By  on April 2, 2007

NEW YORK — Consumers gripe about dismal service in stores and retailers pledge to improve the shopping experience, but few actually succeed.

Men's Warehouse, however, has been dedicating time and resources to training, and reaping the rewards. Suits University, a training program for the retailer's salaried sales associates and managers, prepares employees to be "wardrobe consultants" rather than simply salespeople, by teaching corporate values, sales and product information.

About 20 times a year, 30 employees from across the country travel to Men's Warehouse's corporate headquarters in Fremont, Calif. — the company built a separate facility for Suits U in the late Nineties.

Sales associates participate in the program any time during the first year of employment. They must have worked for the company for at least 30 days. The sessions, which run from Sunday through Friday, are intense.

"We have 32 hours of classroom training, half of which consists of selling," said founder and chief executive officer George Zimmer. "When I say selling, we call it ‘Selling With Soul.' It's part of our culture. We don't sell up or sell an expensive product when a less expensive one would suffice. We represent the customer."

In addition, the sales associates learn about tailoring and how to fit customers for clothes.

"This employee group [sales associates] is thought of as replaceable and turnover is high," Zimmer explained. "They're very appreciative of the training. We give them their average commission and base salary for a 40-hour week while they're at headquarters. A lot of them think of it as a vacation."

Recreational time is well thought out and built into the program. The groups spend a day at Monterey Bay and have dinner in San Francisco. "They bond over the course of the week," Zimmer said. "After the program they remain friends. The biggest benefit is the off-time, meals and evenings, when this group of 30 men and women with a couple of corporate executives just sits around and talks."

Suits U costs Men's Warehouse under $1 million a year to implement, or about $1,500 per person. Zimmer thinks it's money well spent."The long-term dividend is high," he said. "There are salespeople in every class who come for training and are really lost. They don't know what they're doing. After the program, a lightbulb goes off in their head. They show a 30 percent or 40 percent improvement. A lot of people are very good when they arrive. It's hard to say we make them better. I do believe it's one of the reasons we have one of the lowest shrinkage rates in the retail industry."

The savings on low shrinkage and a smaller security department "is a significant number," Zimmer said. "There are other ways this type of investment pays off. We have lower [staff] turnover. That means many things in terms of continuity with customers and employees. It's hard to achieve."

A testament to the program is the fact that 90 percent of the company's store managers started out as sales associates.

Men's Warehouse was number nine on a list of top rated companies in "New Dynamics That Create and Build Retail Competitive Advantage," a report for the National Retail Federation Foundation by Kanbay Research Institute. KRI took 300 leading companies with annual sales of over $100 million and applied a set of benchmarks, such as stable or increasing market share and high return on investment, for five consecutive years. Only 15 firms made the cut: UPS, Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Walgreens, Kenneth Cole, Petco, Kohl's, Target, Men's Warehouse, PetSmart, Office Depot, eBay, Apple Stores, Macy's and Hasbro.

Gary Williams, president of KRI, said Men's Warehouse is the only apparel retailer he's come across with such a strong commitment to training. "Macy's approach is on a regional basis," he explained. "In terms of customer desire for merchandise, the regional approach could do very well. From a training perspective, the more consistency you have, the better. We've seen that consistent training can be enormously beneficial to driving sales. You just don't see that [training] in the apparel industry. Why? It could be because apparel retailers over-focus on costs."

Zimmer's people-centric approach is evident in other aspects of employee relations. Many companies might terminate an underperforming employee, but Zimmer often tries to find a more creative solution."When we have people who are not necessarily succeeding in a position, we see if their skills would work in another capacity before we fire them," he said. "A fellow here used to be in charge of a large group of stores [as a manager] but it wasn't working out. He was such a great guy we brought him into the corporate office and put him in charge of employee complaints. He's done an amazing job. I recognized him at a holiday dinner last year and 800 people stood up and applauded."

Zimmer also believes store managers can use a refresher course. Every year, the firm's 2,000 managers descend on the Fremont headquarters — in eight groups of 250. The groups are taught to solve problems and make good decisions through various exercises. "Our stores are small enough that they're really like neighborhood clothing stores," Zimmer said. "We want the store manager to handle a customer's problem. When you do solve problems you have greater customer loyalty."

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