Are you being served by your specialist staff?

Specialist staff such as style consultants and nutritionists are being hired by retailers to lend an extra hand to customers. A panel of experts discuss how they add value.

The panel:

Ryan Cheyne
People director
Pets at Home

Lena Rose
Regional controller for the South
Ann Summers

Paul Kendrick
Group development director
JD Williams (part of the N Brown group, which also includes High & Mighty and Simply Be)

Richard Baylis
Head of retail


Marketing Week (MW): How do you use specialist staff in your stores?

Ryan Cheyne (RC): At Pets at Home we have a Specially Qualified Person (SQP) scheme for colleagues who are trained to sell pet medicines. About three years ago, a number of pet medicines were deregulated previously they were only availably by prescription from a vet. To be able to sell these medicines, you have to be a SQP. Being able to offer these products is a key part of our being a specialist retailer.

Some of our colleagues also undertake a two-day dog and cat nutrition programme, so we can offer free nutritional advice. It helps build relationships with our customers and increases loyalty.

The key thing about being a specialist is not only having products that general retailers won’t have, but having colleagues who know what they’re talking about. We train all our colleagues to a core knowledge level, such as the needs of different pets that we sell such as rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and fish, as well as ones that we don’t sell, like dogs and cats, as they are still a key part of our market.

Lena Rose (LR): We train staff about all Ann Summers’ products which is important because they are specialist personal items. Our customers need to feel confident that we have their best interests in mind and will always sell them the most appropriate items from our ranges.

Paul Kendrick (PK): High & Mighty stores offer a personal shopping service, and our Simply Be stores have style consultants who provide a one-to-one service and are there purely to advise. You can book these services or just walk in.

In High & Mighty, the store managers run the service. It has a lot of high-end customers who ask for help to organise a made-to-measure suit.

The Simply Be style consultants not only do clothes fittings but shoe and bra fittings. They have been trained in what suits different body shapes, and can recommend not just products available in store but from the wider N Brown group [such as].

Richard Baylis (RB): We introduced the O2 Gurus to our stores in 2010. They are there to provide jargon-free impartial advice, whether someone is an O2 customer or not. They also offer tips on everything from the best games available on your phone to changing the security settings on your laptop. They aim to teach every customer three things they didn’t already know about their technology. Remarkably, they nearly always manage it.

Gurus are there to provide jargon-free advice, whether someone is an O2 customer or not.

MW: What specialist training must value-added floor staff receive?

RC: Our core Steps training programme is compulsory nobody can sell a pet until they have completed step one. Step two builds on that knowledge and after completing these two compulsory elements staff get a pay increase.

Step three is when the added value comes in, in terms of training our SQPs.

Because of our store structure nearly all are in retail parks, trading from 9am to 8pm we need a lot of specialists to cover these hours so we have as many on the shop floor as possible all the time. So although we invest a great deal of money on training our SQPs, it is so valuable to us and our customers, and we pay colleagues with that qualification an extra £500 a year to reflect their value. We have over 4,500 retail staff and about a quarter are SQPs.

LR: We introduced the Ann Summers Academy of Passion 18 months ago, focusing on service and selling. Staff also get frequent and detailed training on all our products with particular attention paid to sex toys and bra fitting. These items have a huge range of different features and benefits so it is vital our store colleagues are able to explain them. We are constantly introducing new products so the frequency of training is high to ensure all staff are up to speed on the latest lines.
Our buying team are key to the training our store colleagues receive as they have designed the products and so they understand how each one works.

O2 Gurus

We hold regular bra-fitting training sessions to build knowledge of how each bra fits. We also encourage our store colleagues to try the bras on so they can talk from experience.

PK: In Simply Be, the style consultants are recruited for their experience but they are given additional training in terms of how our sizing works, compared with competitors. They spend a lot of time with our quality assurance division and our buyers to understand the latest fashions. On the High & Mighty side, we rely on the longevity of our store managers, and the fact that many are skilled tailors.

RB: All O2 Gurus attend a four-day residential foundation course during which they receive training on particular devices and operating platforms from all the handset manufacturers. They are trained in skills such as presenting, problem solving and team working.

MW: What prompted you to put these specialists in place and how do their roles differ from sales assistants?

RC: The knowledge our staff have reinforces the specialist credentials associated with the Pets at Home brand. Our SQPs are regular colleagues and will serve on the till like everybody else but if a customer comes in asking for specific pet advice they will be the one to talk it through with them.

PK: Our first Simply Be stores opened last month on the back of the fact that a lot of people said they found it difficult to find well-fitting clothes on the high street in larger sizes [previously the brand was only available online or by catalogue]. We understand the differences between someone that is 5ft 2in and a size 16 or someone who is 5ft 8in and that size. The style consultant is there to provide the personal service and we have separate sales assistants to do more operational tasks.

