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International Plaza opens with freshly trained troops

The mall's customer service mantra gets tested today when patrons come through the doors for the first time.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Monica Sajec, store manager for Nicole Miller in International Plaza, organizes merchandise this week in preparation for today's mall opening.

By J. NEALY-BROWN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001


TAMPA -- When Joleen Naveo led her new store manager and first full-time employee through International Plaza last week, the new mall was full of carpenters with pencils behind the ear and knee-padded tile setters.

Naveo unlocked the ceiling-high doors of Nicole Miller, which sells women's sportswear, evening apparel and men's ties. Their first training session began with oohs and ahhhs as Naveo, the chain's national retail director, showed off a pair of gold and silver paisley pants and bustier.

Naveo's opening instruction to Monica Sajec, the ew manager, and saleswoman Germaine Jackson: push to sell the pieces and always give excellent customer service. "Our products are fabulous but there are other fabulous designers as well," Naveo said. "Customer service sets you apart."

From pep talks on how to show off the merchandise to pointers on how to work the cash registers, the managers of more than 130 stores and restaurants have spent the last few weeks training platoons of new employees to perform like old hands when the upscale mall near Tampa International Airport opens this morning.

This week's terrorism tragedy put a dent in the festivities at the new mall and delayed the arrival of some stores' merchandise. But shopping at the 1.2-million-square-foot center will begin as planned today at 10 a.m., and the new employees will be put to their first tests.

When customers walk into the Body Shop, employees should be able to steer the oily-skinned to the store's line of tea tree products, tell customers that its honey products come from Zambia and explain the company's philosophy behind seeking ingredients from Brazil for its nut body butter.

"Employees are expected to know general facts," said Chad Little, public relations manager of the Body Shop. As part of a training program called Ready, Steady, Go, employees learn about the Body Shop's much-promoted brand of social activism, including its stance against animal testing and its agenda to defend human rights.

Through videos, role playing, demonstrations and lectures, employees at the International Plaza store learned in three days what later hires will have time to learn in a five-week self-study packet. This week's training was interrupted by the attacks on Tuesday, when Body Shop closed all of its operations nationally.

Neiman Marcus, which started training workers in July, conducted a series of five-day sessions organized by topics. On the second day, for example, trainees learned about the company's policy against sexual harassment and discrimination.

"It goes into why we are proud of being diverse, the policy of accepting everyone -- workers and customers," said Natasha Phillips, manager of public relations for the high-fashion chain. "It's not just accepting our customers but accepting the fellow workers."

Neiman Marcus, like most of the stores, boasts that its training emphasizes customer service.

Naveo at Nicole Miller uses her own experiences as a teaching tool. She's won sales by complimenting a customer on her homemade boots and listening to a woman in tears after she broke up with her boyfriend. She even brought two dresses to Tampa on a recent trip here for a customer who originally called the New York store.

"This is the type of customer service that you deliver," she said. "People will become so loyal."

But being nice is not enough. She also instructed the employees to master the store's offerings. "It's very important that you memorize the name of the collection," she said. "The customer likes it when you know what you're talking about."

Some stores believe they have a magic formula for training new staff. Managers at Tiffany & Co., the upscale jewelers, say they won't give details of their customer service training because it's "proprietary."

At the Discovery Channel store, employees are given about two days of training, with instructions to continue learning as they work.

Melissa Zarpaylic, vice president of human resources/retail for the stores, said employees are told, "Rather than just straightening up the displays or folding shirts, as you're walking around, pick up the products and read the factoids. If it's a telescope, read about the telescope, learn about it."

But the company's employees also have to be prepared to answer trivia questions. "We get questions about (the star of) Crocodile Hunter. The number one question: Is Steve Irwin alive or dead?" Zarpaylic said. "We have to confirm that he's still alive."

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