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Replying to job ads is the age-old method of job searching. The problem with this approach is that you're competing directly against everyone else who is responding to the same posting. Rather than getting the jump on your competitors, you've simply thrown your hat in the ring.
I'm not suggesting you stop doing that. However, if your job search isn't going well I recommend you go beyond that approach and target employers you'd like to work for. Here is a 5-step guide to targeted job searching in the retail industry:
Step 1 - Identify retailers you'd like to work for
Make a list of all the retail companies in your area that you'd like to work for - companies that you've read about and admire, or companies with product categories that you have experience with. Regardless, don't worry about whether they have any positions open at this point - you're just figuring out what YOU want.
Step 2 - Research those companies through their websites and social media
Learn as much as you can about each potential company before you approach them - by doing so you will come across as much more confident, professional, organized, and competent. Read their entire website and learn about their history, mission, and philosophy. Find out how many stores they have and where. Follow their LinkedIn company page and get a sense of how active they are on that network. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook as well.
Step 3 - Determine where you would fit in the company
Realistically assess what position you'd be qualified for with each company, and that may be different for each one. For example, say you are a district manager with Old Navy, you oversee 9 stores and a combined $85M in sales, and you'd like to work for H&M or Target. It's possible that you could step right into a DM position with H&M if the sales volumes were similar, but it's unlikely that you would be considered for a district leadership position with Target, since the volumes are much higher. In that case, you may want to pursue a store leader position.
Besides sales volume, merchandise category experience is important to recruiters as well. A store manager with Safeway might not be qualified for a store manager position with Best Buy if that person doesn't have other product experience that is more closely related. (Please note, these are simply examples; I am not speaking on behalf of any of these companies.)
Step 4 - Identify contacts within the company
LinkedIn is a great tool for this. When you click on a company's page, you will see a section called "How You're Connected" at the top right. This will show you any first-degree or second-degree connections you already have in that company. Look over the list and try to find someone who would be at the level above the position you're seeking. For example, if you want a store manager position, try to find the district manager in your area.
If that person is a first-degree connection, you can send them a message. If they are a second-degree connection, you can send them a connection request if you like but I suggest asking for an introduction first. If you look down the right side of their profile page, you will see "How You're Connected" - you can then ask a mutual first-degree connection to introduce you.
When you ask for an introduction, tell your first-degree connection why you would like to be introduced. For example:
I am requesting an introduction to a first-degree connection of yours, Stacy Horton with ABC Company. I have admired this company for some time and I am confident my 3 years' experience as a store manager for DEF Company would make me a strong candidate for future management opportunities with ABC. If you would consider forwarding this introduction, I would be most grateful. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.
It's important to note that what you write to your first-degree connection may be forwarded to the second-degree connection, so don't include anything that you wouldn't want that person to see.
Step 5 - Initiate contact with the new connection and develop a relationship
One key to networking is to recognize that a new relationship may not bear fruit right away, but it's still worthwhile. Don't approach the person with the standard "Do you have any store manager openings?" because you may be disappointed with the answer, you won't impress them, and in all likelihood the relationship won't grow from there.
What you want to do is get them interested in you. If they have a position available right now, great. If not, you have a better chance of being considered when the time comes. Here's an example:
Thanks for connecting with me.
I have been with DEF Company as a store manager for the last 3 years, and in that time I have led my store from $2.5M to $4.5M in sales. I have been very successful in this location, ranking 1st in my district (12 stores) and top 3 in my region (68 stores) in sales volume and key performance metrics for the last 18 months. I now feel that I have accomplished all I can with DEF and am open to other opportunities in retail management.
I am a great admirer of ABC Company and have watched their rapid growth throughout the country in the last few years. I am confident the skills and experience I gained at DEF would make me a top candidate for future store manager vacancies with your company.
Do you have time for a quick phone conversation? I can call you at your convenience, or I can be reached anytime at 555-555-5555. In the meantime, feel free to review my LinkedIn profile for more information.
Thanks again for joining my network Stacy. I look forward to discussing this further with you.
Recruiters appreciate candidates who know exactly what they want and go after it. Targeting specific companies you'd like to work for will portray you as much more confident, assertive, and professional than the "I'll take anything - what do you have available?" approach that most job-seekers use.
Best of luck!