RB: We decided to introduce the O2 Guru role after extensive research into what our customers want and need from us. They are not salespeople.

People traditionally think those who work in retail are low paid and low skilled, but that really isn’t the case for us.

Ryan Cheyne, Pets at Home

MW: How do you motivate these staff?

PK: Our Simply Be style consultants do not get individual bonuses. You do hope that the customer buys, and the consultant up-sells and cross-sells, so that is how we measure their success. No one in the store is commission based; it is more of a team bonus structure so everyone is seen as equal.

We also measure success on the multi-channel side of things, so if a customer doesn’t buy in store they might go home and order online. In an ideal world we be able to track all store visits to online sales, but if the customer has an account with us, as the majority do, we can definitely track it.

RB: Performance is measured on the satisfaction ratings collected from our customers, and also on things like footfall in store.

The gurus are championed internally and it is seen as a highly desirable role. Far from being a stepping stone to a sales role, some of our sales advisers retrain to become gurus themselves. We had over 6,000 applicants for 60 guru positions in a recent round of recruitment.

MW: What customer feedback have you had about your use of value-added floor staff and how will you use this to improve the service?

RC: In April, Pets at Home launched a customer measurement tool called Fish for Opinion with insight agency SMG. We used to do mystery shopping and we would get about 3,000 pieces of customer feedback a year, but Fish for Opinion has given us 50,000 pieces of feedback. We are using that to inform our customer service.

LR: We receive a fair volume of feedback from customers to our support centre and to Ann Summers stores. We hear that they appreciate the professional and knowledgeable service they receive and the passion our colleagues show about the products they are selling. As a result ’passion’ has become an integral part of our brand values. We also encourage teams to share experiences and best practice.

Passion for products: Ann Summers has an academy to train staff about its products and the skill of bra fitting

PK: It’s early days for Simply Be stores, but we will have some customer exit polls in the next few weeks. But on the opening night of our first Liverpool store, a woman was in tears after having a bra fitting. Our staff found she had been wearing the wrong size and were able to find her a better fit.

RB: In the stores where we have gurus, we have an average of 94% customer satisfaction. We have also seen a 30% reduction in handset returns.

MW: Have you used the concept of specialist floor staff as a PR or marketing story?

RC: In our latest shop fit, which we will roll out across the Pets at Home chain, we have developed point of sale that is very personal. Around the food aisles there will be signs with the pet nutrition adviser’s picture and handwritten notes on what they specialise in.

People traditionally think those who work in retail are low paid and low skilled, but that really isn’t the case for us. We are building on elements of this in our national press and TV activity. Everyone who featured in our last TV campaign was a real Pets at Home colleague. Not only do we need to invest in our staff knowledge but there is a job to do at communicating this knowledge to the wider public.

PK: Most of our PR has been about explaining our multi-channel offering, so for example we are promoting our fitting services and that people can book them online. We haven’t aggressively pushed it yet but we will.

RB: We launched a nationwide campaign in 2010 where we took the gurus on the road, helping people all over the country get the most out of their technology. The Guru Roadshow visited Glasgow, Newcastle, Birmingham, Brighton, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds over the summer. We helped 8,000 people in all.

We also ran an above-the-line campaign earlier in the year to promote the gurus and have a Guru channel on YouTube.

LR: Our Westfield Stratford store opening has attracted a lot of attention for its new store concept designed by agency Fitch. Key features are the themed changing rooms, with environments such as Mile High Club and Naughty School Girl for staff to conduct fittings in. The Fitch team had insight from previous work that 80% of people shop just 20% of the total store. The new store design shows how key touchpoints for staff and customer interaction can make a huge difference.

MW: Do you think that specialist advisers are something all retail brands with stores should eventually implement?

RC: Before I was at Pets at Home I was at TopShop, and we were one of the first high street brands to introduce personal shoppers and style advisers. Similar to Pets at Home, service is a point of difference. There are clearly some areas of retail that are quite transactional where there is less focus on service. If you’re in a discount store environment, what customers really want is product availability.

LR: I feel there are very few retailers that wouldn’t see a benefit from having value-added shop floor staff. Customers are becoming more discerning and any retailer that believes a service-focused culture is not a benefit will surely struggle in the future as trading remains challenging. Service excellence can be translated into any store selling any products it’s the people who are key to delivering it.

PK: It depends on the brand. If you’re a value retailer, does it fit with a low-cost model? It certainly works if you’re a brand at the higher end of a scale in a niche market.