The multiples must pull together if they are to attract the high calibre managers and store staff capable of fulfilling the promises they are making today. Helen Gregory explains why There's a war on ­ and service is the new battleground. It is of little use having thermo-nuclear woks or the cheapest prices, if your tills are manned by surly staff or your stores run by inexperienced managers. Retailers harp on about customer service at every opportunity, and love to boast about how many new jobs they're creating, but where will all these happy, smiling staff come from to fulfil the promise of high standards? It certainly doesn't look too hopeful if the vacancies' boards outside most stores are anything to go by. Our survey of 100 store managers at multiple retailers (see below) revealed that a third were finding it more difficult to recruit staff and believed that the calibre of the recruits was dropping. A quarter thought there was a detrimental effect on the business as a result. Another recent study by The Grocer found that overcharging, undercharging and missing items at the till had more than doubled in the last six months. It revealed that shop staff had a poor knowledge of the different types of fruit and vegetables and illustrated that the trade-off between the quest for speedy checkout and keeping the customer satisfied was having a negative impact on service. So good staff are not only hard to find - bad ones grow worse in an environment that's less than conducive to good service. Many stores are now experiencing the Auf Wiedersehen Pet effect in a bid to fill vacancies ­ bussing workers in from different parts of the country. Somerfield's Hungerford store regularly brings in workers from London because it cannot fill night-shift shelf stacking posts. And its Berwick Street store, in Soho, has introduced an unconventional three day working week for checkout staff who travel from Essex, by extending the hours on the days they do work. Another chain takes shop workers 100 miles from one region of the country to another every week to work in its distribution centre. One area manager says the adage that any store north of Cambridge has an easier time recruiting is no longer true. "It's hard to get good people everywhere." He believes the industry must think more laterally. "You can't just expect people to turn up and want to work for you," he adds. And another retail director concludes: "There have always been problem areas in the south of England and in parts of Scotland, but now there are more and they're everywhere in the country. Retailers need to be more inventive in order to recruit people." However much PR spin the multiples put on, retailing is still not perceived as a glamorous or exciting job ­ despite the fact that store managers can be responsible for the staffing equivalent of a medium sized businesses and earn in the region of £50,000 a year, along with company car and share options. This is evident in the numbers attracted away from the industry by glossy marketing firms and spunky dot.coms. A jaundiced view is often gained by students doing a stint on the checkout to raise cash to help them through college. They see how hard the work is for the shop staff and do not believe the stores are able to meet their career aspirations. So another potential, permanent recruit bites the dust. Other businesses would probably kill for the chance to have thrusting young talent do a stint at their company, but there's little evidence that the multiples are developing a closer working relationship with these youngsters by keeping in touch, offering them development programmes or encouraging them to return after college. Added to this, many young people are spurning Saturday jobs altogether so they can study for AS levels. They're so busy swotting to get into college that they don't get the chance to follow the route many of today's managers took ­ from Saturday worker to chief exec. And their absence increases the difficulties for retailers trying to get bums on till seats each weekend. National statistics show that during the next eight years the number of jobs will rise and, overall, two million new managerial, professional and technical workers will be needed by 2009. Food and grocery is only one sector competing for these people and things will only get tougher. One in three 21-year-olds is in further education ­ a rise from one in eight 10 years ago ­ and colleges will spew out 400,000 graduates this year. All this extra talent sounds promising. But Simon Reichwald, head of the graduate division at recruitment consultant Merston Peters, says many graduates look to marketing companies as somewhere they can make an impact. "Retailing is still seen as forcing people to work long hours and weekends and as being hard on everyone." He cites the example of one talented student, offered a place on both Waitrose and Sainsbury's graduate scheme recently, who turned both down in the hope of a more exciting career. Reichwald says chains need to drive home the training and development opportunities that there are. "It's getting more difficult to recruit good graduates because retailers must compete harder with IT and marketing companies." He warns that the trend will have a profound effect on retail businesses if it is left unchecked. "If you haven't got young, bright