The Best Workplaces in Retail Have Built Cultures of Caring for All Employees

November 8, 2018, 12:00 PM UTC

After a brief stint in the newspaper business in 2003, Mike Comunale walked into one of The Wireless Experience’s retail locations in suburban New Jersey and never looked back. A new college graduate at the time, Comunale took a position in sales and spent the next 15 years moving up through the ranks, from sales rep to manager to district manager on the company’s B2B team. Now Comunale travels throughout the Northeast checking on the company’s 83 locations.

The Wireless Experience, a leading AT&T retailer headquartered in Manahawkin, N.J., comes in at No. 2 in the small-to-medium category on this year’s list of The Best Workplaces in Retail, published by Great Place to Work in partnership with Fortune. Great Place to Work surveyed 207 of The Wireless Experience’s 412 employees and found that 89 percent thought it was a great place to work, 97 percent said the company offered a great atmosphere, and 94 percent agreed that it had great bosses.

That kind of work environment is rare in retail and it’s why Comunale has stayed around so long. He attributes his longevity at The Wireless Experience to a workplace where people matter, where selling is important but, as the name suggests, the overall experience is more so, for customers and employees alike.

“I’ve always been treated with respect and been able to grow with the company. If you put the work in, it’s a place where you can strive to do more and achieve greater things for yourself and your family,” says Comunale. “Sometimes people can become stagnant in their roles. Here if you put the work in, you can advance because that is appreciated twofold on the other side with the people in charge.”

The person in charge of The Wireless Experience is Brian Wainwright, president and CEO and a frequent presence at quarterly town hall meetings he holds to bring department heads and executives together with frontline employees. Here they have the opportunity to discuss achievements, concerns, and everything in-between.

“Everyone here has an open-door policy,” says Comunale. “We’re not so big that we’ve lost that connection with people. We’re still grounded in that.”

In an industry known for its high employee turnover, keeping people like Mike Comunale around for years or decades is a challenge for any company.

The Wireless Experience has been working on that, replacing part-time positions with higher-quality full-time employment and launching an e-learning platform aimed at increasing product knowledge and retention among all frontline employees. Using employee feedback tools to improve the onboarding process, the Wireless Experience has been able to decrease new-hire turnover during the first 90 days by 26 percent.

Danielle Beaulieu, a talent manager based in Fall River, Mass., says another important thing for employees is knowing they are having an impact in a positive way on the lives of others. “We definitely have a family orientation here at The Wireless Experience. Every day we’re driving our mission and values. It’s about going out and making a difference in somebody’s life. This helps increase retention.” To do this, the company sponsors community events, including visits to firehouses and police departments to talk about FirstNet, AT&T’s high-speed broadband network for first responders.

Just as important for employees as having supportive management is knowing they have some job security in a changing and challenging retail environment. With fierce competition from e-commerce, Beaulieu says that to bring people into the store, it’s all about creating an experience, something the company strives for, from having associates address a customer by name from the moment he or she walks in the door to offering top-notch customer service.

It doesn’t hurt that The Wireless Experience’s bread-and-butter is technology, particularly smartphones. When Apple launches a new iPhone, as it did last month, The Wireless Experience stores buzz with activity as customers pile in to see the latest updates and get advice from knowledgeable wireless specialists who can help them choose the best service plan for their needs.

It’s a win-win: Customers can try out the newest devices and the company doesn’t have to worry (much) about losing sales to Amazon or other online shopping sites since AT&T’s pricing is relatively static across the board. And employees always have access to the latest technology and excitement of a new product launch, something the tech-oriented people who work for The Wireless Experience highly value.

All this has helped The Wireless Experience grow its workforce nearly 50 percent in one year, with plans to hire about 200 new workers in the near future.

Another company that gets high marks from retail employees is Richmond, Va.-based CarMax, the largest retailer of used cars in the United States. CarMax ranks No. 3 on the list of Best Workplaces in Retail in the large-company category.

Employees at CarMax praise the company for providing great challenges (94 percent of 1,814 employees surveyed agreed), great communication (also 94 percent), and great rewards (91 percent). CarMax matches 401(k) contributions dollar-for-dollar up to six percent of salary, offers 17 paid days off after one year of full-time employment, and offers job sharing, telecommute options, and flexible schedules.

Not surprisingly, one of the most important things CarMax employees look for is the ability to advance in their careers. Jeff Prime is a senior buyer at CarMax in Renton, Wash., where he manages a team of buyers who appraise and purchase vehicles for CarMax both in-store and at regional wholesale auctions. Says Prime, “Working on cars with my buddies in high school was always something I enjoyed doing. I wanted to start a career that allowed me to do what I loved.”

Prime started at CarMax as a mechanic, transitioned to buyer, and was later promoted to senior buyer. He was surprised himself at the support he has received from CarMax. “At the start of my career if you told me that I would be a senior buyer, I wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t initially have the skills for the role, but CarMax provided training so I could grow them. You never know where your career within CarMax will take you,” he says.

Not just that: Jeff Prime says working for CarMax has literally changed his life. “Through career advancement and a great relocation program, CarMax gave my family the incredible opportunity to move to Renton. My wife and I absolutely love living here and take advantage of the scenic views and the great hiking trails around Mt. Rainier. Being able to move to an area of the country that I’ve always wanted to live in with a great company that I enjoy working for is something that has improved our lives exponentially.”

Read the full list of the Best Workplaces in Retail.

Julianne Slovak is a contributor to Great Place to Work and works as a freelance writer.