The College Store — November/December 2011
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The Lessons of Flying Solo
Dan Angelo

Even a large store with a hefty full-time staff can learn a thing or two from the masters of juggling and improvisation who run one-person operations.

Like any collegiate retailer, you deal with an ever-changing laundry list of issues every day. Now, imagine doing that with no full-time staff other than the person looking back at you from the mirror. For a one-man-band manager, even something as basic as a restroom break requires planning, and answering the phone becomes optional. Managers of small college and high school stores know their job will range throughout the workday from sales associate to shipping-and-receiving clerk, from cashier to IT expert and sometimes even janitor. Some accomplish this Herculean feat with help from part-time and/or student staff, while others do it entirely on their own. All face the challenges with the understanding that it’s just part of the deal.

“I wear a lot of hats all day long,” says Rhonda Snyder, manager, Palmer Florida Bookstore, Palmer College of Chiropractic, Port Orange. “A lot of times, there is simply one person manning the store.”

Snyder has one part-time employee and two work-study students to cover times such as her lunch hour. For Teresa Zweibahmer, manager, Northeast Iowa Community College Bookstore, Calmar, the challenges include running her store manually, with a cash register but no point-of-sale system.

“It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time,” Zweibahmer says of her operation, which even includes a textbook rental program done by hand (see sidebar, page 81). “There are times when I never see my office until 5 p.m. to do all my office work, but it was manual when I came here. The college grew and the work grew, so I just adapted to it.”

Adaptability may be the most important attribute for small-store managers. Here’s how some of them tackle going it alone.

SOLO, BUT NOT ALWAYS ALONE

The idea that small-store managers must perform every single task themselves isn’t completely accurate. Yes, there are times when the door must be locked and a “Will return at ___” sign left in the window, but most smaller operations are able to hire part-time and student workers. Some high school stores even get volunteer help from parents.

Cliff Braly, manager, Greensboro College Bookstore, Greensboro, NC, has had the same part-time worker for more than 20 years. Without ever needing to advertise positions, Braly has also been able to assemble a crew of helpers from faculty and staff recommendations.

“I have a list of people who I call in for rush that enjoy working for me,” he says. “I have one lady who is 82 years old. She works harder than most of the 20-year-olds.”

At the University Bookstore, University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc, Manager Georgia Fay is herself a half-time employee, working a 20-hour schedule with up to four students to help cover the store’s hours of operation. The school’s winter schedule also requires that the store remain open throughout the Christmas season.

“I try to have students there when I’m there on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but the students man the bookstore on Tuesdays and Thursdays by themselves,” Fay explains. “That’s just the way it’s always been.”

THE RIGHT HIRES

When available, student workers are vital to the success of a one-person college store. Managers count on them to stock shelves, wait on customers, and cover lunch hours.

Roseanne Greavu, manager, Kent State University Tuscarawas Campus Bookstore, New Philadelphia, OH, has up to four students working 12-15 hours per week. One of the students is paid a higher hourly rate for taking on greater responsibilities, such as working one of the two evenings the store is open and opening and closing on Saturdays.

“The main thing I want them to do is handle customers and be on the register,” Greavu says. “They also do displays and restock, and let me know when we need more merchandise.”

Fay tries to hire students with retail experience, but admits any kind of work experience will do. Susy Gillette, manager, University School of Nashville Bookstore, Nashville, TN, prefers male students because of the heavy lifting required to fill and deliver book orders.

The number of hours work-study students can put in are limited by their financial aid package. Students who qualify for the work-study program at the InnerLight, California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, are eligible to be on the job for up to 25 hours a week, but few actually work that long, according to Steven Swanson, bookstore manager. Work-study students employed at the Palmer College Bookstore may work just 50 hours total for the 11-week quarter.

“We try to schedule our work-studies so they can come in to help during lunch or if we know there is a particular time of the day that gets busy,” Snyder explains. “For rush, we always ask if they have any extra time to please come in. If that means they don’t have any extra time at the end of the quarter, that’s OK.”

Sandra Brooks, manager, Kentucky Christian University Bookstore, Grayson, has work-study employees available for seven to nine hours per week. She uses that time in blocks within the semester, starting two to three weeks prior to registration and running through buyback. Brooks also makes sure she hires students who can lift heavy boxes.

