The Natural Employer
Success has its price. When you're a buyer for a growing department in a natural products store, you come to the point where you can't do it alone anymore. You need to split up your job with at least one other person. But how? What do you keep and what do you give away?
In his 25 years at First Alternative, a food cooperative in Corvallis, Ore., Jim Dobis has faced this dilemma before. At one time or another he has been the buyer for every department except produce and has gone through the process of dividing up the job with an assistant. At the moment he is developing a new assistant in the nonfoods department (vitamins, supplements, personal care and general merchandise) so that he can also take on the duties of grocery manager for the co-op's 7,000-square-foot main store.
First, cautions Dobis, the new assistant has to understand that there's more to the job than meets the eye. "People tend to think buying products is what makes their job important. They don't always realize they'll have margin goals to meet, they'll have to maintain appropriate back-stock level, and they'll have to learn which brokers to take with a grain of salt."
Dobis starts off a trainee with replacement ordering duties only. He or she will sit in on Dobis' meetings with brokers and reps, then discuss the experience afterward and learn how to read between the lines of manufacturers' claims.
To build product knowledge, Dobis gives the trainee notes of customer questions that accumulate during his time off from the store. Using the co-op's library of reference books and its online service, the trainee looks up the answers and gets the information to the customers.
Another important part of training an assistant is reviewing monthly and quarterly reports on department sales, margins and turns that show comparisons with last year's results and with budgeted goals. Even if a department manager retains bottom-line accountability, the assistant's understanding of and commitment to department goals can only improve her or his performance.
At first Dobis requires the trainee to get his permission before bringing in new products. As he feels increasing confidence in the trainee's product knowledge, discernment and grasp of financial indicators, he also turns over those new-product selection decisions.
Dobis likes to have some overlap of shifts with his assistant three days a week. However, in dividing up the hours, "Management needs to take their share of the lousy shifts," he says, "and not just take the cream."
At First Alternative's main store, the nonfoods department consists of a team of four plus the department manager. Although the manager retains final responsibility for sales, margin and inventory turns, all team members have replacement ordering responsibilities for assigned vendors. "By spreading the buying around, it makes each person's job more interesting and brings the team closer together," Dobis notes. This practice increases the potential for developing someone from within to be his assistant.
This time, however, when Dobis needed to split off nonfoods duties to take on grocery, none of the existing nonfoods staff felt ready to apply for the assistant job. Consequently, Dobis is now working with a new hire. This situation calls for even greater conscientious mentoring and support. He warns against expecting a new person to make decisions that impact department staff until the rest of the team has come to accept him or her. His advice to other managers: "Go slow, build acceptance and don't put your new assistant in a hard position too soon."
Perhaps the trickiest part of splitting off some of your duties is emotional, not logistical. Your new assistant might do things differently—maybe even better. But if he or she brings in new products that sell well, or gains a following among your customers, that's yet another sign of your success.
Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. She can be reached at 206.723.4040 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 58