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The Understaffing Crisis At Retail

Furniture World Magazine


The staffing fairy isn't going to leave skilled sales people under your pillow at night!

Understaffing at retail furniture stores! It's an alarming recent trend. In past years I had to inform owners that their sales floors were understaffed. Today, however, owners are proactively explaining this to me. They know that they don't have enough sales people to properly operate a customer driven selling environment. They also know that they aren't doing enough to address this issue as a serious concern. Understaffing problems in these stores is usually given a low priority... and worse still, this neglect sabotages their often heavy investment in training programs aimed at increasing average sale and closing rate.

If we want our sales people to increase the number of customers who purchase, and the amount of furniture customers purchase, they need to be able to spend more time with customers. If, however, we do not maintain adequate staffing levels these new selling skills are always the first thing to go. Sales floor staffing must be a priority in our stores. Past articles have outlined specific methods of finding good people (See October '95 FURNITURE WORLD). This article will, instead, concentrate on the reason stores are understaffed in the first place.

Many furniture store owners and managers are not doing what it takes in today's economy to find outstanding candidates. They usually say that they've run ads in the local newspaper and interviewed walk-ins but neither draw good candidates. When asked what they've done in the past four weeks to solve their staffing problems, they typically say "nothing." It's as if they're waiting for the problem to solve itself.

It is not surprising that stores that dedicate few resources to recruiting are having staffing problems. They aren't putting in the effort that's required in today's marketplace to find talented sales people. Top notch candidates are not going to walk in the front door, and the "staffing fairy" isn't going to leave sales people under our pillows while we sleep. In spite of the high cost of short staffing, owners and sales managers still fail to devote the full effort necessary to find qualified candidates.

I recently told the sales manager of a Texas store who needed four new sales people, that if he had to, he should devote two or three weeks out of the store looking for them. Naturally, that was not something that he should have done or even needed to do. My point was that recruiting must become his number one priority until his floor was properly staffed.

Unfortunately, the process of finding good candidates continues to be secondary to all of the other responsibilities that sales managers believe are important. Conversely, there is not a single issue that is more important than having the right number of people on the selling floor to care for our customers. Only when you have the right number of people can you start to focus on performance improvement. The irony is that the sheer lack of staffing often covers up poor performance. Because sales people receive more ups on a short staffed floor, they are generally able to write more sales, regardless of whether they would be able to do so on a fully staffed floor. So, not only are your customers receiving a lower level of service, but you are losing out on the additional volume that would come with more sales people. You are also unable to weed out low performers.

Not long ago I met a sales person in a full line, higher end store who maintained that she refused to sell upholstered furniture. She said that she was far more comfortable selling case goods and dropped any customer who said they were looking for upholstery. She actually told me that "It's just too difficult and time consuming to pick out fabrics." I do not know of another industry that would allow sales people this kind of latitude.

This is a crisis that isn't limited to sales people. I also recently spoke with a sales manager who actually refuses to work weekends. Of course, if a store can function without that manager on the two busiest days of the week, it could certainly function the rest of the week without him.

The primary reason that many of our employees get away with this ridiculous behavior is that we have not made recruiting an on-going priority. The problem is not a lack of good information about how to effectively recruit and hire new candidates. We just aren't doing it!

The first thing to do is recognize that an understaffed floor renders every other sales management effort meaningless. Unless you have enough people to do the job properly, demanding enhanced performance from them will remain a futile exercise. Only when an understaffed situation is recognized as a crisis, will other daily activities be de-prioritized (for a while) to concentrate on this critical issue.

The next step is for the sales manager and/or owner is to prepare a plan that addresses all of the issues in the boxes above.

The plan must also include a discussion of how new hires will be brought up to minimum acceptable performance standards (This is a training issue that will be discussed in a subsequent article.).

There is no reason to allow managers or sales people to act inappropriately. The only reason they get away with this behavior is that stores are often under staffed and they 'know' that you 'know' how difficult they are to replace. Corporate downsizing, has placed more trainable talent on the streets than ever before. It's inexcusable for our stores to be under staffed!

The fact is that sales people are not that difficult to replace. Those of us who find that they are... are just not devoting the necessary attention and resources to this problem.


  • Details the exact number of sales people that are needed based on traffic.
  • Outlines a timetable for when this recruiting problem will be solved.
  • Is agreed upon by both parties and the sales manager commits to making staffing concerns his or her top priority.
  • Explains how those people will be recruited (searching in malls, Working with a network of associations, etc.)
  • Details the exact number of sales people that are needed based on traffic.

Ted Shepherd is the founder and CEO of Shepherd Management Group. The company specializes in changing the selling culture of furniture stores from merchandise-driven to customer-driven using an intensive hands-on process of consulting, training, and mentoring. For more information on the topics in this article contact tshepherd@furninfo.com.