talent who will be the standard bearers of the culture of your business, it will become a serious problem." One industry pundit thinks the discrepancy between academic qualifications needed for a head office job and those required for an in-store post highlights why the industry has recruitment problems. Not all chains will admit to it, but Tesco, for one, asks for a 2:2 grade degree in stores, but a 2:1 at head office. "I think this speaks volumes about some of the issues that retailers are experiencing," he says. "It's as if you have to be pretty exceptional to get into head office, but that you're not as highly valued in store." One way multiple retailers could ease the recruitment pressure in store is to employ more part time, older people, in line with the country's changing demographics, according to Martin Hall, director of the British Institute of Retailing. He believes the industry is failing to convert what interest there is into hard recruits. While boys who choose retailing as a career prefer to go into music or sports stores and girls like fashion, grocery just isn't seen as sexy by youngsters. "The industry doesn't market the massive depth and range of functions that a large food chain requires ­ young people don't know about the opportunities." He adds: "We still don't have a single degree course in retail technology, and information about retail isn't being given out by schools and career services. And these people don't know because the industry doesn't tell them." IGD chief executive Joanne Denney agrees that although individual retailers do a good job, the industry needs to present a more coherent front and a more attractive image. "We must match the values and meet the aspirations of our young recruits. For instance, they don't like to spend five years under close supervision. They like to make a quick impact. We must offer this opportunity. "There seems to be very little understanding of who we are as an industry and what we do. There are some old-fashioned perceptions about the industry ­ some people think we are low-tech for example, or they focus on some of the more unsophisticated jobs in the sector. I don't think we have the profile that we should have, which is a barrier in recruitment." She adds: "We have to make sure we're not complacent and that we don't lose out to other sectors, otherwise we won't remain world class on a global stage - people are the competitive edge." This is a sentiment echoed by the Association of Graduate Recruiters. Chief executive Carl Gilleard says the sector hasn't got across what retail management actually means. "They can't blame the media or careers advisors for not doing it - it's up to them and a joint effort would help." Its latest research found that the average graduate starting salary was £20,000 but that the lowest paid jobs were expected to be in the retail, hotel and catering industries. However, despite evidence to show otherwise, it seems many retail directors don't want to discuss the issue of recruitment; they're either too scared to admit the problem or blissfully ignorant. And when you talk to head office, the vacancy figures can be fudged ( we work on different criteria so it's wrong to judge one company against another') or omitted. Those that do talk are still upbeat and stubbornly confident that a career in retail is still something many people aspire to. Iceland chief executive Bill Grimsey says recruitment will be an important part of the chain's policy. "I haven't inherited a company graduate programme but I want to put one in place next year like I did at Wickes. You need a policy right the way through your staff, starting with the young people." The recent failures have put him in bullish mood: "The reality is that strong, good corporates with good programmes for career development opportunities are a damned good place to start." Booker md Gerry Johnson says a blend of new and old staff are needed. "The business runs most efficiently when you're growing your own talent. It's fundamental that you give people opportunities. You can't just smile at people and give them the cheapest tin of beans, the offer needs to be complete." He says he has not previously found it hard to get good people. "Once a company has got a good story to tell, you start to attract talent." Offering flexible management contracts is a solution which can't be overlooked considering the high percentage of women and part-timers in retail. About 80% of women work full-time until they have a baby. Then the figure falls to 15%. So inflexible working hours and rigid practices for managers could equate to costly staff turnover and the loss of valuable experience. Career breaks of up to two years, offering the same or similar positions on return, or an option of job sharing would encourage many women employees to return after the birth of their babies. In addition, retailers could do with a Saatchi & Saatchi type image makeover and present themselves as a more viable career option to sceptical school leavers and graduates. But the chains can't go it alone. However good their intentions and whatever they say, acting individually may not be enough to sustain the industry in the future. The multiples need to swallow their pride and show a united front if they're to win the battle for good jobseekers. {{COVER FEATURE }}