How to keep your employees from jumping ship when the big box stores come to town

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When Christine Iksic learned that a Public Lands store was opening in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2021, she didn’t panic. Its specialty store, 3 Rivers Outdoor Co. (3ROC), successfully co-existed with REI and Patagonia for four years, so the arrival of the new outdoor chain concept store (under the Dick’s Sporting Goods umbrella) was not too alarming. Although Iksic cannot afford to pay the higher wages than its competitors, or offer health care benefits, it has never lost an employee to one of the outdoor retailers in large area of ​​Pittsburgh. In fact, she has several former Green Vests on her payroll who say they prefer 3ROC’s tight-knit staff — they hang around the store even off the clock — and the fun family atmosphere. So Iksic was completely caught off guard when her business partner announced he was leaving to join the Public Lands team last July.

Months later, Iksic is holding back tears. “He said Public Lands contacted him,” she said. “It’s so predatory.” Iksic is still trying to come to terms with the circumstances – and the fact that given the choice, she could have done the same. “[Public Lands] practically doubled his salary and offered him stock and health benefits, as well as working from home and weekends off,” she says. “How could you say no? »

Read more: Basic specialty stores increased sales 29% last year, new report says

As an independent retailer, Iksic is not alone in struggling to attract and retain good employees. Most mom-and-pop gear stores can’t match the starting $12.50 hourly rate at, say, Public Lands, not to mention its management salaries, benefits package, and 401(k). Although there are currently only two Public Lands stores, in Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, it’s possible the new chain will take off similarly to REI. With 174 retail outposts in 41 states, REI continues to grow, with recent store openings in Portland, Maine; Santa Cruz, California; Chicago, Ill.; Cambridge, Mass.; Tampa, Florida; and, in the summer of 2022, Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Even small towns, which have a limited pool of employees, are feeling the effects of REI’s reach: On November 5, REI opened in Jackson, Wyoming, a city of just 10,000 people.

Adding to the tension is a pandemic-fueled staffing shortage that is driving up hourly rates nationwide. In Seattle, Sandeep Nain, owner of Ascent Outdoors, has been understaffed all summer because employers like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Starbucks were advertising $19 an hour to start, plus a signing bonus. Finally, in the fall, as the holiday season approached, Nain felt he had no choice but to increase his hourly rate to $19, which also forced him to give a raise to its existing staff to reflect the increase. “The costs are heavy,” he says. “But there’s no other way to hire new employees right now.”

Sarah Morton, owner of Clear Water Outdoor in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, founded her shop 16 years ago. From the start, Morton knew she would never be able to compete with the big chains when it came to compensation. Instead, she relied on the 20 years she spent working in outdoor retail before opening her own store to create the best working environment she could imagine. Clear Water Outdoor offers a discount for employee families, compensates employees to participate in community events hosted by the store, ranging from stand-up paddleboard races to turkey trot races, offers free boat rentals and paddleboarding to employees on weekdays and taking staff to buy shows with all expenses paid, among other perks. But Morton is most proud of the personal attention Clear Water Outdoor gives staff to “build” them as employees and human beings. Exhibit A: When a part-time employee who was attending college earned a degree in psychology, she had difficulty finding work in her field. Morton encouraged the young woman to embark on a full-time opening for the position of assistant manager and presented her with the book Why We Buy, on the psychology of shopping. Finding employees’ passions and helping them grow doesn’t eliminate all of Morton’s retention issues, but it does help: Sixty percent of Clear Water Outdoor’s staff started at least a decade ago. Kellie Strong, for example, is a buyer who has been with the company for 13 years. “I’ve been through some pretty serious autoimmune diseases and the flexibility they gave me to work from home, to do my job when I could, allowed me to keep working while I figured out how to heal. “, she says. “Whenever one of us has been through something difficult, everyone helps out, whether it’s covering tasks, giving them the time they need, or personally checking on them.”

Read more: REI workers at Manhattan flagship store seek union

David Polivy, founder and co-owner of Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee, Calif., says these types of intangible benefits may be more valuable to employees in some cities than the one-size-fits-all approach to compensation deployed by large corporations. box retailers. In the community of Polivy, for example, as in many mountain towns in the western United States, housing inventory and affordability are the top employee issues. As a result, Polivy gives employees loans for security deposits, co-signs leases with them, and helps them find alternative housing when they face eviction because the property they’re renting comes up for sale. “Working at a big-box chain, you could get a nice benefits package,” Polivy says. “But will REI come in and pay your security deposit for [a home rental] without expecting to be reimbursed for a year or two? The creative compensation options you can get in specialty retail potentially have a lot more impact, especially in the short term. »

Likewise, Lucy Hedrick, co-owner of Wilderness Sports in Dillon, Colorado (where an REI opened across the street in 2017), is transforming what was once a consignment section on the upper level of the store. into three apartments to be used as company accommodation. Additionally, she and another co-owner with relevant experience in financial services worked together to set up small business healthcare benefits for staff. “It’s really important for the employees here, with such tight housing and such a high cost of living,” says Hendrick. “If you don’t have the skills to figure out how to do it, find someone who does – a consultant or other small business owner.”

Polivy says these highly personal employee perks reflect the personal touches customers expect from family-owned stores, which is why they often choose them over the big chains. “We did the curating for [our consumers],” he says. “We choose between thousands of shoe styles each season to refine what will be best for our customers and our community.” That same thoughtful attention can go a long way for employees.

By the numbers

7: Number of REI locations opened in 2021

50,000: Size, in square feet, of each Public Lands inaugural store

$12.50: Starting hourly wage at Public Lands

17.8%: Increase in the national median rental price in 2021

37.8%: increase in national retail job openings from October 2020 to October 2021

This story first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of our print magazine. Read the full issue here.

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