With no shortage of people looking for work, finding the right person for the job can be tricky. Sarah Britton gets some tips on how to make sure you get the best recruits.

With UK unemployment at more than 2.5 million, you’d think you’d have your pick when it comes to finding a new member of staff. But with so many people available, finding the right person for the job can be a struggle.

“Recruiting people is a headache,” states Yorkshire Costcutter retailer Sat Deo. “We end up with 30-40 people applying for a single position. Even after you take them on, they still sometimes decide they don’t like it and leave!”

It’s a similar story at Knight’s Budgens of Hassocks in West Sussex. “My biggest challenge at the moment is hiring staff,” says owner David Knight. “We needed a shelf filler for produce on Saturdays. The vacancy came up in September, and in January we were on our fourth applicant. We’ve had about 30 people apply for it every time!”

Saki Ghafoor, who runs two Nisa stores in Northumberland, agrees that hiring can be a nightmare. “It’s trying to find the right member of staff that’s tricky,” he says. “We’re getting a lot of people applying - 100-200 calls per job. But three-quarters of these are no good, and some people join and then leave in a couple of weeks.”

However, there are techniques you can use to ensure you’re not wasting your time. The National Skills Academy (NSA) for Retail has skills shops across the UK, which offer all manner of advice on hiring staff. “Skills shops can provide support if you don’t know how to go about it,” says organisation head Jane Rexworthy. “They can also help sift out candidates who aren’t cut out for the job. Our Retail Works programme weeds out people who aren’t going to make the grade and makes people think about where they actually want to work - a supermarket, a convenience store, a clothes shop and so on. We’re eager for retailers to utilise these resources.”

Roli Ranger of Londis Ascot in Berkshire has found another way to take the hassle out of hiring. “I take on a lot of school kids for paid work experience. I have five or six of them aged between 14 and 16. We get to train them and, because it is their first role, you can really nurture them. These are the first people we’ll approach when a vacancy comes up as it’s a natural progression for them.”

If you choose to go down the traditional route of advertising a job description, then there are ways to reduce the quantity of job applications you receive, while increasing their quality. “You need to ascertain that you are looking for someone with key attributes, such as a good team worker,” says Rexworthy. “Then you can ask for a demonstration of a specific skill for that role,” she says. “Even if it is a first jobber, they should be able to give you an example of this skill.”

Another method is to advertise the position to people who have already shown an interest in the business. “We use Facebook to advertise our vacancies and put up a sign on the shop door,” says Sid Ali, owner of Nisa outlets in Maud and Mintlaw in Aberdeenshire. “It has worked well so far and we have had some great applicants.”

Sid takes a tough stance when it comes to reviewing candidates. “We filter applications, first by seeing who has filled in the application form properly and sent in their CV.” He then invites three or four of the best to an interview.

Reality check

During the interview process, it is vital that you give people a clear idea of what the job entails. This will avoid them accepting the position and then realising further down the line that it doesn’t suit them. “When I interview people, I warn them I have high standards,” says Sat. “It’s not like the shop in Coronation Street where staff sit around with a cup of tea and chat! If the store is quiet, then the cashier will be filling up the shelves.”

C-store roles are often varied, and people need to understand what is required of them, adds Rexworthy. “Knowing the pressure points of the job and highlighting these to the candidate is important. For example, flexibility is often key in convenience store roles, and you also need to know how well people respond under pressure.”

She suggests giving the applicant an in-store scenario to find out whether they can prioritise effectively. “For example, you can ask them if they’re at the till serving customers, but a delivery arrives and head office is on the phone, how would they handle the situation? You are looking for people to be logical and to put the customer first in that scenario. It’s about making it real for your specific environment.”

David ensures he paints an accurate picture for potential recruits. After so many people had accepted and then abandoned the shelf-filler position, he decided to involve another member of staff in the recruitment process. “Our fresh produce head sat in on the interviews. They were able to highlight key areas of the role to make the candidate realise exactly what is expected of them,” he says. “It was important to make them aware of the 5am starts and the fact that they would be working in a refrigerated environment.”

