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Author: Phil Wrzesinski

Phil Wrzesinski is a Retailer, Speaker, Author, Golfer, Singer/Songwriter, and Klutz Kid who enjoys anything to do with the water (including drinking it fermented with hops and barley), anything to do with helping local independent businesses thrive, and anything that sounds like fun.

Reviews: Good, Bad, Necessary Evil?

I remember the first presentation I saw about the power of online reviews. The speaker instructed us how to use our smartphones to take quick testimonials right on the sales floor whenever we had a happy customers. I looked at my notes from the presentation and read …

“Get them to post their reviews before they even checkout. That’s when they are happiest.”

I also remember around the same time reading about Yelp and the problems with reviews there. Yelp was accused of suppressing good reviews and only showing an equal mix of both good and bad reviews. Yelp’s argument was that most good reviews were false anyway and that the people reading the reviews needed to see both the good and the bad.

I had never even looked at Yelp because I thought it was only for restaurants and west coast businesses. I immediately checked out our listing. To my surprise (and delight), there were no negative reviews posted, mainly because we didn’t have any negative reviews.

Then I got the extortion letter from Yelp. If I signed up for advertising with them I could control (somewhat) my negative reviews. I remember thinking three things at that time.

First, I didn’t have any negative reviews to control on Yelp.

Second, I didn’t see the return on investment for running ads on Yelp, partly because I didn’t and still don’t see much return on investment for any brick & mortar running online ads, and partly because I didn’t see Yelp as a big deal for indie retail.

Third, anyone that was already looking me up or finding me on Yelp was either going to visit me because I was an indie toy store or not visit me because I was an indie toy store. The reviews were a minor part of the decision process. More importantly, anyone who didn’t know me, then found me on Yelp, and was debating whether to visit was basing their decision on every single interaction they had ever had with an indie toy store.

The reviews were just the reinforcement of their already-established bias.

That’s the reality of how we read reviews. We first have an established bias based on our own beliefs and previous experiences. We look at reviews to reinforce those beliefs. We’ll justify away negative reviews for places we expect to love, and discount the reviewer’s opinion when it is at odds with what we expect.

In the back of our mind, we’ll also wonder how many of these reviews—good and bad—are simply made up.

About the only time we’ll heed the reviews is when they are heavily slanted to the negative. When everyone is saying something bad, we’ll decide the business is an outlier and shun them.

(Note: I talked about how to deal with negative reviews here.)

Does this mean you should ignore reviews for your business? Absolutely not! You should always be checking your reviews. If they slant negative then you have a problem you need to address with how you run your business. Even one bad review might be enough to warrant a change in policy to make the experience better for your customers.

If they slant positive, great! Keep up the good work!

Only if you don’t have any reviews (because you’re a new business or have only recently claimed your online profile) should you actually go after getting them. If you’re running your business correctly, the good reviews will take care of themselves.

Because of confirmation bias, though, you don’t have to lose sleep over your reviews. Just keep an eye on them from time to time and make sure you run your business so well that the positive organic reviews outweigh the negative ones.

At the end of the day the most important “review” is the one-to-one where your current customers talk about you to their friends.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Of all the reviews online, pay most attention to your Google reviews. These are the ones that most people will see because A) Google is the top search engine. B) Google Maps is the top Map App.

PPS If you are a restaurant, reviews are much more critical than if you’re a retailer. How you respond to each review goes a long way to how people will view your restaurant. Read this about negative reviews.

Payroll is Not Just a Line on Your Profit & Loss

My dad was a journalist. Got his degree from University of Michigan in 1965 and started writing for the Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper right out of college.

He worked for his future father-in-law at Toy House all through high school and college to pay for that degree and even worked part time around his journalism job to help pay for the expenses of having a new family.

There is a legendary story about how he got his start at Toy House when my grandfather gave him a 40% raise to lure him away from another job at age sixteen.

Four years after college my dad got another job offer, this time to move to New York and write for Newsweek. Once again my grandfather made my dad a substantial counter-offer 33% higher than the Newsweek offer to stay and work full time at Toy House.

1974 – 25th Birthday of Toy House
My dad and grandpa are in the white shirts on the left. My sister and I are in the clown costumes in the middle.

Now some might say my grandmother was behind this offer. She didn’t want to see her grandchildren (my sister and me) leave town. But my grandfather knew a good employee when he saw one. He always told me …

“You can never overpay for great help.”