“Other students resent having someone not be able to share the load, so it makes for a happier environment,” she explains. “I also have current work-study students recommend future ones. They will not recommend someone they do not respect as a co-worker.”

CARVING OUT TIME

As every manager knows, working in retail isn’t limited to the hours the store is open. There are back-office duties that must be completed each day, which can become problematic for a staff of one.

Snyder is in her office 30 minutes before the store opens every morning to tackle paperwork, while Fay uses the hours after her store closes to catch up. Gillette is able to close her store every day from noon-2 p.m., which allows her to take lunch and run necessary errands.

In addition to managing the bookstore, Swanson is director of auxiliary services at CIIS. In that capacity, he’s responsible for a café as well as all the operational concerns of the bookstore.

“I clean up the deposits for both bookstore and café,” he explains. “We do special orders, so I keep on top of these during the mornings and I do a lot of troubleshooting for both the bookstore and café.”

Perhaps surprisingly, managers say rush really doesn’t hit a small store any harder than much larger operations. A one-person store has to plan for long hours and lines just like stores on campuses with plenty of employees.

“We have extended hours, we’re open more evenings, and we’re open on Saturdays,” Greavu says. “Students are cooperative. They know there’s going to be lines and are OK with that.”

Finding someone to fill in for illness or vacation is another matter altogether.

“The sick thing is when it gets hard,” Swanson says. “I try to find good student workers, good trustworthy people who can fill in for me. Usually, I get back and have to clean up a lot of messes, but that’s just part of the job.”

Working special events away from the store creates additional strain on the schedule. Braly has sometimes hired workstudy students, but more often works sporting events by himself.

“It’s hard to get students to work weekends because they’d much rather be at the game,” he says. “It’s a lot of physical work, and if your team is not doing well or the weather is not good, your sales are puny and you don’t want to pay for part-time help.”

A SOUNDING BOARD

Getting feedback from other managers is the one issue Swanson hasn’t been able to solve. In fact, going solo was his answer to declining sales in his store in the first place.

“It is nice to be able to do pretty much whatever you have to do, but at the same time, there’s a nice synergy when you’re working with at least one other person,” he says.

Greavu works with the managers of three other Kent State satellite-campus stores. That partnership gives the four stores additional buying power and a sounding board for each of the managers.

“We have a good working relationship and friendship,” she says. “We do group buys, bounce things off each other, and support each other.”

Student employees are probably the most important source of feedback for the solo manager. They’re the ones who restock the shelves and they know what they and their friends look for when they shop.

“I always make sure to have salesmen show up when I know I have a student working,” Fay says. “As I’ve gotten older, I know what I like is certainly not what a 20-year-old would like.”

Braly allowed a marketing class to make purchases as an assignment.

“The class would come in and I would have them do a buy,” he explains. “I was a guiding hand, but they made the decisions. It gave the students an experience they couldn’t get in the classroom.”

SPACE AGE

Most college store managers are concerned about space, or the lack of it. Single-employee stores normally deal with retail space, storage, and shipping and receiving in an area that may not total 500 sq. ft. Snyder, for instance, works with just 456 sq. ft. Gillette operates her K-12 store in a 15-by-25-ft. area located in an old boys’ locker room in the basement.

“I just go vertical,” she explains. “I don’t have a big room, so I put lots of different items out. If I have six or seven tee shirts, I fold them and stack them to have just a few of each size there and replenish it when I need to.”

Zweibahmer ran her store out of classroom space for more than a year while a new location was being readied. She utilized one room for retail space and had to beg and borrow spots around campus for storage.

“Most of my books were just a hallway away from me, but for other stuff, I had to go to other buildings to get it,” she recalls. “I just maintained a very small inventory of things because I had no place to go with it. It was a lot of work and a lot of running around.”

Single-employee operations like hers face issues familiar to all college stores. In the end, their reason for sticking with it may have a familiar ring as well.

“I wouldn’t call it a labor of love when I’m lifting 40-lb. boxes, but I do enjoy working with the vast majority of our students and we have a great faculty, too,” Fay says. “Being small, people get to know each other, which I think is just more pleasant.”
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