Business 101: Retail management tools for interviewing and hiring

You have a job opening and, naturally, you’ve place the requisite advertisements in the local campus newspaper, or posted your job opening on a local website, or on SNEWS® in the job classifieds section, or put the word out through your network of friends, customers, and employees that you have an open position in your company. You’ve de-selected the obvious candidates who lack the experience you are seeking, and now you have a small pool of pretty desirable applicants for your position. Now what?
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You have a job opening and, naturally, you’ve place the requisite advertisements in the local campus newspaper, or posted your job opening on a local website, or on SNEWS® in the job classifieds section, or put the word out through your network of friends, customers and employees that you have an open position in your company.

You’ve de-selected the obvious candidates who lack the experience you are seeking, and now you have a small pool of pretty desirable applicants for your position.

Now what?

Well, we all know the answer to that question: We need to interview these folks. Everyone seems to be clear on that step. But we’re not so sure we’re all clear on why we want to interview the people interested in joining our company or what we need to gain from an interview.

  • In our industries, we’re usually fairly amiable people, so we tend to want to avoid the “hard ass” school of interviewing. We like people and we want a friendly and team-oriented culture. Very admirable.
  • As well, many of us are very proud of our companies, our own business or personal history, who we know and where we’ve been, and it’s really fun to have an audience we can impress with these stories. Save this for happy hour.
  • Others among us are shy and reluctant to “pry” too much or to make an interviewee feel uncomfortable. If we’re uncomfortable in the hiring process, just wait until we need to terminate a bad choice we made.
  • Some of us have done many, many interviews and we may feel we’re old pros at it, and we don’t really need too much structure: What we’re really after is that “gut feeling” about a person. The gut feeling is important, but even Springsteen prepares for a concert.

It is possible to be kind and respectful in an interview but at the same time assess your candidate critically and gain the essential information you need to make an informed hire.

Here are a few top-level and very simple and intuitive guidelines for preparing and conducting an effective job interview. Following these, we will give you several sets of questions you can use to dig down further for the types of recruiting you may do in your retail company. 

  1. Insist on a resume from your candidate. Study it before the interview. Ask for more details about the candidate’s history and experience.
  2. Have the job description in hand -- you do have one, right? If not, then figure that out before you even go any further. Click here if you need advice from our previous SNEWS® Training Center article, Business 101: Job Descriptions, Organization Charts and Performance Evaluations. Provide it to your candidate ahead of time. Make sure you are crystal clear on the position. Ask the candidate to explain the position to you and ask any questions he or she may have.
  3. Make a short list of the top skills you need to assess in the candidate.
  4. Write out the specific questions and tests that will help you evaluate the candidate’s competence with those skills.
  5. Make your questions quantifiable. “Show me, don’t tell me” should be the theme. This is a critical issue and one most interviewers miss entirely. We’ve held merchandising, management and executive positions in dozens of companies between us where managing millions of dollars in assets and expenses and analyzing data are key parts of the positions held. Never once have either of us been asked to demonstrate we have Clue #1 about how to build or manage a spreadsheet. Shocking! In many positions, speaking, thinking clearly, writing, ciphering and being organized are all essential skills. Unless we test for those abilities, we’re counting on mom or dad or public school #25 to have covered this for us.
  6. “Open-ended” questions are also very revealing. We’ll show you some examples below.
  7. Avoid giving away an answer in your questions. Many of us do this. For example: “As you know, Bob’s Sporting Goods Company is very customer-friendly. If you have an angry customer how would you deal with him or her?” A nearly useless question.
  8. Let the candidate do the talking. Ask crisp, pointed questions, and then (if you’ll excuse us here) Shut the Heck Up! This is not you being interviewed by Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. We already know you’re cool.
  9. Take notes. When you sit down at the end of the week to decide among the four people you interviewed, you’ll need your notes unless you have a flawless memory. Though we will stay away from legal issues, we suggest also that keeping candidate resumes on file, along with your notes from the interview may come in handy in the event of any possible claims of discrimination. See your attorney.
  10. Allow plenty of time. The more key the position you are hiring for, the longer and more in-depth your interviews should be. Many interviews take a full day for top spots.
  11. Involve other staff who are stakeholders in the outcome of the hiring process. Coach them on these steps and methods. Coordinate your approach. You can wear a candidate out by having six different people ask “Pick three adjectives to describe yourself.” If you involve others, meet with them afterward to get their impressions.
  12. Take time to make your decision. Sleep on it at least.
  13. Close the loop: Write a formal offer letter to the candidate you’ve chosen. Inform the ones who you didn’t choose. Simple courtesy and professionalism.

