Natural Foods Merchandiser
How to buildand maintaina great staff

How to buildand maintaina great staff

Get the know-how needed to hire and keep employees like Bill Calvani and Brandon Davis of Rebecca’s Natural Food, part of the store’s team for more than a decade.  

Rebecca's Natural Food
Rebecca's Natural Food

Family. It’s the word managers of standout natural products stores use when describing their teams. In an era when “you can get health food at King Soopers,” says KeriAn Dodson, manager of Rebecca’s Natural Food in Charlottesville, Va., loyal customers return for the high-quality niche products they can’t get elsewhere, for the ethical sourcing policies and to support local business. More than anything, though, they come back to stores like Rebecca’s because they are “personal,” says grocery manager Bill Calvani. “The place and culture we’ve built are infused by the personalities here,” he says. “It’s not like so many other stores these days—where you could be anywhere.”

Find your people

People who are passionate about the natural lifestyle “tend to find us,” says owner Norman Dill, who founded Rebecca’s in 1989. Dodson keeps résumés on file for six months and says she’s found some of her best people that way. The store also posts openings on its website, Craigslist and Facebook.

In contrast, larger chains such as Pharmaca, a 12-year-old integrative pharmacy-retail chain with 24 stores and 500 employees in five Western states, have a more formal process. “Because our model involves natural health care practitioners, we recruit at different schools,” says Nancy Hoopes, Pharmaca’s vice president of human resources, legal and administration. “We tell graduates, here’s an opportunity in which we can help you grow your business on the side, and you can use your knowledge and get a paycheck and benefits.”

What personal qualities matter most? Natural-retail managers agree that they include a positive attitude; direct, clear communication skills; and most important, being a warm, friendly “people person” with a talent for connecting with customers. At Rebecca’s, where an open-plan design puts all employees working on the 2,600-square-foot floor most of the day, managers often conduct interviews in the small back office to assess how comfortable candidates are in close quarters.

How much experience? When it comes to hiring grocery associates and cashiers, “I prefer a thirst for learning to someone who knows it all,” Dodson says. “It’s important to be open.” For supplement and health-and-beauty-aid staff, having a knowledge base is more important, says Tunie’s Natural Grocery and Vitamin Supercenter’s owner Taylor Hamilton, who runs a 20-year-old store in Coral Springs, Fla., and opened another 15,000-square-foot Palm Beach Shores location in March.

Consider these additional hiring strategies

  • Encourage honest self-assessment. A favorite interview question of the Rebecca’s management team is: What would your last supervisor say were your top three work-style qualities—and what would he say you need to work on? “It helps them to be honest with us, and helps us evaluate and move forward,” Dodson says.


  • Debra's Natural Gourmet
    Debra's Natural Gourmet
    A prolific writer, Debra Stark, founder of West Concord, Mass.-based Debra’s Natural Gourmet, asks candidates to write three paragraphs on who they are, why they want to work in her store, and what skills they think they’d bring to the team. “You get a lot of clues about a person by reading something they wrote,” Stark says.


  • Broaden the conversation. Getting applicants to talk about what they do in their spare time is a favorite tactic for Elizabeth Stagl, cofounder of the 3,350-square-foot Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass. “We get a much more rounded view when we engage them in conversation.” She’s also always impressed when someone has done his homework to research the store’s mission, history and current staff.

Train your team

At the stores we spoke with, all fresh hires study the outlet’s training manual, one that’s regularly updated and covers topics such as how to talk to customers, as well as Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act regulations on structure-function claims and what staff can and can’t say about supplements.

At the same time, managers say some of the best training happens by osmosis, as new staffers learn from experienced employees and customers. “Being trained means the staff member is confident on the floor,” says Stagl, whose store employs 15. “That doesn’t mean she knows everything, but she feels comfortable that she can handle the customers’ needs, even if it means getting help.”

Set the tone with these tips

  • Start with core values and competencies. A key part of Pharmaca’s interactive training module is introducing—and spelling out—the company’s core values: teamwork, self-accountability, environmental sustainability, community, profitability and customers/clients/associates. “For instance, the handbook explains that self-accountability means you are accountable for your own growth; don’t expect others to do it for you,” Hoopes says. “You set out the behaviors associated with expectations so that people are very clear.” Getting more granular, the manual also outlines competencies such as greeting customers within a certain time after entering the store, answering the phone by the third ring and so on.


  • Foster an ongoing learning environment. During slow times at Rebecca’s, the 24 team members spend 15 or 30 minutes in the back room doing online trainings provided by vendors. They also attend vendor-hosted training lunches and dinners. At Cambridge Naturals, senior staffers hold frequent trainings on health issues, covering product information and suggestions to offer customers. When Stark hosts an expert talk on topics such as GMOs and osteoporosis, she finds that staffers who help carry up chairs from the basement usually stay to listen and enthusiastically learn. 


  • Set the bar high for customer service. “I ask all of my employees to treat every customer as if he or she is a best friend,” says Stark, whose own caring personality sets the tone for her team of 48. “If you treat someone that way, very often you can disarm even a problem customer with humor, and collectively they become your cheering section.” Killing them with kindness—and fostering a close-knit community while you’re at it—is working for Stark, whose 23-year-old 3,200-square-foot store has enjoyed double-digit growth every month in 2013. “It’s a crowded, happy place,” she marvels.

Manage for motivation


Motivation can be as individual as your employees. Figuring out what your employees want and finding a way to give it to them, or to let them earn it, is a great place to start. “It’s a manager’s job to provide constant feedback to associates,” says Hamilton, whose Tunie’s stores employ 75. “Daily praise for doing things well and constructive feedback when improvement is needed helps set clear expectations,” he says, and helps support associates to grow
within your store.

Use these tried-and-true tactics

  • Match people with their strengths. “If an associate is struggling, I always ask him what his favorite and least favorite parts of the job are,” Hamilton says. “It’s amazing how one person’s favorite thing to do around the store is another person’s worst nightmare. If someone doesn’t like what he’s doing, he’s not going to do it well; it’s human nature.” At Rebecca’s, Supplement, Health and Beauty Department Manager Brandon Davis might assign deadline-oriented tasks to a team member who’s easily distracted and give extra responsibilities to another who gets bored when it’s slow.


  • Be a great communicator. Open, frequent communication motivates employees by making them feel valued and enfranchised. After “being treated as if she didn’t have a brain” at a previous job, Stark decided that when she started her own business, she’d create a community based on trust. “How can you ask people to work hard for you if they don’t know what’s going on?” she asks. To that end, she posts the store’s sales and loss numbers daily and writes two-page memos that she staples to every paycheck: an eclectic mix of good news about team members and customers, write-ups of meetings and events managers have attended, relevant snippets about natural industry trends and a parting joke. “Our staff is really terrific,” she explains. “Anything I can do to help make them more terrific is only to the business’s advantage.”


  • Share the wealth. Sharing a portion of after-tax profits is a no-brainer for motivation. Although natural retailers do annual reviews and set goals with individuals, most choose to distribute bonuses to store teams, so everyone wins. At Pharmaca, bonuses are tied to each store’s quarterly Customer Scorecard, a combination of feedback from customers who fill out online surveys (touted on store receipts), professional mystery shoppers and unsolicited sources such as letters, emails and Yelp! comments. Biannually, Stark divides 20 percent (or more) of after-tax profits among Debra’s Naturals team members based on individuals’ hours worked and salary, as well as “how I see they’re interacting with customers, one another and me,” she says.

Susan Enfield is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer with extensive health and business experience.

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