The Job Hunter
By Rabbi Mordechai Kruger
Some people never get the message. No matter what you do to make sure that everyone hears the news, there are always a few that just aren’t listening. Even when it applies especially to them, they’ll be the last to know. Some people are like that, but the world record holder for not getting the message is a fish called the coelacanth.
The coelacanth was known only because it was found as a fossil. Not a single human had ever seen one, and every science book listed it as extinct. But the coelacanth didn’t get the message. It was found swimming happily about near Africa in the 1930s. Unaware that it was supposed to be extinct, it just went about its business, and it probably will for a long time to come.
Small retail stores may be the business equivalent of the coelacanth. In the age of online shopping, national chain stores, urban blight, and a pile of other factors, mom-and-pop stores should have become extinct. Except they haven’t gotten the message, and many of them are getting along, well, swimmingly. Many people still want to know their merchants, ask questions, see and handle the merchandize. And the same points that keep these businesses viable in the modern age are critical considerations for my imaginary client, Beryl Klein, who is considering embarking on a career in sales.
I interviewed two local merchants, one whose business serves very basic needs which come up on an ongoing basis, the other much more occasional and discretionary. The key point that both emphasized was the personal relationships that they develop with their customers. They are part of simchas, yomim tovim, and family events of all kinds. This means that they not only have to know their merchandize, they have to know how their products fit into the lives of their customers. For them, Sukkos starts in June and Pesach starts in January.
You can buy just about anything online. But Amazon won’t figure out how to solve your problem. If you pick something expensive, your computer won’t ask you why a cheaper one isn’t adequate. Or make sure that you know how to use your purchase, and that you have all the other items that you will need. If Beryl wants to succeed in retail sales, he has to look forward to building this kind of relationship, and serving as a problem-solver, a patient instructor, almost a member of the family. These are the things that will enable Beryl to succeed . . . but first he needs to get the job.
Both of the proprietors that were interviewed for this column had years of experience before they opened their own retail outlets. Selling wholesale and working in a similar family business are ways to learn the ins and outs of management, but they aren’t the only ways. There are journals and trade publications, courses and internships, books and websites, all devoted to retailing. Someone who wants to understand what’s involved can immerse himself in any of these and use what he learns as a springboard for research and conversation—spending time shadowing a manager, visiting different stores with similar merchandise, and keeping a notebook of observations and ideas. The goal is to be in the conversation, sharing thoughts and learning from the people who do the work every day.
When an opening comes up in retail, being in the conversation will give the best chance of getting the job. But there’s no need to wait for an opening. The far better route to a job is not to look for an opening at all, but to create one. Remember that place that said they’re not hiring? If someone comes in and offers a skill the company doesn’t have, knows how to reach a new type of customer, can create value where there was none before . . . then they’re hiring. If the research suggests that establishing a presence online is important, but this store doesn’t have one, then offer to create it. Should they be carrying a complementary line of merchandise? Learn all about it, before the interview. Beryl needs to come in not only ready to do the job, but with a business portfolio that shows that he’s already a professional. Real experience can happen in a workplace or in the mind, as long as Beryl can use it to produce value for an employer today. v
Rabbi Mordechai Kruger is the founder and director of Pathways to Parnassa, an organization providing job-search and career coaching to our community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.