Involving staff in the interview process is a technique that Costcutter retailer Richard Williams of Williams Supermarket in Somerset uses. “We tend to find applicants via word of mouth, then store manager Matt Carson does the first round of interviews. He will be working with them on a day-to-day basis so it is important that they get on.”

Sunder Sandher, who owns two Londis stores in Headington and Leamington, also gets staff to participate in interviews. “I’ll do a 10-minute interview on the shopfloor, talking to the recruit and chatting with staff at the counter,” he says. “Then I’ll ask my staff whether they think they will be a good fit. It’s important to get staff involved as they’re the ones who will be working with them and they all need to get on.”

Ask the right questions

Sunder is quick to filter out fibbers in his interviews. “I had training in recruiting people from Warwick Council, which taught me how to catch out people who weren’t telling the truth in their applications. I interviewed someone who said on their CV that they had been trained on the till, so I asked how they would do a return transaction and they weren’t able to explain.” The fact that they were inexperienced on the till wasn’t such an issue, but being dishonest was unacceptable and Sunder didn’t give them the job.

Sat has similar criteria. “I don’t look for experience I look for sociable, honest people. I can train them to do the rest,” he says.

Rexworthy concurs that, while retail experience is valuable, it is the less tangible skills that can be the most important. “The attributes of softer skills, such as behaviour, as opposed to academic skills, are critical. Good interpersonal skills are important for customer service, and teamwork skills are also key to the success of the business.”

Costcutter chief executive Darcy Willson-Rymer agrees that passion is crucial. “Customer service has to be genuine and authentic, so finding the people who want to make a difference to your customers is vital,” he says. He claims that when he was running Starbucks, the HR director identified that the firm employed people who could do things, but not who wanted to do things. “So we moved from competency-based recruitment to asking applicants to list things they loved and hated, then talking to them about those things at interview. Then we employed those who loved things similar to what they were being recruited for.”

Adds Rexworthy: “You need to employ people who have a smile on their faces and who like being around people,” she says. “While doing tasks they will be interrupted, so they need to be able to cope with that, and be good at customer service all the time - not just switch it on.”

She urges retailers to find out whether candidates have a natural ability to upsell. “Are they able to think about what else customers might need beyond the product they are buying? For example, if a customer is buying a birthday card, will your candidate be able to suggest gift wrap as an additional purchase? Or if a customer is buying flowers, can they converse with the customer about the product and make them feel confident in the purchase?” These types of skills can be monitored through role plays, with members of the existing team joining in.

The best staff are those who can’t stop talking, says Sunder, who phones all his candidates prior to the interview to ensure they have the gift of the gab. He even has a shrewd test to see if they are truly committed. “If I’ve found someone I want to hire, I tell them they’ll work for two weeks unpaid - just to see their reaction,” he says. “The ones who say they don’t mind are the ones who are truly passionate and really want to work in your store. (Of course, I tell them later that I was just being cheeky!)”

Willson-Rymer sums up: “To provide exceptional service you have to have people who want to give exceptional service to each and every individual, not people who can. There is a big difference between can and want.”

So next time you embark on hiring a new member of staff, remember to take into account their experience, but also the skills that aren’t on paper. Ensuring that you give candidates an accurate idea of what is required and ask questions that assess their retail nous, you’ll be well on your way to finding the right person for your team.•

DOs and DON’Ts

- DO let people in your area know you are looking for an employee. You can do this through word of mouth, or by advertising in the shop window, in town and on Facebook
- DO write down the questions you want to ask in advance, and have any role plays prepared beforehand
- DO look out for someone who makes eye contact
- DON’T rush the process. Give enough time for the interview and follow a pattern in the way that you conduct the interview so that you can benchmark
- DON’T recruit someone who doesn’t meet the criteria. Some retailers pick people who are like themselves, when this may not be the best balance
- DON’T be afraid to ask for help. There are 50 National Skills Academy for Retail skills shops across the UK. Contact the NSA for Retail on 020 7462 5089, or go to www.nsaforretail.com.