Even a retailer with the most efficient back office systems cannot dismiss the importance of the customer’s initial contact with its offer - the store and its staff. And that’s why the store manager is one of the most important links in any grocer’s chain of command.
The Grocer 33 created its Storewatch title to recognise store managers who excel at their job, so we turned to some of those star performers (above) on the anniversary of our weekly shopping survey to find out what are the essential qualities needed to perform that role.
Their ideas make for interesting reading, not only because some of the qualities they cite are not obvious ones, but there is a high level of agreement about what separates the best from the rest.
Peter King, director of retail operations at Sainsbury, says: “The first thing I would look for is an individual who’s great with people.”
According to managers we spoke to, that quality is a multi-faceted one, incorporating approachability, leading from the shop floor - not the office - and having the ability to develop your staff. As John Parker, manager of the Waitrose store in Saltash, Cornwall, says: “An unapproachable manager misses out on opportunities with their staff. You cannot lock yourself away in your office.”
Excellent communications skills ease staff relations and our Storewatch managers put this quality up among their highest priorities, along with the ability to listen.
Ian Drinkel, north-eastern and Cumbrian food and non-food controller for the Co-operative Group, says: “You need to communicate well on all levels, from senior employees to checkout staff.”
The ability to inspire and motivate staff is another trait that’s highly valued and the foundations for this are also found in clear dialogue with employees.
Tesco stores director Steve Brooks says: “Good people are inspired, great people can inspire others.”
Mark Price, Waitrose director of selling and marketing, says that a manager who has passion and drive is half-way towards this goal. “You also need energy and determination, because food retailing can grind you down. You must also aim to be a little better than the day before.”
Brooks reckons that the ability to relax into your role and enjoy it is also an inspiration for staff.
“A great manager creates a fun place to work - a great instore atmosphere,” he says. The capacity to have fun is a sign that a store manager is on top of his job and eases relationships with staff members.
The ability to be hands-on with the technology and assist staff in learning to operate it is also vital. A store manager must be the first to grasp the intricacies of systems innovations, from self-scanning to till software.
Says King: “Given the onward march of technology, you have to have a basic foundation enabling you to bridge technical and basic operations.”
As the rate of technological development speeds up, it is important for store managers to adapt quickly - an ability they need to exercise daily on the shop floor.
Adrian Fielding, manager of the Tesco store in Newton Abbot, Devon, says prioritising and refusing to get bogged down in detail is key.
Of course, focusing on priorities is particularly challenging in the face of numerous distractions but it holds the secret to effective multi-tasking, a quality singled out by Chris Tilly, manager of the Asda store in Plymouth, Devon. “You have to be able to think on your feet and deal with a number of tasks simultaneously,” he says.
Dealing with a dissatisfied customer demanding compensation, two tills going down and a suspected shoplifter at peak shopping time, is one possible challenge for a store manager.
All the Storewatch managers we spoke to said that the greatest influence on a store manager’s practical decisions should be concern for the customer. The core principle of retail is that the customer always comes first. But exactly what does that mean?
Part of the answer lies in the ability to empathise with customers and taking the trouble to find out from them what they need from the store.
Somerfield’s MacDonald says: “I asked customers what they thought was wrong with the store and that threw up all kinds of things. For example, we were stacking tins of pease pudding so high on our shelves that our older customers, with whom it was very popular, couldn’t reach it.”
David Learoyd, manager of the Co-operative Group’s store in Whitby, Yorkshire, adds: “You have to get to know your customers and where time allows you must get involved in the local community, breeding loyalty there.”
A broad understanding of the retailer they work for helps a store manager implement company initiatives seamlessly and it is important to network with neighbouring stores within the retail chain. Steve King, manager of the Sainsbury store in Macclesfield, says: “Networking is important. And that will include cluster activity, being able to share best practice with other stores and co-ordinating campaigns and activities.”
A knowledge of industry-wide issues often separates a great store manager from an average one, according to managers we talked to. Learoyd says: “You must understand the wider issues because customers often do.”
That, incidentally, is where a good trade journal always comes in handy…
And with the demands of the job growing ever more complex, The Grocer 33’s Storewatch will continue to highlight those whose stores reflect the great job they do.