Talking about Sears these last few days has struck a nerve. Along with the comments here, I’ve received emails with stories of families with long ties to Sears.

One long-time reader of this blog told me how his grandfather who worked for Sears for 33 years talked about how they changed their employee stock options program in the 1980’s. He speculates that started some of their “well-trained staff” attrition. 

Wikipedia tells of how Sears changed their hourly pay structure in 1992 that ended up cutting pay for several employees. This followed on the heels of Walmart and Kmart surpassing Sears in total retail sales in 1990 and preceded by a year the demise of their catalog. Coincidence?

Circuit City did the same thing in March 2007, cutting starting hourly pay and laying off 3,400 higher-paid employees. Less than two years later they liquidated.

In both cases the C-Suites were only looking at payroll as an expense to be cut instead of an asset to invest in.

You can treat your employees as an expense instead of an asset and get away with it. Amazon has done that for years. Even their new round of raises was offset by a cut in bonuses and other benefits (and was politically motivated to decrease the chance of Bernie Sanders getting the Stop BEZOS Bill passed).

It only works, however, if you didn’t treat your employees like assets first.

I may be biased but I think my grandfather had it right. How you treat your employees affects how they treat your customers which affects your bottom line.

Go find some people to overpay.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I wish I could have paid my employees better. I wish I could have offered them better benefits. Since I couldn’t, I did other things to help them out like grant all their time-off requests, work with the schedule to make sure they got the hours they wanted, feed them every now and then, train them, treat them with respect, give them responsibility, pay a stipend toward their continuing education, celebrate their birthdays and achievements, and bring in a masseuse during the Christmas holidays. Even when you don’t have the budget there are things you can do to make your staff feel appreciated.

Two Forks in the Road for Sears

In 1988 Walmart opened their first Supercenter in Washington, Missouri. The Supercenter concept heralded Walmart’s entry into the highly-competitive, low-profit, huge cash flow, repeat-traffic driver grocery business.

Two years later Walmart surpassed Sears in total sales to become the largest retailer in America.

By 2004 Walmart was capturing one out of every four dollars spent on groceries and remains the biggest player in the grocery industry.

Walmart ad in Vogue Magazine

In May 2005 Walmart did something completely unexpected. They ran a full-page ad of their new fashion launch in Vogue Magazine. Yes, Walmart and Vogue. No, it wasn’t a designer pajama line to wear when you visited a Walmart. Walmart wanted to do to fashion what it had done with grocery.

There was only one problem. Fashion isn’t a commodity like groceries. One year later Walmart reported declining sales for the first time (at a time when most retailers and the economy were booming). By 2007 they scrapped their foray into fashion and went back to what they did best—sell mass-produced items at cheap prices. When the economy tanked in 2008, Walmart found itself back on top with sales growth and cash flow.

I tell you this story in our discussion of the lessons from Sears filing bankruptcy (part 1 and part 2because it illustrates what can happen when a company tries to diversify the right way and the wrong way. Walmart’s model is built on selling cheap goods cheaper than anyone else.

Their foray into groceries made sense. Fashion, not so much. When Walmart began selling groceries it vaulted them to the top of the retail mountain. When they got away from what they did best, it caused them to falter.

Sears made the same mistake in the 1980’s and never recovered.

Sears made its living in the same style as Walmart—selling lower-priced items. One difference, however, was that Sears sold “value” more than price. The well-trained staff* would talk you out of the most and least-expensive versions of their appliances by showing you the “value” you got from buying something in-between with a lot of bells and whistles.

Sears also made its living by having stores near urban centers, but also a catalog to serve the less-represented rural areas.

This recipe put them on top of the world.


While Sears had made a living selling to rural markets through their catalog, Walmart was quickly encroaching their territory with actual stores. Walmart went after the rural markets that didn’t have the retail glut of the urban locations, the same rural markets where the Sears catalog was most popular.

Walmart also used its growing power with vendors to bully them into better pricing to undercut the competition and define the sales in terms of “price”, not “value.”

Whether through hubris or ignorance, Sears ignored this threat and instead focused on diversifying their portfolio.


Back in 1930 Sears had launched Allstate Insurance, a value-based insurance company. The success of that led Sears to get into three other industries in the 1980’s—financial planning (Dean Witter), real estate (Coldwell Banker), and credit (Discover Card). 

