Creating a Model for Competency in Retail Services

Posted: September 27th, 2016

A civil rights leader once said that minorities excel in organized sports because there is a “level playing field.” There are highly publicized expectations and practices that are commonly understood, competitive inefficiencies are quickly and transparently addressed, the competencies a player needs to master can be readily identified, and his or her related performance can be promptly evaluated. When it comes to the ordinary workplace, however, the environment can be much more opaque. If employers do not use a talent development model that can be understood and respected, hiring, assessment, and promotion can appear arbitrary and subjective, influenced by a wide variety of human biases and dependent in large part on a worker’s relationships. When this is the case, equity in employment based on performance and proficiency can be difficult to ensure.

With a relatively large pool of workers representing a diverse and complex range of backgrounds, ages, and skill levels, the retail sector is one area where achieving equity can seem like a moving target. The National Retail Services Competency Model was created to encourage “hiring for competency” and help to increase employment equity in industries related to retail, grocery, restaurant, foods, hospitality, lodging, logistics, information technology, transportation, and distribution industries.

Eric Vincent

Eric Vincent

“Competency models help bring about shared meaning, clarity, and understanding so resources and initiatives are effective and efficient,” explained Eric Vincent, Vio Consulting, LLC CEO and President, the lead author of the National Retail Services Competency Model. “Competency models help achieve equity because they are used to evaluate what is missing and what seems to be too far removed to have meaning or be used as assessment criteria, no matter how long it has been used in the past.” 

The Competency Model’s goal is to generate broad consensus on common expectations for retail employees in roles at specific career intervals, including:

· entry roles, in which workers are expected to “learn and do,” including jobs such as administrative assistants, cashiers, data entry operators, dock workers, maintenance workers, cooks, sales associates, and customer service agents;
· advanced responsibility roles, in which workers are expected to “teach and do,” including jobs such as assistant department managers, crew chiefs, supervisors, bartenders, computer systems administrators, information security analysts, and yard managers;
· manager roles, in which workers are expected to “participate in decisions,” including jobs such as facility managers, department managers, nutritionists, executive chefs, buyers, and manufacturing supervisors; and
· leader roles, in which workers are expected “make decisions,” including jobs such as directors, store managers, and sales managers.

Leadership in developing widely-embraced standards was needed, according Vincent. “No work before this had really established what competencies were common across retail and related services like lodging, logistics, and technology, especially since retail has changed drastically over the years,” he said. “So the idea was to try to establish and communicate competencies that are needed for long-term careers in retail, in part because retail isn’t always viewed by some as a place to have an actual career.”

To create the National Retail Services Competency Model, Vincent looked at existing competency models from specific industry segments and Department of Labor information related to educational and worker needs across the economy. He then consulted industry experts to gain broad input and to refine the competencies for the retail sector. A major objective of the model, Vincent said, is to help to level the playing field in terms of equity in hiring and career pathways.

“The whole point is to provide a common language so we are not creating distinctions where there are no practical differences,” he said.

Of course, there will be niche needs that are unique to a company which the company will apply to ensure that a potential worker fits well with the organization, but the purpose of this Competency Model is not to be highly customized, according to Vincent. “It doesn’t matter if you are at a port authority, or you are a cashier, work in a bakery, or manage the front desk—if you have these competencies, you are going to be able to succeed in those jobs,” he said. “If we can be clear about needed competencies, we can be clear about training and appropriate education levels.”

Employers, particularly mid-size employers, can gauge their hiring and promotion requirements, as well as compensation strategies, against the Competency Model to determine whether any adjustments should be made to better align with the realities of the market. By clearly articulating the competencies associated with each role, including skills, knowledge, abilities and behaviors, companies can help workers manage career paths built upon an underlying belief in the fairness of the process and talent development environment. Likewise, workers can identify career goals based on their interests and experience, and more accurately identify any competency gaps which need to be closed in order to be qualified for progressive roles.

The Competency Model is the cornerstone of the National Retail Services Initiative, a capacity-building investment to create retail services competency mapping and credentials, support their national scalability, and explore how employers are operationalizing equity practices. It defines the attributes of successful retail services careers so that students, workers, employers, educators, trainers, and workforce organizations can match their unique roles in the talent development pipeline with commonly accepted performance expectations.

Vincent notes that education and training providers can use the Competency Model to understand what skills are needed for employment at specific job levels and ensure that curricula reflect preparation to fulfill those needs.  High school staff and faculty in the Houston area, for example, asked for help in painting a picture of career progression for their students. The Competency Model helps those students see, “how they can start off bagging groceries and then can build upon those skills and move into other jobs,” he said.


The Competency Model connects worker roles to the following needed competencies:

· communications, including listening, reading, signaling, speaking, and presentation, mentoring, self-confidence, managerial courage, strategic communications, conflict resolution, and influencing skills;
· drive for results, including appearance, brand awareness, compliance, organizational awareness, honesty, business ethics, task completion, respect for diversity, cultural intelligence, collaboration, creativity, accountability, moral principles, fairness, knowledge of laws and regulations, vision, understanding interdependencies, managing diversity, and collaboration;
· customer service, including anticipating needs, closing, addressing customer needs and resolution, sales, product knowledge, managing elevated situations, resolving systematic customer service issues, and anticipating customer changes and evolution;
· adaptability, including accepting change, continuous learning, cooperating, flexibility, persisting, supporting, teamwork, valuing differences, customizable solutions, and creating and managing change strategy;
· critical thinking, including causes and consequences, locating information, mathematics, observation, problem solving, prioritization, balancing task execution with service, identifying performance gaps, using reporting and analytics for decision making, understanding trends and patterns, delivering sustainable results, and using data to drive long-term decision making;
· technical/occupational, including information technology, digital fluency, internet use, product knowledge, technical knowledge, telecommunications, financial literacy and management, inventory management, forecasting, marketing, project management, purchasing, scheduling, planning, controlling, organizing, and delegating; and
· leads people, including coaching, mentoring, supporting and cooperating, compassion and empathy, influencing, setting an example, motivating others, and developing a leadership strategy.

Read the complete National Retail Services Initiative Competency Model here.