Managers who go above and beyond the call of duty can take their stores into a different league. But just how do you spot a potential great among the crowd? Katie Daubney investigates

It was shortly after he saw the 1980s film Top Gun that Paul Gilligan decided he wanted to become a fighter pilot. But after failing to fulfil the necessary criteria – not least 20/20 vision and the height requirement – he “drifted into food retail” and is now manager of Sainsbury’s Islington in London.

Pipe dreams aside, things worked out well for Gilligan, who was crowned Retail Week’s store manager of the year in 2006. But for many retailers, for whom store managers are central to the success of the business, the fact that this job is often one that people end up in by default rather than choice, can be a problem.

Pets at Home head of HR Ryan Cheyne uses a football analogy. “When a team loses a great manager they often plummet in the league but, equally, if a team is struggling and takes on a great manager, even if nothing else changes, it often results in a dramatic reversal of fortunes,” he says.

As the store manager is so pivotal, it is important to identify what sets a great one apart from the crowd. Firstly, an outstanding store manager has the ability to build a good team. Darrell Thrush-Denning, manager of Edinburgh’s Blackwell store and Retail Week’s present manager of the year, impressed the judges with his ability to inspire his team and lead by example.

Blackwell chief executive Vince Gunn says: “Everyone should feel they have an important role to play. It can reduce staff turnover and help create an atmosphere where people want to work. Darrell embraces new ideas that staff present to him, which they feel areto the benefit of their department and the shop.”

Store managers must also be able to build a professional environment. Retail Performance Specialists chief executive Dennis Reid says they must be able to build an environment where the only acceptable way of doing things is the right way. “Employees must know that housekeeping, timekeeping and dress code are strictly adhered to and that disciplinary procedures will be enforced.”

Shop talk
Gilligan believes the ability to recruit the right people is intrinsic to success. Labour turnover is a problem for many retail businesses. When he took over at Sainsbury’s Islington he tried to ensure each employee felt fully engaged with the business and therefore responsible for it. Every candidate that was interviewed also had a five-minute conversation with him – something that a surprising number of store managers fail to do.

“I am particularly interested in interaction skills, their route to work and their past work experience. I get to know everyone that works for me before they start at the store, which makes my job of engaging more effective and easier,” he says.

This may be a lengthy process, but he says it has paid huge dividends. Total absence is now below 10 per cent and turnover is just above 30 per cent. Both these figures represent a store-best and allow it to hold its own within the London region.

All applicants for store manager positions at Pets at Home have to work in-store and interact with the team and customers before they are offered a job. This is more important than how much experience their CV boasts. Pets at Home is also starting to look outside its traditional hunting grounds for managers, with increasing numbers coming from the service industries. Cheyne explains: “We need someone who can motivate their team day in, day out, and offer excellent customer service.”

Another quality of an excellent store manager is having an absolute grasp of figures and commerciality. They will know precisely what the conversion rates are within their stores, the sales targets and the items per sale. And, adds Reid, if the items per sale figures are not high enough, they will know precisely what to do about it. “They must have a game plan, know what is killing the store and how to stop it,” he says.

Cheyne agrees: “Retailers are driven by results. The good ones have a hunger to chase the numbers and a desire to do better.”

Store managers are responsible for how customers are looked after once marketing has got them through the door. The top-notch ones will ensure that operations are running smoothly so that staff are free to concentrate on service. And, in the present economic climate, it is vital that shoppers are fully acknowledged and engaged with, if the average transaction value is to be increased.

HR consultant and former group HR director at Mosaic Fashions Liz Jewitt-Cross says: “I continue to be so disappointed as a customer when I walk into stores and the only person acknowledging my presence is the security guard at the front. Often assistants are so busy completing their head-office-imposed administrative tasks they haven’t the time to direct me to a great new product they have in.”

A balancing act
Store management is undoubtedly a demanding job that can entail an enormous amount of work. Having the systems in place to deal with the workload efficiently and calmly is vital, so first-class organisational skills are a prerequisite. If a particular retailer is a little heavy in its expectations of back-office administration, the outstanding store manager will be able to balance and delegate these responsibilities effectively, so as not to get sidetracked from the job of building and maintaining their sales performance and staff.

Reid insists there are three things a good manager will bear in mind at all times: operations, service compliance and sales. “If they are unrelenting in upholding systems to keep each of these operating smoothly, it will pay off in average transactional values,” he says.

Many people believe the success of the store manager can be measured in financial terms, because their targets are almost always concerned with achieving and improving financial goals. Equally, though, store management is not a science and the excellent ones will often possess certain intangible qualities.

Jewitt-Cross says it is crucial to explore and understand their actual achievement against their key performance indicators, and the contribution of their store to the overall performance of the business.

Cheyne is not convinced that the effectiveness of a store manager can be measured in simple financial results, but he is certain that key performance indicators such as sales, mystery shopper results, labour turnover, shrinkage and staff sickness will all improve with an outstanding one.

So once these vital employees have been identified, head office must ensure that recognition of their work and their personal development is made a priority.

As Borders chief executive Philip Downer said in an interview with Retail Week last month: “I’ve had some great bosses, but it’s the great store managers who teach you the most.”