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How Brands Can Create Retail Jobs People Actually Want

SMCP Group, the french parent of accessible luxury labels Sandro, Maje, Claudie Pierlot & De Fursac, is launching an academy to make the store associate role more modern and exciting.
SMCP’s programme, free of charge to participants, will operate like a work study, with students taking classes on the Paris campuses of two schools and also holding internships spread across 22 of the company’s stores.
SMCP’s programme, free of charge to participants, will operate like a work study, with students taking classes on the Paris campuses of two schools and also holding internships spread across 22 of the company’s stores. (Getty)

Key insights

  • The challenge fashion firms face in hiring and retaining in-store sales associates is amplified in a post-pandemic world where employees have new demands around compensation, purpose and more.
  • SMCP Retail Lab, a year-long programme in partnership with Parisian schools Ema Sup Paris and Institut Français de la Mode (IFM), will train 22 participants on clienteling, livestreaming and how to offer styling advice.
  • The programme aims to boost recruiting for the company but also broaden the diversity of fashion’s applicant pool and enlighten people on the upward mobility of a retail career path.

SMCP Group, the French holding company for ready-to-wear labels Sandro, Maje, Claudie Pierlot & De Fursac hopes it has found a solution for retail’s store-staffing problem: A training academy for sales associates.

On Jan. 30, SMCP Retail Lab, a year-long programme in partnership with Parisian schools Ema Sup Paris and Institut Français de la Mode (IFM), will welcome 22 students in its inaugural class. The course is designed to train participants on “how to mingle with clients offline and online” and “develop customer satisfaction,” said Isabelle Guichot, SMCP’s chief executive officer. Classes will be taught by professors from both schools and feature “conferences” with director-level employees from SMCP’s brands.

The idea was borne out of a late 2021 hackathon the company held just as the Great Resignation was reaching a fever pitch and many fashion firms were feeling the talent crunch hardest at the store level. The hope is that it will do more than simply scratch recruiting off the company’s to-do list.

According to Guichot, the academy represents an opportunity for SMCP to diversify its talent pool, enlighten people on the upward mobility of a retail career path, and evolve the sales associate role to become more modern and exciting.

“A problem that we see is that we try to hire people that are always coming from the same kind of field and from other brands,” she said. “The only way that we could [change] that is to create a school and be extremely open to the talents that we [bring in].”

The challenge fashion firms face in hiring and retaining in-store sales associates — and expanding the position beyond stocking shelves and ringing up cash registers — is hardly new. But in a post-pandemic world where employees across the board have new demands around compensation, purpose and more, it’s especially difficult to lure people into these roles.

Many retailers — such as Macy’s, Walmart and Target in the US — have raised their hourly wages. The pressures have stretched globally: Zara parent Inditex is deep in negotiations with unions in Spain that want the retailer to implement raises across all store roles in the country. Just last week, Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing Co Ltd announced wage hikes in Japan as high as 40 percent.

Some companies have taken a stab at making these jobs more flexible when it comes to scheduling — in many cases, with minimal results. Roughly 80 percent of global business leaders in retail and similar industries with frontline employees, such as restaurants, said frontline turnover has increased and that workers are rejecting conditions that went unchallenged just two years ago, according to a study this month by Forrester Consulting and WorkJam, a software application for retail workers.

Even in Europe where sales roles, particularly at high-end stores, have historically had a more elevated reputation and employees may take home higher and more stable, less commission-based earnings, companies have struggled with short-staffed stores. That’s then led to a drop-off in the experience shoppers have come to expect, said Lisa Yae, managing partner of the Retail & Luxury Goods Practice at Hanold Associates.

“The way companies have been needing to hire … has caused them to lose sight of some of the more comprehensive training and onboarding sales associates need,” she said.

Most fashion firms haven’t realised the level of comprehensive education and development and overall employee experience their sales associates need, experts say. As a result, many are leaving money on the table.

“When it comes to business leaders’ priorities, there’s still tension between the need to grow profitability and the [importance of] employee experience,” said Steve Kramer, CEO of Workjam. “Historically companies don’t look at their frontline people as the lever to grow revenues, but in fact, it is the lever.”

An Opportunity and Step-Change

The need to attract and retain top salespeople is amplified by the fact that if today’s digital-savvy consumers do make the trek to a store to buy a fashion item — no matter the price — they “expect salespeople to love fashion as much as they do,” said Marie Driscoll, managing director luxury & retail at Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm specialising in retail and technology.

Increasingly, the solve requires companies to create and mould their salespeople themselves.

“Today’s sales associate has to be able to talk the lexicon,” Driscoll said. “Even if you’re not selling a luxury item, you need salespeople who are able to say ‘You see this blue jacket, Chanel has a blue jacket just like that but ours is a tenth of the price.”

Those are the kind of lessons and techniques the SMCP course are meant to instil (albeit with a luxury tilt), Guichot said.

“It doesn’t have to be a basic sales job if people are passionate about it,” she said. “You can also enrich yourself in this job by unlocking all the capabilities, live-shopping, clienteling through their social media, giving styling advice … being more customer-centric.”

To find its first class, SMCP expanded its outreach beyond its typical posts on LinkedIn and Indeed, inviting social media users on TikTok, Instagram, Spotify and Facebook to apply. (The only prerequisite was to be at least 18 years old.) In a nod to younger talent, the company asked applicants to submit a short video answering a series of questions, including why they wanted to be a part of the programme.

SMCP narrowed its list down to “the people we felt were the most motivated during their videos,” Guichot said, and that group was invited for a “speed-dating” style interview with team leaders.

“We’ve been really adopting new ways of communicating to get new talents,” she said. “We are being extremely inclusive to [draw in] people who may have thought “fashion isn’t for me; they won’t accept me.”

As more seasoned associates move out of their roles (in some cases at a more rapid clip due to pandemic safety concerns), brands and retailers need to upgrade their approach to draw in younger Gen-Z and millennial talent who “are motivated by different things,” Yae said.

In 2017, the US’ National Retail Federation introduced Rise Up, a credentialing programme to drum up more excitement around retail jobs, with a curriculum developed alongside retailers like Macy’s, Nordstrom and Burlington stores. So far, the initiative has trained 425,000 people, the NRF said.

SMCP’s programme, free of charge to participants, will operate like a work study, with students taking classes on the Paris campuses of both schools and also holding internships spread across 22 of the company’s stores.

Down the line, the company, which operates 1,670 stores in the US, Hong Kong, China and Europe, hopes to expand to other regions, namely the US to work with schools like The Fashion Institute of Technology, Guichot said.

At the end of the school year, the first group of participants will receive a formal certification and will be offered opportunities to work for one or several of the Group’s brands in-store.

“If we do our jobs right… we would hope all [the students] would want to stay with us,” Guichot said. “This can be viral … we set no limits for this programme.”

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The fashion industry is notorious for its broad, and often opaque salaries but new laws, social pressures and a labour shortage are pushing more companies toward pay transparency.


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