Like Walmart and grocery, Sears and insurance was a fit. Insurance is a product people have to buy but want to buy it affordably (value). Like Walmart and fashion, financial planning and real estate were not a good fit for Sears because they aren’t sold the same way. Sears was sinking valuable time and resources into ventures that weren’t consistent with their Core Values or their primary business model.

Sears divested themselves of those entities in the 1990’s but by then the damage was done.

Walmart and Kmart surpassed Sears in sales in 1990. Walmart had redefined the lower-priced goods market, begun the serious race to the bottom, and infiltrated the rural neighborhoods where the Sears Catalog had been the lifesaver for so many families.


In 1993 Sears discontinued the catalog. The catalog business had shifted dramatically in the 1980’s because of the fanatical growth of retail stores in America. Why order it from a catalog when you can pop into a nearby store and get it today? The glut of retail, the cost of shipping, and the 7-10 business days shipping time was enough to kill the commodity catalog shopping that was the Sears catalog.

The only catalogs making it were for specialized companies selling specialized goods not found in stores (LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, REI, Signals, Orvis, etc.).

Then along came Amazon.

In 1994 Amazon launched their site. While there were a small handful of people who recognized the power of the Internet and what it could become (my buddy, Hans, actually pitched Borders Bookstore on the idea of selling online before Amazon launched and was laughed out of the room), I’ll forgive Sears for not seeing the potential.

Kinda …

Sears already had the mail-order business infrastructure set up. Sears already had the cataloging of hundreds of thousands of items done. Sears already had enough stores around the country at that time to set up a BOPIS system that even Amazon can’t yet match. Sears was part of a joint venture with IBM called Prodigy, so it was even involved in the Internet in its infancy!

This isn’t to say that Amazon wouldn’t have eventually cleaned their clock through better data, better customer-centric focus, and better operations, but just imagine if instead of trying to diversify, Sears was instead looking at new ways to do what they already did, only better and with the full use of the newest and latest technologies?

The lesson in all of this is simple.

First, understand fully and clearly who you are and what you do.

Second, don’t let anyone else do it better than you.

Sears let Walmart and Amazon do Sears better than Sears while Sears was busy trying to be someone else. Because of their size, it is a slow, painful death, but the choices that led to the bankruptcy were made in the 1980’s and 1990’s when Sears chose the wrong forks in the road and stayed on those paths too long.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS *I don’t know when it happened, probably in the 1980’s, but at some point Sears got away from their “well-trained staff.” Whether it was a cut in money for training programs, a shift in management away from training as a whole, a cut in payroll, or simply a belief that sales-training didn’t matter (a common thought in the 1980’s when everyone was selling at a high clip), Sears lost this competitive edge it held over the competition, especially Walmart.

PPS I did this exercise a couple times with my staff, but it was a question I asked of myself several times a year. “If I was going to open a store to compete with Toy House, what would I do?” When you ask and answer this question, you find the weaknesses in your model that can be exploited. You find where your competitive advantage is thinnest. Not only does this question help you find where competition could hurt you and shore those areas up before the competition strikes, it helps you constantly explore options for doing what you do better.

Lessons From Sears – Retail is Always Changing

“Phil, you know this store is going to put you out of business, right?”

My grandfather heard that first in 1962 when Shoppers Fair, a discount department store chain, opened in Jackson. We heard it when Westwood Mall opened in the 1970’s with a Circus World store (eventually becoming a KB Toys). We heard it in the 1980’s when Meijer opened their second store on the east end of town and Kmart opened a new store on the west end of town. We heard it in 1990 when Target came to town. We heard it in 1993 when Toys R Us opened.

Shoppers Fair Jackson, MI 1962

Shoppers Fair closed in 1974. KB Toys is gone. Kmart left when we did. Toys R Us left only a year after us. Montgomery Ward left Westwood Mall a couple decades ago. Younker’s is leaving Westwood Mall as I type.

Retail changes.

Jackson used to have a Woolworth store, a Field’s department store, a Jacobson’s department store, and an A&P grocery store—all defunct retailers now.

Retailers come and go. The retail landscape changes. Stores open and close.

We can look at Sears filing bankruptcy as just the natural evolution of retail. They had a good run, but now it is over.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb right now and predict the eventual demise of Walmart. It might be fifty or one hundred years from now, but history shows us no retailer lasts forever.

The only problem with simply dismissing Sears as an eventuality is that Sears was once on top of the world, both figuratively as the largest retailer in America as recently as 1989, and literally when they opened their tower in Chicago in 1973. Their fall is far more educational to the independent retail world than Toys R Us and their debt problems caused by venture capitalists.

