Skip to main content
the battle for talent

BeauChapeau in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is more than a specialty store. It’s an experiential tourist destination staffed with knowledgeable employees trained to make a difference

Open this photo in gallery:

BeauChapeau is on the main street of Niagara-on-the Lake, Ont., a history-rich tourist town of 18,000.

It’s harder than ever for small business owners to find the right workers. The Battle for Talent series looks at hiring difficulties in several sectors and offers solutions.

It can be a struggle for small and medium-sized businesses to find good sales help, so tip your hat to Kevin Neufeld – and his shop may sell you a new one.

“It is a challenge to find good people, especially in a small town,” says Mr. Neufeld, founder and owner of the BeauChapeau hat shop on the main street of this history-rich tourist town of 18,000.

The challenge for Mr. Neufeld and BeauChapeau is to pay wages that are good enough to recruit, motivate, train and retain staff to work in a small-town specialty store. BeauChapeau is one-stop shopping if you need a snazzy hat, but let’s face it, hats are a niche.

The store also has a narrow product range – hats, and maybe a pair of gloves, an umbrella, bag or scarf.

“We think of everything in terms of hats. We’re obsessed. There is quite a bit to know and people are often surprised when they come in to work here for the first time,” Mr. Neufeld says.

A small store like BeauChapeau must not only compete with less specialized souvenir and clothing stores on the main street, but also with online shoppers who might click to buy a hat rather than saunter in and try a few on.

A skilled and knowledgeable sales team on the floor can make a difference.

“Not everyone who runs a small company values the professionalism of sales,” says Weldon Long, a Colorado-based sales trainer and speaker.

“A roofing company would look for someone with the skills to work on a roof, but often in sales they just grab the first person. You need the right character and personality,” Mr. Long says.

Open this photo in gallery:

'It is a challenge to find good people, especially in a small town,' says Kevin Neufeld, founder and owner of BeauChapeau.

Mr. Neufeld agrees that personality matters. “We hire for character, and we hire people who will be part of a team,” he explains.

New hires are “put on the floor” immediately to sell hats so they can get a sense of what it takes to work in the shop, although shortly after they are put through an intensive and ongoing training program.

“We want new people to understand what it’s like out there,” he says.

The store follows up with “a thick, comprehensive manual that we have built up over the years, and we train our staff constantly, including sending people to courses. We train, train and train,” Mr. Neufeld says.

He employs between six and 13 people, depending on the season, and his staff tends to stay with the store – the shop opened in 1997 and the longest-serving employee has been there 10 years.

Still, he faces several challenges in the battle for talent, particularly in a retail environment that is changing constantly with the rapid advance of online shopping.

His shop is a tourist attraction, which helps assure bricks-and-mortar customers, and to buttress sales he runs an online store as well.

E-commerce is a growing threat to physical stores, but research suggests that people still like to shop and try on things like hats. A new study by BDO Canada says that “experiential retail” is still important.

The BDO report, Retail Trends in Canada 2018, cites research showing that “85 per cent of consumers are more inclined to make a purchase after experiencing an event.” With its 40s music, retro decor and elaborate window displays, BeauChapeau positions itself as an event destination – an experience even if you don’t buy a hat.

To be safe, the store also has an active online store as well.

Open this photo in gallery:

After making a new hire, the store follows up with 'a thick, comprehensive manual that we have built up over the years, and we train our staff constantly, including sending people to courses,' Mr. Neufeld says.

Attracting staff isn’t always easy in a small town. The pool of potential staff lies mostly about 20 kilometres away in St. Catharines or Niagara Falls, or farther, because housing closer by is relatively expensive and public transit is minimal.

“Why would you drive all the way to work when you can work nearer to where you live at a factory outlet mall?” Mr. Neufeld says.

As an incentive, BeauChapeau has offered higher pay than the Ontario minimum wage, but recently he has had to boost wages even more.

Earlier this year the provincial government raised the minimum to $14 an hour, with an increase to $15 scheduled for Jan. 1. The Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford has pledged to stop the increase, but Mr. Neufeld already adjusted by paying his staff more than the new minimum. While better wages help draw higher-quality staff, it drives up costs.

In a niche business, everyone has to be happy, because unless it’s freezing or you’re bald, you might not be looking for a hat.

That means it’s important for sales staff to be happy at work, too.

“I figure, if I’m not having fun at work then it’s time for me to find a new job,” Mr. Neufeld says.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe