Is Free Help in the Bookshop Wise?

After church this past Sunday, a 15-year-old girl came to me and asked, “Do you allow free help in your stores?”
I told her, “I’ll think about it.” Consequently, it made me think about a number of times I’ve been asked that same question in the past. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, even if you know the individual who is interested. Yes, you can allow a friend to come spend their off hours shelving books in your store. Yes, you can have a good time while they are there, enjoying each other’s company while being doubly productive due to the extra help. But, then there’s the practical side: What happens if they promise to come help, you prepare jobs for them, and they don’t show up one day? Will they expect some sort of compensation by way of a discount on books, a gift card for the store, etc? Will they know how to deal with customers who assume your volunteer is a paid, knowledgeable employee?

It’s almost easier and less hassle to pay someone a set wage for a set number of hours. Free isn’t always free… especially if they cost you sales. Will they know how to defer to customers who are perusing the shelves? Will they move out of the way?

All of these questions come up because we’ve had many paid employees yet we’ve also had a few freebies. The pro bono help has been good overall. However, we had a few times where someone promised to come shelve books and straighten our toy shelves, yet they didn’t come when expected. So, we got backed up in our staging area. I had to pay extra hours to other workers just to cover the backlog of books that needed to be shelved. Then, the free help would show up unexpectedly… after everything had been done. At that point, we need to find work for them… taking time away from our current job to do so.

I don’t mean to sound cocky… like “I don’t need anyone’s help.” Free help is fantastic. Just recognize the possible trouble. We had another worker named Ashley. She was a high school student who decided to volunteer a few hours when we were just getting started. We weren’t paying ourselves at that time, so we surely weren’t going to pay an employee unless absolutely necessary. Well, the store got busier and busier and we had more and more books to shelve every day. We needed paid, consistent help. Because of the many hours Ashley had already committed to our store, we felt compelled to hire her for our first paid position. She was only 17, and she would work a few hours each Saturday.
Since she was too young and inexperienced, she couldn’t be much help at the register. When the line got backed up, my wife was stuck while our paid help stood around casually shelving books. It wasn’t her fault. We put ourselves in a predicament.

Fortunately, that relationship didn’t last long. Every hire we’ve made since then has been older and more capable of helping at the front end of the store.
Again, I’m not purporting that you shouldn’t use free help. We’ve been contacted a number of times about allowing mentally impaired people assist in our bookstores as a community outreach program. We haven’t allowed this yet… because of our previous experience, not because of their mental capacity.

You just need to make everything overwhelmingly clear before the free help starts. “No, this does not give you priority consideration when a paid position becomes available.” “Yes, we need you to be consistent with your volunteer hours.” “Yes, please defer all customer needs to one of our paid associates.”

As it’s been said… it’s always easier to relax you relationships than to make things stricter later.


Shane Gottwals
Gottwals Franchising Inc.