Running a retail food store is a young person’s gig. Lots of heavy bags and boxes to move around, staying active all day, relatively low pay. The generation now coming through your doors to apply for work is digital native; wired differently than baby-boomers. How can you relate? How do you inspire folks used to operating at the speed of light when the job requires meticulously facing shelves?

Surface Difference, Deep Sameness
While Millennials may sport different accessories than older generations—the eternal smartphone, tablet, earbuds—their motivations are the same as for most of us: the desire for autonomy, balance and control, having a challenge, learning new skills and ideas, gaining responsibility, achieving potential and receiving recognition, respect and reward.

Be Real
Few people of any age see working retail as a long-term career, but Millennials have also grown up seeing their parents being downsized from their corporate jobs, large-company “restructurings,” mergers and acquisitions with “synergies” that essentially mean the workforce gets cut.

Rather than hope your Millennial member develops a deep bond with you and your store, be content to make each workday as rewarding, meaningful and productive as possible.

ABC: Autonomy, Balance, Control
Here’s an easy way to think about managing Millennials. Perhaps because of their more practical, less romantic idea of work, the Millennial places his or her personal goals ahead of any work goal. All jobs must first process through this egocentric filter seeking autonomy, work–life balance and control.

While food store work duties have not changed—someone still has to rinse the tofu (if you are a Millennial reading this, ask a Baby Boomer to explain the reference)—how the Millennial thinks about the work may be quite different from someone from an older generation.

As a manager, you may find it more effective to explain the work goal; say restocking the dairy case—and the time you are allotting to complete it, and then ask your employee if they are willing to take it on. Either the task will or won’t be completed on time, but the learning is, both you and your employee will recognize his or her capabilities and shape job responsibilities accordingly next time.

Experiencing autonomy, balance and control, your employee may feel empowered to take on more responsibility, and at the least, will become a better judge of what he or she can accomplish. As the two of you learn what jobs are and aren’t suitable, you can tailor future duties to that employee’s strengths; the true test of any good manager. On jobs well done, remember to give a mix of non-monetary and monetary recognition. A shout-out at an employee meeting can go a long way, as can simple gifts like a free car wash, or an extra discount.

And If You Grow…
If you are planning to grow your business, your clear-eyed, unromantic Millennial may decide that the future with you looks pretty bright. After all, somebody has to run these stores! WF

Jay Jacobowitz is president and founder of Retail Insights®, a professional consulting service for natural products retailers established in 1998, and creator of Natural Insights for Well Being®, a comprehensive marketing service designed especially for independent natural products retailers. With 38 years of wholesale and retail industry experience, Jay has assisted in developing over 1,000 successful natural products retail stores in the U.S. and abroad. Jay is a popular author, educator, and speaker, and is the merchandising editor of WholeFoods Magazine, for which he writes Merchandising Insights and Tip of the Month. Jay also serves the Natural Products Association in several capacities. In 2014, Jay received the Natural Products Association’s Industry Champion Award for notable contributions to the industry above and beyond commercial success. He can be reached at (800)328-0855 or via e-mail at

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2015