Vol. 3, No. 3
Outdoor outfitter Cabelas is hunting and fishing for an expanded sales force.
When Cabela’s, a nationally known chain of hunting, fishing and recreational outfitters, seeks new sales personnel, it looks among its customers—the hunters, fishing enthusiasts, campers and boaters who have made its stores tourist destinations as well as places to shop.
“We want people who have in-depth knowledge,” explains Chuck Bera, senior human resource manager for Cabela’s retail stores. “ Our customers know us through our catalogs or [web site]. We’ve been able to provide good customer service to them, and they want to carry that along. They have a passion for the outdoors.”
To let customers know of opportunities and to make it easy for them to apply, Cabela’s has employment kiosks in the stores and sets up booths at outdoor shows. In addition, employees tend to spread the word about openings to fellow outdoorspeople.
Bera claims recruitment advertising is minimal and often focused on hunt- ing and fishing clubs as well as camping and other outdoororiented groups whose members are likely prospects.
In such organizations, he asserts, “ people are excited” about the idea of working for Cabela’s. Arriving for interviews, “ many candidates bring pictures of where they go [hunting and fishing]. Many come in with photo albums. We had one candidate who came [wearing] full camouflage, carrying a turkey decoy.”
Bera admits,“I came to Cabela’s because I hunt and fish. I was a pretty good catalog customer.”
Tammie Beck, senior HR manager at the company’s call center in Kearney, Neb., believes a little bit of training can turn an outdoor enthusiast into an employee.“We feel we can teach them the tech skills, about a fishing pole or about a gun,” she says.“But they have to love the out-of-doors and be customer-focused.”
Finding Experts in Large Numbers
At the beginning of this year, Cabela’s had 11,700 full- and part-time employees in 18 large stores spreading across a dozen states and four call centers in Nebraska. Typically, from August to November—Cabela’s peak shopping season—staffing levels will“bulk up a lot,” reports Beck. In fact, Cabela’s will double staffing in the call centers, she says.
Hiring also picks up in the retail stores during those months. However, recruiting has been a year-round focus for the last decade because during those years, 16 of Cabela’s 18 stores have opened. This year, the company is cutting the ribbon for as many as eight more stores, with at least five others planned for 2008. Yet Bera claims the company has little trouble finding people with the outdoors orientation Cabela’s prizes and the potential to provide expert sales advice.
An example is Wade Smith, a product specialist in Cabela’s Sidney, Neb., store.“I’m a hunting fanatic, hunting and fishing,” he says, adding that before he was hired he lived 150 miles away but“we used to take two or three trips a year to the Sidney store or the Kearney store.” Smith’s brother, who worked at the Sidney call center, told him about an opening there. Nine years later, Smith has been promoted twice and manages the store’s marine/auto/ATV department.“The cool thing at Cabela’s is you get to learn about new stuff all the time. ... When you’re working with products you love and helping people out, there isn’t much better than that.”
Randy Haddix, also a department manager in the Sidney store, was an avid hunter and an instructor for the Nebraska Firearm Hunter Education program long before he joined the company in 1998.“I really wasn’t looking for a job. I was content where I was at. But this opportunity arose [to] come to work in the big kids’ toy store.”
Satisfied employees such as Smith and Haddix can serve as informal recruiters through word-of-mouth.“In a small town like Sidney, you know each other,” Haddix says.“People in the stores, in church, maybe in the same hunting field or the same lake. â€¦ People I brought in, I know them and I know their work ethic, too.”
According to Beck,“Our best recruiting source is our own employees.” Staffing agencies have been used in the past, she says, but not currently.“We are able to recruit people with the Cabela’s brand.”
And once these employees have been brought on board, they are likely to stay a while. At the catalog call centers, a lot of the seasonal employees“come back year after year,” Beck says.
Honing the Expertise
After new workers are hired, Bera says,“we hone their knowledge. We go through some e-learning about Cabela’s products—tents, optics, clothing. [We teach them] the basic selling skills and then give them online product training for their home department as well as adjacent departments” in the stores.
Most catalog call center employees, called customer relations associates, function as order-takers and aren’t expected to have extensive product knowledge. However, Beck says they can transfer customer calls to the higher-paid product associates and product specialists for help with queries like“I just purchased this gun. What are the accessories I need?”
A worker reaches the product associate level through a challenging test. Later, he or she may be nominated by management to take the product specialist test, which covers information about 10 store departments. Bera says that the very comprehensive test covers“all kinds of hunting and fishing—fly, salt water, guns or archery, hunting in Texas, in Alaska, camping, knowing how to rig a GPS. [The aim is] to identify employees who know it all. Those are the guys who can help you.” He adds that very few pass the higher-level test.
To keep personnel up-to-date on the latest merchandise,“we allow sales associates to check out products [for] up to 60 days” so they can decide for themselves“what they like about the fishing pole. Why is this pole better than another fishing pole?” Bera says. Then the sales associates are asked to train others and to share selling techniques for that particular item.
The goal is superior customer service delivered by salespeople who know what they’re talking about. When a customer comes into a store, Bera declares,“They’re getting an expert.”
Cabela’s Moves East
Historically, the company has located its stores in rural communities and in cities that are near centers of outdoor activity, but recently the company has opened new stores in larger metropolitan areas such as Omaha and Milwaukee. So far, Bera says, the applicants and the customers continue to turn out.“When we open up a store, we’ll shut down the highway” with shopper traffic, and this past spring, he says, there were 1,400 interviews scheduled for 350 openings at a new store in Hazelwood, Mo., a St. Louis suburb.
Still, Cabela’s expansion may expose it to new staffing complexities. The company may encounter more difficulty hiring enthusiastic outdoor experts in some of the upcoming locations than it did in past places.
According to Bera, Cabela’s noticed this last year when it opened a store in Glendale, Ariz., outside Phoenix.“It’s not the talent, it’s more the market [and] the competition for labor.” In this case, Bass Pro Shops, another outdoor outfitter, was building its own store nearby. Bera says Cabela’s staffed its store in part by redoubling its outreach to local clubs and outdoor organizations.
Will that be enough in urban areas like East Hartford, Conn., and East Rutherford, N.J., within sight of New York City? In Hammond, Ind., just outside Chicago?
Cabela’s 2006 annual report notes that the company may not be able to maintain its historic revenue growth and consistent levels of profitability,“particularly as we expand into markets now served by other large-format sporting goods retailers and mass merchandisers.” Among factors that may be beyond Cabela’s control, the report says, are the company’s“ability to hire and train skilled store operating personnel, especially management personnel.”
Despite the uncertainties that naturally come with expansion into new markets, Bera is confident Cabela’s will be able to staff its stores with expert sales help from its usual source: its customers.“From our catalog sales, we know the markets we do well in. We create a culture that they’ll have a passion for.”
He concludes,“When you treat your customers right, you’ll be successful.”
Steve Taylor broadcasts the news on the ABC Radio Networks