Not Just Any Body

Successful at selling sodas and cigarettes, major marketers of Marlboros and M&Ms, convenience store operators have been anemic anglers for employees.

Looking to improve the quality of service and to break the expensive cycle of high employee turnover, some retailers are using tools for pushing products — marketing and public relations — and applying them to recruiting.

"Our industry hasn't promoted itself as a great place to work," said Tony Barham, retail business manager for Best-Wade Petroleum Inc., a Ripley, Tenn.-based operator of 10 stores. "You can't expect young people to look at a c-store as a place for a career — they don't think there is enough money to be made or a future. But we could offer that if we approached recruitment differently.

"Our company offers tuition assistance, some medical benefits, flexible hours. Our store employees make more than those working at Kroger — yet people don't think of a c-store job as a valid job. This is a problem that can be solved."

Like many of his colleagues, Barham believes the key to more effective hiring and long-term retention is better recruiting. "The better you are at recruiting, the easier the hiring is," he said. "If you get good at hiring, then training becomes easier. The better you are at training, then retaining employees becomes easier — and then recruitment becomes easier, because you have a better base of employees at the store."

Best-Wade Petroleum has struggled to define itself as an employer of choice within its markets. Prospective employees, Barham said, paint all c-stores with the same dirty brush.

"If you interviewed the next 100 people hired as a cashier in the c-store business, I bet you will find that almost all of them went home and said they got a job at a c-store and their friends were amazed and put the job down. They don't respect the position of cashier from the start. Maybe we as employers don't respect that position."

A number of retailers, though, have chipped away at the industry's poor reputation as an employer. Wawa Inc., for example, has had great success with its "Why will you work at Wawa?" campaign. The chain has used "customer" research (in this case, surveying its internal customers, the employees) and branding initiatives to sell its stores as desirable places to work.

"We've done an enormous amount of research to crystallize our consumer brand over the years," noted Bob Moran, director of staffing for the chain of more than 500 stores, based in Wawa, Pa., and a 21-year Wawa employee who started as a part-time associate. "We consistently hear 'Your people are so friendly' and that's a big reason our customers come back. We saw such a strong linkage between the consumer brand and employment brand, a comprehensive strategy for recruitment was the logical next step."

Working with the Philadelphia branch of Bernard Hodes Group, a company specializing in human resource communications, Wawa surveyed 400 employees — both new and experienced, part-time and full-time — to find out why they worked for Wawa and what they liked and disliked about their jobs and their employer.

"We wanted to get the perspectives of people who were new to the organization, to see how their perceptions changed as they were interviewing and started to work, as well as those who were moving up in the company," explained Karen Moyer, account supervisor for Bernard Hodes Group.

The 28-question paper survey asked what other jobs the employees considered. "We thought there would be distinct competitors for employees, but we found the competition really varies by market," Moyer said. "A majority of people who work in a c-store live within five or 10 miles of the store. In one market, the competition could be 7-Eleven, in another it could be Home Depot."

Media habits, including which media were used for employment searches, were also surveyed. "We found the people who shop at the store are really the biggest target audience," Moyer said. "They shop there every day and know the employees by name. Newspaper and radio advertising were good supplemental media, but they weren't where we had to be."

After analyzing the responses, Wawa and Bernard Hodes Group put together the "Why will you join Wawa?" campaign, highlighting the benefits of a Wawa career, including the ability to work close to home, flexible scheduling, career advancement and tuition reimbursement. In-store signage kits, which included bag stuffers, cooler cling-ons and uniform buttons, were supplemented by print and radio ads in selected markets. Three different posters, each highlighting a different reason people like to work for Wawa and featuring Wawa employees, were given to stores, so that managers could tailor the message to each stores' customers and prospective employees.

"By talking about all our benefits, we are marketing ourselves. We are not offering just any job, or a 'lousy' job," Moran said. "We are saying we are a good company to work for — but you may not have considered us before. You may get a job at the mall, but did you know we will give you money toward college?"

Launched in September 2001, the campaign's power became clear during that fall hiring season. That month, Wawa experienced a 152-percent increase in full-time employee hires and a 44-percent increase in part-time employee hires (compared to the year prior). October 2001 saw an 84-percent jump in full-time hires and 25-percent bump in part-time hires. The following month saw a 117-percent increase in full-time hires and 30-percent increase in part-time hires.

"With a larger pool of applicants, we can be more selective," Moran said. "We're not just going for a better turnover rate, but consistency in the store and building relationships with the customers. We try to focus on how the human resource effort partners with the business side — and how HR can help improve profits."

Phase Two — which included new posters — saw similar results this spring. New-hire rates fell, though, as stores benefiting most from the campaign in the fall were already fully staffed.

Now the chain is using the survey results detailing what employees disliked about working at Wawa to ensure the company remains a desirable employer. "This is an evolutionary process; the work is not done," Moran said. "This program is telling us what is important to our people and it adds credibility to any issue we need to address. We know that pay is only fifth or sixth on the list of why someone works at a particular place."

Matching Media and Message

At Sheetz Inc., whose Web site has become a powerful recruiting tool, competitive pay is just one benefit the chain is promoting. Using a section of its site, the Altoona, Pa.-based chain of 275 stores has answered the question "Why Sheetz?" by laying out the benefits of working for the chain, company facts (it's a "family company known for its friendly employees and excellent customer service"; it searches "for only the hardest working, fun-loving, personable individuals," etc.), job descriptions and qualifications, and personal characteristics for success in each position. Information on store-level, managerial, corporate, distribution center and other jobs is presented.

