Latest trend at the mall: retail classes

Managers rave about skills of training-center grads

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Armani. Versace. Coach. Louis Vuitton. Hermes. Some of the toniest retailers in the world peddle their wares at the largest mall in the Northeast, in suburban King of Prussia, Penn.

Not exactly where you'd expect to find free educational opportunities for inner-city Philadelphia residents. Yet the King of Prussia Mall is home to the first mall-based Retail Skills Center, which over the last two years has trained and placed prospective employees at retail stores throughout the mall.

It was just over a year ago that Shirley Smokes got on a bus and traveled for an hour and a half to the Retail Skills Center. She'd spent most of her life raising five children, and she needed to get a job. A high school graduate with one year of college under her belt, she knew that she was lacking the experience that she'd need.

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Ms. Smokes, like all new students, first took a computer-administered skills- assessment test, based on standards developed by the National Retail Federation. The multiple-choice questions range from the relatively simple - "What is a customer?" - to more complex ones about sales techniques and inventory.

The test results are used to design an individual training program. Training materials include booklets, videos, and CD-ROMs in each of six retail-skill areas: customer service, sales and promotion, inventory, store appearance, loss prevention, and teamwork. Students can train at times they find convenient and direct the pace of their learning. In order to graduate, each must score a passing grade on a test at the end of each unit, as well as a comprehensive test at the end of the training period.

This educational style suited Smokes just fine. "I couldn't have gotten a better place to learn," she says on the phone from her job at the World of Science, a retailer at the mall. "I learned on the computer and off the computer, and went basically at my own speed. If there was something I couldn't comprehend, there was always somebody right there to help; I didn't need to wait."

Deirdre McKee is less satisfied with the self-paced learning experience. As director of the Retail Skills Center, Ms. McKee has had to struggle with a shrinking budget and staff, and shifting curriculum. Most of the more than 300 students that have come through the center experienced a more-structured six-week seminar program that taught the same skills in a group setting - a format McKee believes is more effective.

Last fall, the center lost a large part of its funding. Seed money provided by the American Express Foundation was all used up - and the state's grant renewal got tied up in red tape when there was a reorganization of Pennsylvania's workforce support services. McKee had to let a staff member go, and she decided to focus remaining resources on recruiting new students to keep up with mall demand. When her new grant kicks in, she hopes to go back to the seminar format.

Regardless of format, though, the demand for employees is so intense that some students who have barely even started training are snatched up. That's what happened to Faith Pembleton. She started at the skills center in December 1999, and two weeks into her training had a job at Illuminations, a store that sells candles. She now trains in the morning and goes to work in the afternoon.

The lessons have given her an edge on her new job, Ms. Pembleton says. For example, her store sells multipart candle holders that require some at-home assembly, and the attentive Pembelton noticed that customers were asking to purchase the already-assembled window displays. She reported her observation to her manager. "Someone set up 20 or 25 of them, and they went like that," she says, snapping her fingers. "It really felt good."

The employers that hire Retail Skills Center graduates share those good feelings. "There's absolutely no doubt that they are trained better than your average salesperson, and that they have a passion for what they do," says Jim Machuga, a manager for World of Science, the store that hired Smokes.

He's particularly impressed with the customer-interaction skills that Smokes and another graduate display. "We take it for granted, but how many times do you walk in the store and no one says hi?" The only additional training he's had to do is in merchandising and store metrics - keeping track of the store's sales in relation to its plan.

The success of the Retail Skills Center at the King of Prussia Mall has prompted another one to open at the Jersey Gardens Mall, right next to Newark International Airport in New Jersey. Shopping areas in Washington State and Maryland are also under consideration, according to the National Retail Federation. If the model continues to spread, prospects are good for a high-quality workforce being created right where retailers need them most.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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