So now we have a general approach to conducting our interviews. We know we want to uncover real experience and skills, not verbal assurances. Let’s look at some sample questions and tests for a retail salesperson, manager and buyer.

General Open-Ended Questions (There are hundreds of good questions we’ve used. These are just a sampling…)

  1. Why do you want this job?
  2. Describe your most limiting personal characteristic.
  3. When you were assigned a task or project you hated, how did you deal with that?
  4. How do you share success and credit with teammates?
  5. How did you deal with the last person who was really difficult?
  6. Describe a situation when you felt it necessary to bypass a policy or procedure.
  7. What did you do to prepare for this interview?
  8. Have you ever submitted an idea that didn’t get acted upon? Describe that.
  9. What’s the best decision you ever made?
  10. Describe how your clothes closet is organized.

Manager Questions (Again, this is just a sampling…)

  1. Tell me about the numbers of people you have managed in the past and what those people did.
  2. When you have a staff with widely varying skills and experience, what is your approach?
  3. How do you keep staff energy high?
  4. What’s your opinion of staff meetings?
  5. Assume I’m a brand-new salesperson with only marginal experience. What are my six-month goals?
  6. Assume we’re at the six-month mark and I just can’t get comfortable initiating a conversation with customers. Talk to me.
  7. I’ll give you a few words that could describe the manager’s role. Tell me which ones you think do and do not describe a manager, what their ranking should be and why: Elected Representative. Small Business Owner. Counselor. Hotel Concierge. Parent. Coach.
  8. Explain the main pieces of information in a Profit and Loss Statement. Write down what the calculations are that return those values.
  9. What steps would you take if you notice a style or a category is not selling?
  10. Discuss the relative merits and costs of suggesting an alternative item to a customer versus special ordering or transferring what they’re looking for.
  11. What’s 16 percent of 60,000?
  12. Take 15 minutes on the computer here and write out for me a suggested agenda for your first store meeting. Word is already open. Save it as “Agenda Test” to the “F” Drive. I’ll be back in 15 minutes.
  13. “In-Box Test”: Here is your incoming mail and inter-company communications and reports for the last few days when you were out. Sort it and tell me why you did what you did with each piece.
  14. Please go back to the computer. Open Excel and build me a very simple spreadsheet with this information. Go ahead and make up the numbers:
    1. Show me three months of sales for three stores, for this year and last year, the same months. Name the months and stores however you’d like.
    2. Show the totals for each store and each month for this year and last year.
    3. Show the dollar and percentage differences between each store each month, this year versus last year.
    4. Save it as “Excel Test” to the “F drive.
    5. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.
  15. When a customer is really being nasty with one of your salespeople, how far should you let him go? What would you tell your staffer?
  16. Here is a list of our staff and when they are available. Some are part time. Some can work only weekends or nights. Others are more flexible. All that information is listed. Use this template and put together a suggested schedule for the week.
  17. I’ve brought in four people who you will assume are your opening staff for the day. Do a five-minute meeting to get us set up and working.
  18. Take 30 minutes on the computer and write two pages for me on the coolest thing that happened to you last year.
  19. Tell me about delegating. How do you do it?
  20. Tell me about the last time you had to discipline or terminate a staff member.