What's more, it's all done with photos of current employees, fun graphics and snazzy copy ("Jobz," "Schmiles" and "Worth your Wild") that get across the personality of the retail chain. ("It's all about attitude. It's all about thinking positive. It's all about making a difference.") The site, a redesign that was a year in the making and unveiled in December, also addresses the serious issue of the c-store industry's not-so-great reputation — but does it the Sheetz way.

"Thinking a convenience store isn't a great place to work?" the copy asks. "Well, you're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. This is Sheetz. Welcome to the front lines of one of the nation's most innovative and fun retailers…"

"The Web site makes it easier for people to learn about us, and understand what a job entails and the kind of people we are looking for," said Phil Freeman, Sheetz's vice president, human resources. "We are trying to tell the Sheetz story and let people know we are a good employer, good company and good neighbor. We are trying to show our personality — presenting our store environment and image. Is the job right for you? It may not be. We want a successful fit."

While the site has been an excellent funnel for associates, it has attracted store-manager candidates, including people from outside the United States, too. "Sometimes there is a situation where a spouse is relocating and is looking for an employer — and they found us on the Web. When you get to that level of employee, they are often looking for jobs on the Internet."

New employees are routinely asked how they came to know Sheetz as a potential employer. Sixty to 65 percent respond they are regular customers or have seen in-store recruiting promotions.

In response, the retailer has tied window and other on-site signage to its "Welcome to Sheetz" marketing campaign now running on the radio, in newspaper ads and other traditional media, which will be used less in the future. The recruiting signage features store employees and highlights the chain's most desirable aspects as an employer: "Opportunity. A Team Approach. Learn the Business. A Family Company. Good Pay."

Similar display ads feature the Web site address, where online applications are available, and an 800 number. Applicants calling the 800 number are asked a few questions as an initial screening.

For instance, applicants are told a drug screen, an employment assessment, a criminal background check and an interview are part of the hiring process but prescription drug use and/or a criminal conviction will not necessarily bar them from employment with the company. They're asked if they are willing to participate in this application process, and asked if they have previous experience managing other people and previous restaurant, fast-food, retail or c-store management experience. Another question: "Do you prefer a workplace that offers a non-changing environment or a workplace that consistently offers new challenges?"

"We are now marketing the culture of Sheetz more than the duties of the job," Freeman explained. "We are trying to make sure people know what the environment is about before working in the store."

Budget Brouhaha

Not every retailer, however, has been as successful in positioning itself as a choice employer. Part of the problem: creative expertise and dollars devoted to marketing and public relations efforts for recruitment.

"We tried working with a local agency and coming up with a campaign, but it was cost-prohibitive. The agency's concepts were interesting, but didn't seem slick enough, they seemed 'local,'" noted Best-Wade Petroleum's Barham. "Most c-store ads in the newspaper or radio are really proclaiming that the chain is like every other. You could take the name off the ad and it could be for any of 10 stores in the area."

Small chains usually can't afford or won't earmark six figures for an effective recruitment campaign, he said. "Retailers say, 'If we had 10 good people working in the store, our business would go up and we could pay them more and offer better benefits.' But the quality applicants say, 'If you paid more, we'd work for you.' It's a Catch-22, but someone has to make the first move."

Barham would like to see the National Association of Convenience Stores or some other third party create a recruitment marketing kit that could be used by small operators sidelined by limited budgets and vision. "I'd like to see a packet of materials — like radio ads, newspaper slicks, building signs. The materials could have one strong theme, but be generic enough to add our own tag line."

Still, effective public relations and marketing don't have to cost a bundle, noted Betty Yopko, president of Yopko Communications Inc., the Hiram, Ohio-based public relations and communications company. Yopko's firm served as Dairy Mart Convenience Store Inc.'s corporate communications department until recently. (This summer, Dairy Mart was acquired by Canadian c-store giant Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc.)

In the past, Dairy Mart has used traditional PR efforts for recruitment, and continued to rely on these techniques as it operated under Chapter 11 protection — not the best circumstance for attracting quality employees.

"We wanted to keep the chain in the news — somewhere besides the financial pages — and let people know Dairy Mart was still a good place to work and a very active and positive business," Yopko said. "The Chapter 11 announcement confused people — are jobs going away? We used public relations to keep Dairy Mart in the limelight and keep people talking about us and our products. We wanted to remind people we were still in business and going strong."

In the past, the chain used niche marketing techniques for recruitment, including one effort aimed at senior citizens. A press release positioning Dairy Mart stores as great places for seniors to work included endorsements from two older Dairy Mart employees. A number of senior and community publications, as well as newspapers, picked up the story, with a few interviewing the featured employees.

The release was rewritten for Dairy Mart's company newsletter, which is included in packets going to prospective employees and distributed at job fairs. "People like to get a flavor of the company," Yopko said. "When we write the internal newsletter, we are communicating to people on the outside, too, including potential employees."

Herb Gross & Associates of Charlotte, N.C., has worked with a number of c-store chains, creating marketing campaigns and providing input on recruitment. For one regional petroleum marketer, agency founder Herb Gross incorporated a company message touting the c-store operator's signing bonus (up to $1,000 depending on the length of the new employee's tenure), locations and other company facts. The message was presented in radio ads, newspaper ads, window signs, pump toppers and brochures.

The results: "Well, not long after the campaign started, the chain was acquired," Gross said. "It's hard to get a tracking on how that campaign did."

Like Barham said, "This kind of marketing takes a leap of faith — do an experiment, whatever it takes."