As a student of retail, I see two turning points for Sears starting their downward slide that incorporated the other five “lessons” I listed yesterday. One was in 1993 when they discontinued their catalog. We’ll talk about the other one tomorrow.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS There are several reasons why an independent retailer closes shop including retirement, illness, death, boredom, new opportunities, local market collapse, and competition. The big boys close for one reason and one reason only—Cash Flow. It is the decisions that lead to cash flow problems that I find most interesting.

RIP Sears

There is a group on Facebook for people who grew up in Jackson, MI. The posts are mostly, “Who remembers …?” so that former Jacksonians can reminisce about days long past. A recent post was about Toy House. A couple hundred people waxed nostalgic about visiting the original store in the 50’s and 60’s.

Several people mentioned the Catalog Sale, something my grandfather started early on.

The Catalog Sale was a two-weekend sale, once in October, once in November, where people brought in their catalogs and we matched the catalog price on any toy we had in stock. Our goal was to keep the sales in town.

The Sears Catalog

The most common catalog was the Sears Christmas Wishbook.

We ended the Catalog Sale in the early 1980’s when it turned out our prices were usually sharper than the catalogs at that time. The event was no longer a draw. By 1993 even Sears had stopped producing their catalog.

Times change. Retail shifts. Today Sears has filed bankruptcy.

Sears was Amazon before Amazon with their mail-order catalog business that allowed you to buy almost anything you could imagine from the comfort of your own home.

Sears was Walmart before Walmart when they dominated the retail landscape in the 1940’s and 50’s by offering a wide variety of merchandise at low prices. By 1969 Sears was the largest retailer in America with a larger market share of categories like home appliances than any retailer has ever had since. Four years later they completed construction on the tallest building in the world.

Sears also was a pioneer in retail, with legendary sales training, teaching their sales staff how to upsell and not sell from their own pocketbook. They were taught how to sell on features and benefits. They had their own credit card (which eventually became the Discover Card). They had their own insurance agency (which became AllState). 

Today they filed bankruptcy.

The easy blame is going to be Amazon and Walmart. Amazon out-Searsed Sears in the mail-order business. Walmart out-Searsed Sears in the commodity goods business.

Yet when was the last time you truly thought of Sears as a convenience-based place to buy goods? They dropped their catalog back in 1992, two years before Amazon launched.

And with well-known economy brands like Kenmore, Craftsman, and Diehard, tons of cash, and superior vendor relationships, Sears was well-positioned to destroy Walmart in the race to the bottom. Yet they dropped faster than a greased baton at the blind relays. 

So what happened?

The answer is quite simple. Sears got away from their competitive advantages and Core Values. Convenience and Commodity Brands were only two of them. The one I believe they truly missed was their sales training.

When was the last time you were blown away by the customer service at Sears?

Toys R Us got away from their Core Values in 1992 when Walmart surpassed them in total toy sales. Sears did the same thing over the years as they gave up the advantages that brought them to the table.

There are several (contradictory?) lessons in all of this.

  • Retail is always changing.
  • New competitors will try to beat you at your own game.
  • Stick to what you do best.
  • Don’t give up your advantages.
  • Adapt or die.
  • Stay true to your Values.

We’ll explore these concepts over the next few days and try to learn from their mistakes.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS It is never a good day when a legacy retailer such as Sears files bankruptcy. If we don’t learn from their mistakes, though, then we’re likely to make the same ones ourselves. As I’ve always said, Retail is not Rocket Science. Rocket Science is actually math for which you can solve all the variables. Retail has variables and equations that never fully resolve. The lessons, though, are fascinating.

Are Background Checks Necessary?

(Note: the last three posts talked about making a character trait list, posting better job descriptions and help wanted ads, and crafting insightful interview questions. You’ve done your interviews. Now what?)

I got a phone call. “I’m doing a background check and one of our applicants listed you as a former employer. Can you verify when this employee worked for you?”

I have made this same phone call. As employers we have rules of what we can and cannot say during one of these phone calls. Each state has its own rules. A former employer can confirm dates of employment, roles/titles, and usually answer one simple question … “Is this employee eligible for rehire?” 

It kinda sucks when you’re checking someone’s background with these limitations. If they were honest about when they worked and what they did, and they are still eligible for rehire, you learn very little. In fact, most background checks are done not to confirm a potential hire but to derail that job offer. Give me one reason to say No.

