I feel I need to begin by saying I could have learned very little of what I now know about business and retail anywhere else but The Source. My experience here under the managers with whom I’ve worked – there have been nine stores in total, under eight managers in my nearly five years, and I’ve been exposed to now five District Managers, including the two whom I met before coming on board. Some of these managers have been their division’s greatest asset. It would be unlikely that I would be moving the direction I now am without the mentoring I received from two specific managers, for example. Other managers with whom I’ve worked have not been effective. They are, uniformly, no longer with the company. I was one of those managers. I am no longer with the company.
Let me sum up how I see my term here, in case this letter makes its way to anyone not familiar with my careers. I’ve worked in nine stores in four and a half years. Three times, I’ve been nominated for the Star Service award, and I’ve earned two personal sales awards. Had I remained with the company until the end of this month, I would have won my third. I’ve earned, in four and a half years, four hundred thousand rewards points. This means six formal awards and numerous positive citations in four and a half years. If there’s anyone remaining in the company with that high a density and consistency of recognition, no one has been able to find them for me. I spent ten months as a sales associate before spending two years as an assistant manager, then five months as a store manager before being moved back down to sales associate – where I remained for just over one year before leaving the company in favour of a role far better suited to my skills and talent, for much better pay, nowhere near a retail sales floor. I’m not just leaving the company, I’m leaving the industry – The Source is the last company I will ever work retail in.My goal was not to move up when I got here. I was hired to do a job, and expected to do it well. The culture, however, swiftly became visibly one of “Move Up Or Move On” which I think is one of the greatest problems I encountered while here. I wanted the position as Assistant Manager when it came along. I’m a superb bat man, I do my best work facilitating for someone else. However, the gap between that job and the role a manager must play is a huge one, and is one of the things this company absolutely must improve its communication regarding. I think it was the district manager I worked under as manager who told me, when he demoted me in January of 2009, that the biggest and most common mistake any company makes is promoting people one level beyond their most effective role. As an example; myself to Store Manager, and others from store manager to District Manager.
The managers’ training that has been put in place this year is a huge step in the right direction for the company. It’s thorough, well developed, and most of all gets the point of the job across. Where it falls down, however, is communicating the differences between the supporting role of the ASM and the all-or-nothing accountability needed for a store manager. The current training is excellent for converting high-integrity sales associates into functionally trained ASMs – but will begin to do a very poor job of preparation on behalf of the company for the transition from ASM to store manager. The job of the manager is, of course, to do this training – but with no standardized book specific to the manager training needed, I’ve seen many instances where managers focus solely on what works for them, what they feel important, and what has helped them succeed. This lack of broad arming and diverse tools sees a lot of new managers fall down if they aren’t of exactly the right temperament to learn their new roles thoroughly. Many new managers feel that their training ends once they have the position – we need to do a better job of making sure they know nothing could be further from the truth.
The point of this is that we need to make sure that people are where they can be most effective. Encouraging an Up Or Out dynamic is harmful to our most valuable resource; the staff. As we saw with the collapse of our former parent company, Circuit City, ousting the people and replacing them with drones cannot be considered effective. No, I’ll go further and suggest that encouraging anything other than stellar performance in one’s own best style is no longer a viable model of business for retail. This new approach would see a large number of our current top performers flourish, and many of the mediocre would flounder – but I’ll freely admit that I would be among the floundering, and I believe that the personalization of how we do business is still integral. If you have four hours worth of reading time, find Linchpin by Seth Godin. The approach to business of the individual presented there is different – and it’s achievable. It’s all about trust – our people need to trust us, and we need to trust them. So do our customers.
Speaking of customers – we’ve got to do better by them. This is made wholly more difficult by the tracking systems we have in place. The attach tracking that was in place while I was a manager was part of the reason that, for nearly the entire five months I was manager of (my old store), my store was in statistical gains, profit gains, and sales gains of between 20-30% – consistently. Now, however, the UPT system backed by $/hour and $/ticket has left me at the bottom ten of the rolling 90 day report since its inception, and landed on the failing-staff-monitoring program over the last Christmas season. My work habits have not changed. My sales habits and method have not changed. My dedication to customer service has not changed. The model changed, and the model is failing.
UPT and other like statistics are industry standard. This means very clean reporting to shareholders, if there are any, on numbers any retailer can understand. Unfortunately, they (the numbers) dehumanize what we’re doing. It’s far easier to get behind selling $40 of accessories on a camera sale in service to the solution, than it is to get behind trying to add a second item, regardless of size, to the sale of a CR2032 battery. Because of the nature of our product, this model is silly, overrated, and backward facing. It serves the simplification of the sales associates job, but falls down in the presence of any situation a troubled customer presents them.
