high school and college-age employees at its West Des Moines, Iowa corporate headquarters. “We encourage our store directors to encourage the young people to attend,” says Rose Mitchell, senior vice president, education and government affairs.
“Our CEO personally speaks to the group,” she says. Booths with career opportunities are set up around the big conference room, and the event attracts upwards of 500 people. “Whether they want a career in Hy-Vee or not we want them to come,” she says. “We have them fill out an entry sheet and we follow up with them. We’re looking at Twitter and blogging and those types of things to keep in touch with them and to tell our story. Even though they are working at the store, a lot of them have no idea of the kinds of opportunities, salaries and promotional opportunities that are available.”
Hy-Vee keeps in touch with high school students when they go away to college. “Our thinking is ‘Hey, why don’t you think of us when you are graduating from college?” Mitchell says.