Even though they rarely ever confirm a good hire, background checks are still necessary. It is better to have exhausted all the reasons to say No. Background checks still tell you something. They tell you if someone is honest. They tell you if someone has neglected to tell you everything about themselves.

Along with calling former employers I also check the court sites. One applicant had three six-month gaps in his employment record. He told me in the interview he was working for a friend doing odd jobs. His friend must have worked at the county jail each of those stints. Another applicant was being considered for a warehouse and delivery position until the list of speeding tickets and two reckless driver tickets appeared.

Sometimes, however, a background check can surprise you. I called one former employer who said, “Wait, are you telling me she’s looking for a job? I need to call her. I’d love to have her back!”

One time when someone called me about one of my former employees the caller asked, “Is there anything else you can tell us?” He knew the answer was likely No—especially if you call a big chain store. My answer surprised him …

“If you don’t hire her, you will have made the biggest mistake in your HR life.”

Sure, seasonal retail help is one of the lowest rungs on the employment ladder. These aren’t confirmation hearings for lifetime positions so you likely won’t need the Senate or FBI. But your store deserves to have the very best. Almost all my full-time employees started as seasonal staff. If you do the proper job identifying the right team members at this stage, you’ll create the team and culture you want for the long run in no time at all.


Some employers check backgrounds before doing interviews. For big positions with tons of qualified applicants, I can understand vetting before interviewing. If you have more good applicants than you have time to interview them all, do a quick search of your District Court, State Felony, and Sex Offender websites. If that doesn’t eliminate anyone, then go to social media and see what they are posting on FB or Instagram. Chances are good that might knock out one or two people.

I preferred to check backgrounds after the interview. I only checked on the people I liked, looking for some reason to sway me off hiring that person. If they didn’t show the character traits I wanted through the application and interview process, I wasn’t wasting my time checking their backgrounds.

Although I have been used as a personal reference several times (and written several letters of recommendation), in my early days of hiring I rarely ever checked those references. I only called former employers who weren’t chain stores. I also made a few bad hires in my day and twice heard from someone who had been listed as a personal reference that told me they wouldn’t have recommended that person to work for me. I learned that lesson the hard way.

References are mainly for filling in holes in the details and finding reasons to say no. It is worth checking them. Otherwise Buyer Beware.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Check with your state’s hiring laws to see what you can and can’t ask in a reference check (and also to know what you can and can’t answer when someone calls you). Bookmark your local District Court site, your state’s felony site, and your state/local sex offender registry sites. Your customers deserve that from you.

PPS The former employee of mine got the job. She told me her boss said it was my comment that won him over. She’s been there 12 years now. I hired the employee whose former employer wanted her back. That was all the reference I needed.

Using Character Traits to Write a Better Job Description and Help Wanted Ad

I jumped the gun yesterday. I started talking to you about interview questions before we even discussed how to get the right applicants through your door in the first place. My bad.

Did you know you can “pre-qualify” your applicants? No, I don’t mean by writing, “Only people with [ __________ ] need apply.” That’s lazy and useless. You can pre-qualify your applicants by writing a better job description and a better help-wanted ad. That traits list we created helps.


Most job descriptions follow the same pattern. First a bullet list of duties and responsibilities. Second a bullet list of qualifications. It is that second list that pre-qualifies applicants. Most companies get that part wrong by listing all the required schooling and experience, without talking about whether you even have the right traits for the job.

A typical list might include:

  • [Level of schooling required]
  • [Minimum years experience doing the actual job as listed in the title]
  • [Minimum years experience doing the tasks for the job]

Just because someone did the job doesn’t mean they were good at it or had the right traits to do it well.

Instead you should be listing the traits of the person you want to hire. Here is a list I helped a fellow store owner create as the qualifications for a manager position:

The Store Manager must be someone who:

  • Can manage and motivate employees
  • Can build and foster teamwork and collaboration
  • Can stay calm and level-headed in tense and hectic situations
  • Can juggle multiple tasks during the course of the day
  • Can keep a high level of energy throughout a long day, a long week, and a long season
  • Can listen carefully and learn quickly
  • Loves to help other people grow
  • Loves to be part of the community
  • Loves to encourage and foster creativity in the team
  • Loves to play and have fun

Notice all those “can” statements? Those are the traits for the job. All of those “love” statements are the Core Values of the company. Someone who has these traits will instantly see themselves in that job description. You also have your basis for your “Tell me …” questions.