Sampling of Buyer Questions

  1. As a buyer, I want to understand how you make decisions. Among the following influences on a product decision, rank each one and tell me why: Strength of the brand. Profitability of the product. Store staff request. Your personal preference. My preference. History. Customer requests.
  2. Tell me about the last time you negotiated a contract or a deal.
  3. How does Open-To-Buy relate to inventory levels?
  4. What’s better: high turnover rate and low margin or high margin and slower turnover? Why?
  5. Explain the main pieces of information in a Profit and Loss Statement. Write down what the calculations are that return those values.
  6. What parts of that P & L are directly influenced by the buyer?
  7. Where on the P & L do inventory levels appear? (They don’t.)
  8. What steps would you take and in what order would you take them if you notice a style or a category is not selling?
  9. What’s 16 percent of 60,000?
  10. Please go to the computer. Open Excel and build me a very simple spreadsheet with this information. Go ahead and make up the numbers:
    1. Show me three months of sales for three merchandise departments, for this year and last year. Name the months and departments however you’d like.
    2. Show the totals for each department and each month for this year and last year.
    3. Show the dollar and percentage differences between each department each month, this year versus last year.
    4. Save it as “Excel Test” to the “F drive.
    5. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.
  11. Here is a sample apparel item buy. Let’s say we want to buy 100 units of this style. Let’s say we liked black the most, blue second best and red the least. You decide the percentages for each color. Break out the buy among the colors and sizes.
  12. We’re going to do a simple role play. I’m a sales rep calling you, frustrated that you haven’t given me time to show a new line. As a company we’ve decided we don’t want this line, but we haven’t conveyed that to the rep. Do so.
  13. Do the “In-Box test” from above.
  14. What’s a successful sell-through percentage? What have you achieved in the past? Is 100 percent perfect?
  15. Let’s say we can have 25 styles in our footwear program. Take a few minutes and write down what you think we should cover in that program by style type. Use brands and style names if you know them.
  16. When the store staff dislikes what you bought, what do you do?
  17. Take 30 minutes on the computer and write two pages for me on the coolest thing that happened to you last year.
  18. How do you prepare for preseason buying or a trade show?
  19. Would you rather earn more points of discount in a buy or longer dating? Tell me what considerations go into your being able to decide.
  20. Does the sales rep decide or do you decide which styles and in what order you look at a product line?

Sales Staff Questions

  1. What are the various steps in making a sale?
  2. Should you make suggestions to customers or follow their lead?
  3. What do you do when a customer says, “Thanks, I’m just looking?”
  4. Shouldn’t we avoid being “too pushy?”
  5. How much technical product information should you provide a customer?
  6. Here’s my briefcase (pen, PDA, watch, whatever). Sell it to me.
  7. As your customer, I just agreed I’d buy this. Now what?
  8. When your customer says that what they are looking for we don’t carry, what do you say?
  9. If your shift begins at noon, when should you arrive?
  10. I’ve brought in two other people to help with this next question. Assume we are customers. We’ll ask questions and talk with you, but you are the only salesperson on the floor and we’ll be in different parts of the store.
  11. How should you help in preventing shoplifting?
  12. What kinds of things can you do as a salesperson if you notice products not selling?
  13. What’s the best way to organize shirts, for example, on a hanging rack?
  14. Don’t things like inventories and price changes and transfers get in the way of helping customers? What should we do about that?
  15. Describe your favorite kind of customer. How about your least favorite?
  16. How important to being a great salesperson is using the products personally?
  17. Among the categories we sell, which do you think you have the most affinity with? How about the least? (From your sense of the candidate ask how they might develop more familiarity with a category they dislike or have no interest in.)
  18. Can you tell me a joke?
  19. Are you a talker or more quiet?
  20. Describe the best salesperson who helped you as a customer.

So there’s a brief look at interview questions we’ve used and that can, in some cases, be very revealing. Our goal is to uncover what’s down beneath the resume and the verbal assurances or the strong personality.

Happy Retailing!


This article is part of an ongoing Business 101 Training series for store management and owners, produced by SNEWS® and co-authored by Geoff O'Keeffe and Michael Hodgson. Geoff O'Keeffe has held retail senior management positions at Granite Stairway Mountaineering, Adventure 16, Patagonia and PlanetOutdoors.com, as well as having served as president of Lowe Alpine Systems USA and Mountainsmith. He is currently the president of Slumberjack, and lives in the mountains above Boulder, Colo., where he is a fourth-generation resident. SNEWS® co-owner and president Michael Hodgson, in a former life, was a manager for five years with Adventure 16 and the general manager overseeing a team of buyers and store managers for three years at Western Mountaineering. In those roles, he learned the immense value of skilled, well-trained and very nimble teams to achieve business success.

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