The Broadway's distribution center on North Mission Road, northeast of downtown Los Angeles, is the size of 42 football fields, and a sense of team purpose pervades just about every yard of it.
In room after room, groups of the department store's sales personnel sit attentively through hours of coaching by supervisors and occasionally do role-playing, pretending to be customers with complaints.
Play-acting might seem like fun, but the Broadway considers such training to be serious business, designed to get employees tuned in to customers' needs and prepared to solve problems lickety-split on the sales floor.
"Our basic objective is to satisfy the customer," said Kim Villeneuve, divisional vice president for training and development at the 42-store chain. "To care for and serve the customer. That's what our focus has been concentrated on for the last two years."
The Broadway is not alone in putting greater emphasis on customer satisfaction. Squeezed by competition from upscale specialty stores and discounters, department stores throughout Southern California have recognized a need to shift strength from the back office to the sales floor.
And therein lie some meaty opportunities for friendly, outgoing individuals who like being part of a team and are interested in helping people.
"I think retailing is probably going to pop out as one of the strongest sectors over the next year," said Phillip E. Vincent, a First Interstate Bank economist in Los Angeles.
Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects retail selling to be the eighth-fastest-growing occupation between now and 1995, with the number of jobs predicted to swell by 343,000 nationwide to just over 3 million then.
Whereas some other Southern California industries--notably energy--have been beset by downturns, retail employment has enjoyed good growth. The number of jobs in Southland retail establishments, including restaurants, rose in the second quarter to 1.15 million, 3.4% above the same time last year.
In the year ahead, the new tax legislation is expected to be a boon for retailers that could result in many new jobs. Lower tax rates will free up cash for merchants' expansion and hiring, and the law will give consumers more disposable income for shopping, said Adrian Sanchez, an assistant economist at Los Angeles-based Security Pacific National Bank.
More than many other fields, retailing can accommodate workers from diverse age, experience and education levels. This is one career where a good track record can take an employee farther than a college education can.
"I don't have a hang-up about any sort of educational background," said John D. Woodward, the Broadway's vice president of human resources.
That goes for Bullock's and Bullocks Wilshire, also. "We're looking at attracting into our sales force that individual who interfaces well with the consumer, somebody who really exudes confidence and has the ability to meet (customers') needs," said Duane V. Johnson, the stores' director of personnel services. "It's more a combination of intelligence, a desire to do well and service people, and pride in output."
Traditionally, retailing has been a field tailor made for part-time workers interested in picking up evening and weekend hours. This is still the case to a degree, but the Broadway and Bullock's both indicate that they now seek more full-time employees who view retailing as a potential career. Full-timers, the stores figure, will be more dedicated to building and serving a strong customer base.
The Broadway is close to a goal of having 70% to 75% of its sales "associates" on full-time schedules, up from 40% in the past. Bullock's, meanwhile, intends to gradually ease more full-time workers into its mix, which stands at 60% full time and 40% part time.
Even so, stores invariably bolster their staffs with part-timers for the important Christmas shopping season.
"Each year we do the same thing. We beef up our staff going into November, and we start that process in the September period," said Edward S. Mangiafico, chairman of May Co. California, which has about 13,000 employees. Between 1,500 and 3,000 workers are hired on this temporary seasonal basis, with some working full time and some part time, he added.
The Broadway and Bullock's stress that sales associates who excel can expect to be considered for management-level posts. "Very often people running stores for us were salespeople or stock people," said Johnson of Bullock's, who started in the company's stockrooms 15 years ago while a student at Cal State Los Angeles.
With the greater emphasis on customer service, the Broadway recently followed Nordstrom's lead by putting all sales employees on commission, a system that gives go-getters an advantage. The more they sell, the more they make.