“Tell me about a time you had to motivate someone to do something they didn’t want to do. How did you get him to do it? What was the result?”


Your ad is the other place to really highlight the traits you want to hire. Once again, most help wanted ads fail to pre-qualify because they talk about the job and the duties, not the character traits. But what if you wrote an ad that looked more like this?

“Are you a team player looking for the chance to take that next step? Do you have the skills to help other people grow into their best? Do you get fired up at the chance to lead a high-performing team that gets to solve problems and bring joy to others?

You might be the perfect candidate for GTS.

GTS is looking for innovative people with true leadership skills to join us to help create and manage the kind of team everyone wants to be on, the kind of team that has fun working together, has fun being a part of our wonderful communities, and has fun finding new and better ways to serve our customers.

Yes, you will work weekends from time to time. Those days are the most fun.”

Notice how we incorporated all the can and love statements from the above description into one ad? We posted this in November for a toy store. (Yeah, November is not the best time to be hiring new managers, but such was the case.) Not only was this store owner able to find new managers and assistant managers for all three of her locations instantly, all were a perfect fit.

The first year I switched to this style of help-wanted advertising at Toy House I noticed two things. First, I had fewer overall applications. Only the people who saw themselves in the ad applied. Second, I had far more people worthy of an interview. The pre-qualifying with character traits gave me a better pool of applicants than before and made the interviewing process even easier (if slightly longer).

It all starts with the character traits you identify for each job. When you get a good list and use it to describe the job and the applicant you get better applicants from which to choose.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS We used Indeed.com for the store manager posting above. We also used Indeed for seasonal positions but she got several applicants from social media and signs in her store.

PPS Since I closed Toy House I put my hat into the ring for job searches on LinkedIn. Several times I have seen jobs I know I could do incredibly well, but the first two qualifications were often “Must have a 4-year Marketing Degree” and “Must have 3-5 years working as a Marketing Manager or similar title.” I had the traits (and even the experience) to do well in several of those jobs, but they missed out on me even applying because I didn’t have the degree or the title. I would hate for you to miss out on some qualified people for the same reasons.

PPPS Here is a job description using the traits from yesterday and my Core Values of Fun, Helpful, Education, and Nostalgia

  • Engaging – Can meet and greet people with ease
  • Friendly – Can build meaningful relationships with others
  • Caring – Can show empathy and caring for others
  • Creative – Can find creative solutions to interesting problems
  • Determined – Can find ways around objections and stick to a problem until it is solved
  • Fun – Loves to have fun on the job
  • Helpful – Loves to help others
  • Education – Loves to learn new things
  • Nostalgic – Loves to celebrate births, birthdays, and Christmas

Are you a fun-loving person who loves to meet new people? Do you care deeply for others and just want to help? Do you have the creativity and determination to find solutions when none seem possible? Are you the kind of person who celebrates holidays with a passion. Do you love to learn something new every day? You might be the perfect candidate to work for Toy House.

How Your Traits List Affects Your Hiring

It takes a lot of guts to tell Harvard you think they are wrong.

But that’s exactly what I was doing through the aughts as I was developing my own hiring philosophy. In the late 90’s I read the Harvard Business Essentials book Hiring and Keeping the Best People. Like all the other business books on hiring, it said the most important thing to hire for was experience.

Except I had one problem with that statement …

You can have decades of experience in retail sales and still suck at it.

Hiring and the Potter's Wheel Book Cover
Since I didn’t like the books I was reading on hiring, I wrote my own!

I knew salespeople in retail. I had hired people with several years of “experience.” I had worked with retail salespeople at the stores I visited frequently. Some were good. Some still sucked.

The reason they sucked is because so few retailers have any type of formal training or continuing education for their team. Experience alone does not teach you what you need to be successful as a retail salesperson. College doesn’t prepare you for retail sales either.

The skills you need to be successful at retail sales are those traits we identified yesterday.

  • Engaging
  • Friendly
  • Caring
  • Knowledgeable
  • Creative
  • Problem-Solver
  • Determined

Two of those traits are teachable (Knowledge and Problem-Solving). The other five, however, are not. The first key to being successful at retail is what your new hires already bring to the table in the way of the non-teachable traits.

