Turning Around Turnover

Human resources tales and strategies from airport retailer Hudson Booksellers

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The working conditions in airport retail aren't for the faint of heart, and they can provide some insight for convenience retailers seeking direction. The high-stress environment can make both hiring and retaining employees a constant challenge.

"It's always been difficult to get people employed in airports because there are really strange hours- 365 days, at odd hours,VbCrLf Pauline Armbrust, president and CEO of industry journal Airport Revenue News, told CSP Daily News. "It's always a pain to get to the airport itself, because usually it's out [image-nocss] someplace that's difficult to get to. So parking's a problem; they have to be shuttled in.VbCrLf

Shifts tend to be long as well: A second shift can run from 2 to 11 p.m. Meanwhile, good customer service, a challenge for c-store retailers even during ideal conditions, becomes an even greater one in the pressure cooker of an airport.

"It takes a certain type of individual to work in that high-stress, high-pressure environment where every one of your customers is stressed out for one reason or the other,VbCrLf said Laura Samuels, vice president of corporate communications for Hudson Group, East Rutherford, N.J., owners of the Hudson Booksellers travel retail chain. "It's one thing at a convenience store or newsstand, but if you're working in a specialty store, you also have to quickly adjust to that customer. Are they racing through to get something quick and understand this has to be a very fast sell? Or is this a customer looking to kill an hour before the flight takes off?

"That's a special art all its own,VbCrLf she said. "I think it's unique to the airport environment. People are not there primarily to shop; they're there to not miss their flight.VbCrLf

For Hudson, holding on to its 4,800 employees and keeping them engaged means continuously forcing uncontrolled turnover into a smaller percentage of overall turnover. "Morale is a pretty critical piece of that-people don't leave jobs, they leave managers-and we've put a great strategic effort together to make our managers of stores better managers of people,VbCrLf CEO Joseph DiDomizio told CSP Daily News.

For one, Hudson trains its managers to focus on positive reinforcement and constantly recognize jobs well done. "People leave jobs because they think they're irrelevant to the company's objectives and aren't sure how they fit in,VbCrLf said DiDomizio. "It's important everyone at every level understands what meaning their job has to the big picture of the company. This is true of sales associates to CEO, and there's some measurement of what you did.VbCrLf

To reward good work, Hudson launched a thank-you program, where associates receive a thank-you card and points toward a gift that they select from an online vendor. They can collect the thank-you points over time to earn an even greater gift. Managers also regularly give employees thank-you notes for small victories-straightening a chaotic stack of magazines, for example, or finishing a sale before going on break.

"People tend to, in general, attack poor behavior, as opposed to emphasize good behavior,VbCrLf DiDomizio said. "I think the idea is to correct bad behavior, but don't give it so much attention that it becomes the focus.VbCrLf

Hudson managers are also instructed to become familiar with their employees on a personal level and understand private stresses. This helps them appreciate why a working mom, for example, missed a day of work-to take care of a sick child-rather than simply assuming she is playing hooky.

How do you measure the power of positive reinforcement? Hudson was able to slash turnover by 30% from 2007 to 2008, DiDomizio said, thanks to strategies such as these.

To read more about Hudson Booksellers' merchandising savvy, watch for the December issue of CSP Magazine.