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Pressure at Pier 1: Beating Sales Numbers of Year Earlier Is a Storewide Obsession

December 7, 1995

On the first day of Pier 1 Imports Inc.’s Christmas season, Paula Hankins writes a number on a board in the store she manages: $3,159.

That’s the sales total on the first day of last year’s Christmas season _ and merely beating it won’t do. She wants a sales gain of 36 percent. ``We can do it, I know we can,″ she tells her clerks.

These days, managers like Ms. Hankins are gladly sharing sales goals and results with clerks, even part-timers brought on for Christmas. National retailers used to treat even local sales information as proprietary, concerned that a bad performance would hurt the stock, that a good performance would prompt requests for wage increases _ or that statistics of any sort might help the competition. When retailers did share information, the figures were dated, because old-fashioned cash registers couldn’t provide realtime sales totals or analysis.

But high-technology inventory and sales systems have become more affordable even for small stores, and industry executives are using them to make fuller disclosure to employees. Letting store staffs in on financial objectives and results can transform an eight-hour shift of clockwatching into an enthralling race, managers say. ``The more information you give the associates, the more ownership they feel in the store’s performance,″ says Dave Self, a regional manager who oversees 33 Pier 1 stores.

On the selling floor, many agree. ``It adds to the excitement,″ says Alicia Winchell, a 25-year-old assistant manager at Ms. Hankins’s Pier 1. All day, as customers come and go, the store’s clerks take turns consulting a backroom computer for an up-to-the-moment sales tally.

Still, number watching can go too far, some retail experts warn. ``I don’t think it’s necessarily constructive,″ says Isaac Lagnado, president of Tactical Retail Solutions Inc., a New York retail consulting firm. ``Watching the numbers too closely can get employees into a manic-depressive mode, where they’re elated one day and dejected the next.″

Indeed, in a week at Pier 1 store No. 398, managers and clerks alike take a roller-coaster ride.

Going into Christmas, this Pier 1′s managers, Ms. Hankins, 28 years old, and Eva Goldyn, 23, see plenty to celebrate. Since the current fiscal year began March 1, the store has posted sales gains of 36 percent from the year-earlier period _ compared with an average of 4.5 percent at the 650 other Pier 1 stores that have been open for more than a year.

Moreover, though No. 398 is the smallest of five Pier 1 stores in Nashville, it ranks second in total sales _ an achievement that doesn’t entirely satisfy Ms. Goldyn. ``Do you realize that the Green Hills store is doing just $700 a day more than us?″ she asks Ms. Hankins. ``Someday we could pass them.″

While Pier 1 Chief Executive Clark A. Johnson is expecting a chainwide sales gain of about 5 percent this Christmas, Ms. Hankins is aiming higher: 36 percent. For Pier 1′s five-week Christmas season, Ms. Hankins’s goal is $240,000, up from $176,445 last year.

The first day of Pier 1′s Christmas season this year is Sunday, Nov. 26. It goes well. Throngs of post-Thanksgiving shoppers converge on the store and spend $4,409, up 40 percent from the $3,159 they spent last year. In part, Ms. Hankins credits the merchandise, 40 percent of it new since last Christmas, 90 percent imported from other countries. Artfully stacked on wooden shelves and display tables, the offerings range from a hand-carved dining table from Thailand and a melon-shaped jar of Italian pasta to a black chiffon dress from India.

Although some of her salespeople are elated, a single big day doesn’t electrify Ms. Hankins, who has worked at Pier 1 for nine years and makes between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. In fact, when she arrives home, her husband, Kyle, can rarely tell whether she’s had a good or bad day. ``She’s even-keeled,″ he says.

That’s good, because Monday doesn’t go so well. Sales climb only 24 percent, to $3,220 from $2,605. On the board in back, someone draws a smiley face _ with a frown on it.

Then comes another blow: Late Tuesday, a 40 percent sales gain for the day appears to be locked up _ until a customer walks in and returns a $500 furniture set purchased days earlier. With that amount knocked off sales, Tuesday’s gain is reduced to 20 percent. ``That hurts,″ Ms. Hankins concedes.

When Wednesday’s sales climb only 19 percent _ barely half the desired amount _ Ms. Hankins notes that virtually any retailer in the country would be happy with that increase.

But she can’t say as much on Thursday: Instead of the desired 36 percent increase, sales drop 12 percent. The store is virtually empty on the balmy day. ``The weather is too nice,″ Ms. Hankins tells her staff. ``With that full weekend before Christmas, people are waiting to do their shopping this year.″

Noting that only 33 percent of people who enter Pier 1 actually purchase something, Ms. Hankins and Ms. Goldyn constantly encourage employees to pay close attention to those who come in.

And the people who do enter the store find the sales staff especially eager to help. Ms. Hankins spends more than half an hour helping an interior designer pick out baubles to decorate tables. The designer, Amy Huber, says she hadn’t intended to spend nearly $250, but Ms. Hankins ``did a great job pointing out things that I wanted.″

Friday is a disaster: Sales drop 22 percent.

At times like this, some retail managers might wish they were still hiding their awful numbers from the sales force. After all, failing miserably to meet a goal can hurt morale, especially considering that Pier 1 this year implemented bonuses for all salespeople based on the sales gains of their stores.

But the sales force _ 13 women, two men _ seem buoyed by the continuing optimism of Ms. Hankins and Ms. Goldyn. ``It’s not like they’re blaming us for it,″ notes Kim Smith, who has worked at the store for 18 months.

On Saturday, sales rise 10 percent. But even so, this _ the first week of Christmas _ turns out to be one of the worst weeks of the year for Ms. Hankins and Ms. Goldyn, with sales rising only 10 percent from the year-earlier week.

Is Ms. Hankins discouraged? ``No.″ Is she doubtful that Christmas sales will rise 36 percent, as she had hoped? ``No.″

On Sunday, sales rise 124 percent.

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