The fastest way to raise the bar of customer service in your store is to fire every salesperson who isn’t Engaging, Friendly, Caring, Creative, and Determined, and start over. Add your Core Values to that list and go hire people who have those non-teachable traits. You’ll have the foundation for a rock star staff in no time.


How do you identify those non-teachable traits? Through the interview process. Let’s call it a “process” rather than just an interview because it is far more than just simple questions and answers.

I always went up front to greet applicants and walk them back to my office. The walk back gave me an early glimpse into how friendly and engaging they might be. Sure, many were nervous, but just the act of walking and talking not only calmed their nerves—which made the rest of the interview go better—and it also got me the chance to view them in a less formal setting. If possible I would introduce them to staff along the way and see how they interacted.

In the interview I asked questions only about what they did, not what they thought or believed. My favorite questions started with …

“Tell me about a time when …”

  • Tell me about a time when you were the most creative on the job. What did you do? How was it received?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond what was expected of you? What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you made friends with a customer. How did it happen? Are you still friends now?

When you ask questions about actual events in their life you get more authentic answers, not something they think you want to hear. You also gain better insight. You learn what they consider to be “above and beyond” or “creative” on the job.

When I switched my hiring process over to focusing on non-teachable traits instead of experience and actions instead of beliefs, I found the results changed dramatically for the better. None of that was in the Harvard Business Essentials book.

Experience plays a role only when that experience is “better” than the experience you are offering. Then again, if you are running your business correctly, there won’t be anyone else offering a better experience, better training, or better work environment. So don’t worry about experience. Hire for character traits and fit (Core Values). You can teach them the rest.

Sorry, Harvard, but from my experience and the experience of so many other retailers, you’re wrong.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS You’ll still need to have Knowledgeable people who know how to solve your customers’ problems. Those are the teachable traits. Knowledge is simply learning all the features and benefits of the products you sell (as well as the products your competitors sell). Problem-solving is simply the process of turning a customer into a relationship into a sale into an evangelist for your store (The Ultimate Selling Workshop). 

PPS It takes a lot of guts to write your own book on hiring when it flies directly in the face of all the other hiring books out there. I did that back in 2008 and it got rave reviews. I still have a few copies left if you’d like to read it. (Sorry, only hardcover, no electronic versions.)

The Pitfall of Using Personality Tests for Hiring Purposes

I’ve taken several versions of the Myers-Briggs test and so far they all have resulted in ENFP (The Campaigner). But my N score is fairly close to the S and my F is barely across the line from T. There are definitely moments in my life when I am more of an ESFP (The Entertainer), especially when I’m playing guitar at Poison Frog Brewery or standing on stage leading a workshop or presentation. In conversations, especially debates, my ENTP (The Debater) personality kicks in and I gladly take on the role of devil’s advocate. (Not surprisingly, the ESTP personality is called The Entrepreneur. Go figure.)

Now you know why I like to wear a cape!

I’ve also taken the Enneagram Personality tests. I have always scored as #7 The Enthusiast, but I share some tendencies of #2 The Helper and #3 The Achiever.

The point I want to make is that these personality tests are fun, fascinating, and insightful, but dangerous when you use them to pigeonhole or label someone. For instance, while reading this description of a #7 The Enthusiast, it says that one of my weaknesses is my ability to stay focused. An employer might read that in the description and immediately assign that label to me. Yet most of my bosses throughout my life have talked about my ability to stay focused on the task at hand as one of my overall strengths.

Black Friday is only 45 days away. You’re in the process of hiring and training your seasonal staff. You’re looking for anything to speed up the process and help you find good people.

I want to implore you not to use the personality tests to hire people.

No one can be truly described by these tests in a perfect way, yet as a shortcut we often use the labels and descriptions to pigeonhole people and assign them characteristics they don’t have. The other downside is that there is no single personality type in these tests that fits perfectly to the characteristics you need for the job for which you’re hiring.


Rather than using shortcuts, the best way to find the perfect people for your team is to create your own “personality profiles.” Identify the most important traits to describe the perfect person for each position. For instance, if you are looking for a Salesperson, you might want someone who is:

  • Engaging
  • Friendly
  • Caring
  • Knowledgeable

If the job requires them to find unique solutions to interesting problems, you might also choose:

  • Creative
  • Intuitive
  • Problem-solver

If you sell items that require a lengthy sales process you might also add:

  • Patient
  • Determined

Then list your Core Values. These also play a role in finding the right people for your team.

Get your list together. The more clearly you identify the person you want to hire before the hiring process, the better you will recognize him or her when you start that process.

