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    On Hire Ground

    Can the c-store industry become known as a top employer of choice?

    The image of a typical convenience store worker is generally not one of a deliriously happy camper. More often than not, the job is just that — a job — typically a short stint on the way to bigger and better employment.

    But the fault lies not with the employees, as many retailers in the industry will openly admit. Long on hours, short on benefits, the c-store arena had not previously made a name for itself as a prime place of employment.

    And then this year, QuikTrip Corp., of Tulsa, Okla., earned a top spot in Fortune's Best Companies to Work For, getting praise for its tuition reimbursement and health benefits for part-time employees. What's more, four chains in the competitive food channel made the list, too, each with various impressive and/or flexible employee perks (see 'Fortunate Retailers' on page 76). Suddenly, the heat is on for the industry to turn its employment image around, as several forward-thinking players are already making strides to travel along a higher road of hiring.

    With several c-stores as clients, Bill Ford, president of Sesco Management Consultants, based in Bristol, Tenn., has observed more professionalism and strategic hiring plans from the visionaries of the industry. "C-store retailers have become much more focused in the way they operate," he said. "They're leaving the business of c-stores and going into professional management. They're working on their businesses instead of working in it."

    As part of that process, they are openly admitting to their inherent employment flaws and working to become a choice employer in spite of them.

    "Employee turnover is high in the retail industry, but it is even higher in the c-store industry," said Krista Jenkins, vice president of human resources for Rutter's Farm Stores, based in York, Pa. "The primary reason for that is the nature and scope of our hours — we're open 24/7, 365 days a year. It's a necessary evil in the industry, and it's always going to exist. So we're trying to find ways to sweeten the pot. We want our current employees to say it's worth the tradeoff."

    Rutter's has adopted a top-down corporate culture that its people are its greatest resource. "We make sure our employees know that through our words and our deeds," said Jenkins. Recently, the company's marketing department adopted a consumer slogan of "Why Go Anywhere Else?" — and the human resources executive team changed it slightly to target employees in the same manner: "Why Work Anywhere Else?"

    The chain backs up that slogan by giving all employees a voice. According to Jenkins, company president Scott Hartman maintains an open-door policy with all levels of employees at any time, and the company has an organized forum for soliciting employee feedback through advisory boards, wage committees and regular employee meetings (about 10 a year).

    Most importantly, Rutter's takes full advantage of its good name. "We have been part of the York community since 1921," stated Jenkins. "The company has proven we are a loyal business with a track record of longevity." Rutter's is very involved in its communities — the company contributes more than $50,000 annually to various organizations and charities.

    According to Ford, c-stores that are known in their communities as "good-citizen-companies" and/or those that allow employees the opportunity to volunteer for a good cause "goes a long way." He said, "Employees don't want to be embarrassed by the company they work for, especially since most of them are working for six or seven dollars an hour. Creating pride in the company removes some of the embarrassment and stereotyping of making minimum wage. Employees don't want to be concerned to tell their friends or neighbors where they work. Ultimately, they want to have pride in it."

    And that means the industry has to put the hiring emphasis on the positive — and not try to compete in areas where it just can't, like compensation.

    "The c-store industry can't afford to make it about money," said Ford. "The health-care industry tried to make it about money. With the shortage of nurses, there's been extreme competition on who pays the most. But it hasn't solved the problem because even with higher wages, recruitment is down."

    Bob York, human resources director for Maverik Country Stores Inc., based in North Salt Lake City, couldn't agree more. "We have to differentiate ourselves to potential employees otherwise they will see all retailers as the same, and it's just a battle of who wants to pay a penny more an hour," he said. "We don't pay the most and we certainly don't pay the least, but that's not what it's about for us."

    For Maverik, it's all about its people — or Adventure Guides, as the company refers to them. "As the labor market has gotten tighter, we want to make sure that not only are we competitive as an employer, but that we're getting the best employees," York said. "That kind of standard makes a retailer an employee of choice."

    And so about a year ago, Maverik created the "Adventure" program. "We want people who can create an adventure for our customers, meanwhile viewing their position as more than a clerk, but as an adventure guide," he explained. "If people can have fun and make work an adventure for themselves, then they're more likely to stay on board and be engaged — more so than someone who just comes in and punches the clock. We want our employees to be actively involved with our customers."

    York admitted that when the company first began changing its core values, it had employees who didn't want to change, and turnover sped up a bit. However, the company was prepared, and accepted it as part of the transition. "Our people are much more entrenched in the adventure culture now, and as a result, the turnover is subsiding," York added.

    So what does an Adventure Guide do different from a regular c-store clerk? "They interact with customers, create excitement and have fun with their everyday activities," York said. And this is all explained to them when they come for an interview — Maverik uses a lot of behavior-based interviewing in its hiring process.

    "We will cut up some food products we carry in our stores and put it on a tray and ask the potential Adventure Guide to go into the store and share samples with the customers," York explained. "The evaluating store director will watch how that person interacts with the public to see high energy and enthusiasm."

    Coming at the people push from another perspective, Quick Chek Food Stores, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., refers to its higher-level employees (beyond a cashier, which is classified as a "team member") as "leaders," who all go through a special training program, aptly named "Quick Chek University." Rather than store managers, district managers, etc., Quick Chek employs "shift leaders," "store leaders," "assistant store leaders," "district leaders" and "regional leaders."

    "Leaders are a different breed of employee," said Bob Graczyk, vice president of human resources for the 105-store chain. "They focus on people. We view managers as process-oriented people, focused more on tasks."

    This all came about when during exit interviews, the company discovered the top reason people were leaving was "they couldn't stand the person they were working for," according to Graczyk. So the chain adopted more of a team spirit, put the leader program in place and let its philosophy of internal promotions be known. "We work hard now at providing a career path for everyone that works for us," said Graczyk.

    According to him, these are changing times for the c-store industry, and require changing attitudes toward employees. "Today, stores are bigger, volumes are higher and there's a higher concentration of foodservice," he said. "So stores are never run by one person, like they were years ago. Now we have three, four, five and six people working on a shift. So the industry has to figure out how it can move in the right direction. The focus has to be more on the people."

    Beyond that, Sesco's Ford believes a c-store company would be wise to let employees know it supports them as "whole people." "Your employees are far more than the folks who wait on your customers and restock your shelves every day," he said. "Let them know you support their needs as whole persons."

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