Retail rush: ‘It is all about finding the balance’

Photo by Mike Lewis

Lora Tolley is general manager of the J.C. Penney store in the Valley Mall near Hagerstown, Md.

As a youngster, Lora Tolley shopped at the J.C. Penney store.

Now she runs it.

Tolley grew up in Berkeley Springs W.Va. She attended Shepherd University for 3.5 years and transferred to Concord University for the remainder of her education. She met her husband, Russell, while serving a college internship in southern West Virginia. They have been married for 27 years and have two children, Carter, 19, and Kaitlyn, 16.

In 1993 she went to a J.C. Penney store in Martinsburg W.Va., for a part-time job, working in the Fine Jewelry Department. She was accepted into the management trainee program and has worked in stores in New Jersey, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland.

“I have been a general manager since 2005 and feel very lucky to be in ‘My Home Store,’ the same store I shopped in growing up,” she wrote in an email.

She recently responded to some seasonal retail questions posed by Mike Lewis of the Crossroads Business Journal.

How does your role as store manager change during the busy fourth quarter of the year?

Most of my time during the year is spent engaging my team and the customer to ensure that each person has a great shopping experience. There are also numerous operational processes involved in our daily business that require extreme oversight. During the holiday season, my goal is still the same. However, I find myself deeply involved in the tasks that help get us there, from hiring to unpacking the truck and breaking down pallets of merchandise. The most important and best part of this busy season is just being able to help a customer find the perfect gift.

How do the basic behind-the-scenes tasks, from cleaning to record-keeping, get done during the rush?

There are many pieces to the puzzle that bring the picture together. It starts with having great people that know how to do their job. Planning and scheduling are key to ensure we have the needed resources at the right time and place to keep it all going. We try to cover everything from fitting room maintenance, folding and recovery to restrooms. We know when our peaks are throughout the day and do our best to place our resources at those times within our budget.

Do you hire additional help for the holidays? How do you manage staffing levels through the season? How do you help staffers recharge their batteries?

During the year we employee on average of 115 associates, for the holiday season we hope to grow that number by at least 45 percent. We will continue to hire all the way up to mid December. We try to keep everything fun and engaging for the associates at J.C. Penney and celebrate in many ways. We do our best to start with a schedule that won’t burn the associates out but keep them energized and ready to go. We also ensure, especially on days like Black Friday, that the teams have ‘round-the-clock food and snacks to keep them going.

How do you and your staff members find quality family time, considering all the demands the season puts on retailers?

I think that is a challenge for everyone during the holidays, whether you are in retail or not, but it is all about finding the balance. We offer our associates flexible schedules because we know they have a life outside of J.C. Penney, and we do our best to work with them and help them achieve that balance with their families. For many of our associates, this is their second job and we appreciate what they are able to give us during this busy time. One of the best parts of working for J.C. Penney, and I speak from 24 years of experience and multiple locations, is that J.C. Penney treats its associates like family. We care for one another and what’s happening in our lives. In reality, we spend more time with our co-workers than our actual families, so it’s a great feeling to know that JCP feels like home.