Tomorrow I’ll show you what to do with that list and how to attract a better group of applicants.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I asked my salespeople to play many roles including stocking shelves, answering phones, giftwrapping packages, and running the cash registers. My list included:

  • Engaging
  • Friendly
  • Fun-Loving (core value)
  • Helpful (core value)
  • Creative
  • Desire to Learn (core value)
  • Decent Math Skills
  • Nostalgic (core value)

Notice how I left off Knowledgeable. I’ll explain why tomorrow.

PPS Personality tests can play a role with your team, but only after the hiring is done. If you have a full understanding of the personality test shortfalls and limitations, and are willing to use them only as a guide rather than a definitive description, you can understand people’s tendencies and preferences better, which helps you position them and motivate them for better results.

Why Signs Increase Sales

Whether you agree with them or not, I have found a lot of value in personality tests such as Myers-Briggs. They have helped me understand my own choices in life and also helped me understand why we don’t all see eye-to-eye on everything. It also helps that I had an expert on these types of tests explain to me exactly what they show and their shortcomings.

One thing he taught me was a new definition and understanding of the terms. For instance, I always believed Extrovert meant outgoing and Introvert meant shy. They don’t.

Extrovert and Introvert are just two different ways we energize ourselves and recharge our battery. They have nothing to do with shyness. Extroverts (like me) get our energy from interacting with others. We seek out crowds, groups, hanging with friends, because it picks us up. Introverts, on the other hand, get their energy from being alone. They can be every bit as engaging and fun-loving and outgoing as anyone else, but that exhausts their energy. They need alone-time to recharge their batteries.

Introverts aren’t shy, they are just cautious with whom they will expend their energy.

Before I learned this I would have been surprised to find out that, like the population as a whole, half of my staff identified as Introverts. This helped me understand why certain people liked solitary jobs more than others.

I also learned why signs are such an important element of your merchandising displays.

Great use of signs in a Game Dept


Rick Segel told a group of baby store owners once that signs increase sales by 43%. He never told us where that statistic came from or why, but he encouraged us to put up more signs on our displays.

Now, with my new understanding of Introverts, I started to see why. Introverts would rather read a sign or read the side of the box to get basic info than spend their energy interacting with a salesperson. It isn’t that they won’t interact, but they want to know as much as possible before asking their questions. They want to formulate the right question so that they don’t have to ask too many questions.

There is another group of shoppers who also prefer signs over salespeople. I belong to that group. Men.

Men communicate differently than women. Men speak vertically. Did what I say make you think higher of me or lower of me? That’s the reason why we won’t stop to ask for directions. We don’t want to admit we don’t know. That is also why we don’t actively seek out a salesperson unless we know exactly the item we want.

If we’re looking for the Makita XT269M 18V Cordless Drill, that’s one thing. But if we’re just going in to look at cordless drills, not knowing exactly which one we want, we’re not looking for a salesperson because we don’t want to be asked a question we don’t know or show off our total lack of knowledge on the subject.

Men want signs to educate us before we have to interact with someone so that we don’t look foolish or stupid.

I’m an Extroverted Man who is not afraid to admit when I don’t know something. Yet, I get this mentality fully. I can see how signs can make a difference.

With most of the men and most of the Introverts preferring signs before salespeople, now Rick’s 43% starts to make sense. Armed with that knowledge the most important elements of a good sign are:

  • Answers to the most frequently asked questions about this item
  • Benefits of owning this item
  • Price

Want to create a sign that sells? Ask you staff what are the two most common questions asked about the product and what are the two most beneficial reasons for owning the product. Put those answers on your sign and you’ll see your sales rise with the sign.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Before you rip me about how biased, inaccurate, wrong, or even dangerous these personality tests are, understand that I am not using them to label people but to give you some insight into differing human behavior. Introvert and Extrovert are tendencies and preferences. In reality the majority of us are often a little of both with a tendency to lean one way or the other. Likewise, not all men are afraid to ask directions. These generalizations about our tendencies and preferences, however, give you an understanding how to adjust your business in a way that best suits your customers.

PPS My free eBook Merchandising Made Easy (pdf download) is on the Free Resources Page under the heading “Improve Your Money” because it is part of Inventory Management, but it fits equally well with Customer Service and your customer’s shopping experience. Think of Merchandising as a tool you have that sets you apart from your competitors. It is one of your competitive advantages over the Internet.