(This is nothing said of the counts being so low that they’re similarly useless. In other companies, employees are fired similarly for not maintaining a UPT count of 3 or higher – 1.5 as a goal makes this a useless metric, 1.35 as a standard even more so.)
How many managers even keep score any more, by the way? When was the last time you can recall spending an entire month visiting stores where every manager had their pride board up to date four weeks in a row, and all of their coaching logs were filled, filed and initialled by every employee, all four weeks in a row? In nearing five years, I can’t recall ever doing that for myself, much less my staff, and I love numbers (enough that aggregating and understanding them is now 80% of my new career). You can’t win if you don’t keep score, and unfortunately, the regime of tracking, the uselessness of the number sets, and the attitudes fostered by managers and staff alike make any attempt at consistent tracking and coaching a moot point.
For that matter, how many managers are being held properly accountable for their actions and the care and advancement of their staff? In at least three instances, I can recall managers being chided for not properly disciplining their staff, or removing those staff who were damaging their business. Has our HR situation become so awful that we can’t even chastise our people for not doing their jobs? One instance is in the case of ‘legacy’ staff members, such as (one veteran salesman with over 20 years tenure) before his retirement leave. His performance would never have been tolerated in any staffer below five years’ employment, yet he was routinely overlooked – and even placed in a store with another legacy staffer (yes, my store, when I was there as ASM before taking it over) which was, to be as diplomatic as possible, not an effective use for either associate. Further, part of my downfall as manager came from my inability (whether through lack of skill or lack of motivation) to chastise my staff for not doing their jobs. Managers, in my experience, simply do not feel comfortable keeping their staff accountable for their performance in stern ways – this is damaging more stores than we’re likely aware.
The face of retail itself is changing. We’ve all seen it coming. I bought more electronics online in the last two years than I did in store, even with my employee purchase plan, because cost has become such a point of contention between the unseen brown box from Amazon and the hands-on feel of the store. Where Radio Shack, and by extension The Source by Circuit City won has always been customer engagement, trivia knowledge base, human business, and staff enthusiasm. I’ve seen every single one of these drop dramatically in all new hires since I came on in 2005. The point of differentiation between Us and Them has always been the in-store experience, and the consumer’s base need for that is coming sharply to an end. The changes I’m seeing in our business model are not helping them choose to return to us.
Put another way, my employee number is (was) 34xxx. One of the staff here has a number beginning with 64xxx. I read this as, nearly as many employee numbers have been issued in the last five years as had been issued in the more than 25 years before. We’re blowing through five times as many people as we ever did in the past. How can these new people, this disposable work force, possibly gain, sort, and retain all of the knowledge our long-time customers expect? Doing wrong by our staff does wrong by our customers.
Third point on this, last before I close – every retailer and their dog has a website. eCommerce was so intrinsic in our business model when it began that the goal per store the first year I was here was 1% of sales through the web. Is anyone talking about those numbers now? Or how to improve them? My store stopped using the web entirely over December when the asinine flash animated delivery driver showed up on the first page. We’ve never trusted the search function, and neither do our customers. The current website is so generic, so lacking in function beyond the bare minimum, that I’d hazard to guess there’s no appreciable volume of business flowing through it from the kiosks in store. There need to be improvements, dynamic ones, if the Source’s presence on the web is to survive the coming years. Where is the mobile version? Where is the high-utility search? Why are new products not visible on the website with full (and accurate, dear binaries) statistics? Why is there no uniformity between like items for comparison? Why does the online experience suck so much?
Maybe I’m the only one asking that last set of questions out loud. But then, I know web. It’s my job, now, to know web. Whoever is working on our site knew web three years ago. It should be made their job to know what the web will be five months from now and get there before anyone else does.
I hope some of this has actually been useful, if nothing else for understanding what I’ve observed in my time at The Source. I’ve taken issue with some of the direction the company has been going for a while, but did not leave when I was demoted for two reasons; Primarily, I really did enjoy the work I did here. Engaging people, learning about toys – it’s a great job to have, for the right person. Also, it was (even after my demotion) stable enough to allow me time to get every duck I have in a good, solid row to move on to exactly the right position and never have to look back.
It’s been a pleasure working with you,
Ian M Rountree
Doing Other Things Now
I Work For The Internet