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The Complete Guide to Succeeding in Retail

Merlin Blog / Job Seekers  / The Complete Guide to Succeeding in Retail

The Complete Guide to Succeeding in Retail

As the holiday shopping season wraps up, we’ve all encountered (or been) the sullen cashier, the overly cheery Velcro salesperson, and/or the nightmare shopper. Let’s face it: retail is a tough biz. A lot of time on your feet, difficult clients and ravenous hordes to handle, and often not much thanks. That being said, a good salesperson can make the difference between a pleasant experience and an aggravating one. If you’re aiming for the former, and hope to survive the process, check out the tips below.


Know your store

In order to sell something, you need to know what you’re selling. “We have cute clothes” doesn’t cut it. Be familiar with the brand aesthetics and customer profile, as well as with the company and products themselves. If the company has a specific focus or mission — such as eco-friendly materials, sourcing, or local wares — those are also key details to learn.

Know the available rewards and loyalty programs and how they work (and be able to explain them to customers) and stay up-to-date on sales, promotions, and new stock. Basically, you should be able to rattle off what the company stands for and who the typical client is, and point him or her in the direction of a dream purchase without breaking a sweat.


Learn how to spot and deal with shoplifters

If you’ve never worked in retail, you might be astounded to know how much shoplifting actually occurs. Moreover, it’s not always people who look sketchy (or can’t afford the items they’re stealing, for that matter). Learning to (subtly) watch shoppers and spot suspicious behavior is a vital skill for any salesperson. (That being said, profiling is a real concern, so be careful to be alert, yet discreet and unbiased).

There are no official guidelines, and shoplifters have a lot of tricks up their sleeves, literally and figuratively, so pay attention and ask fellow employees for tips. Some companies have signals for identifying suspicious visitors — I worked at a store that used the code word “friend” to notify staff on the floor to keep an eye on a questionable peruser.

On that note, make sure you’re well versed in your company’s policies for dealing with potential shoplifters, the shoplifting laws in your area, and the contact information for the nearest security resources. Though laws differ by location, there are limits to what store employees can do, and you don’t want to end up in trouble with the law yourself. Check out resources on shoplifting laws, laws by state, and retailer guidelines, and speak to your manager and/or HR department.

This all sounds a tad dramatic — and it isn’t something to freak out about — but there’s a good chance you’ll need to use this knowledge at some point, so it’s best to be clear from the get-go.


Make customer experience your main focus

Yes, retail is a business, and your company wants to make a profit. But it isn’t only about “making the sale.” Having happy customers pays off in the long run, and making those people happy is your job. Remember that ultimately you’re trying to make customers’ lives better — by helping them find the perfect outfit or gift, solving a problem, and making their shopping experience more pleasant.

That means greeting all visitors as they enter the store, and then taking the time to find out what each truly wants. Start a conversation and provide suggestions. Instead of answering questions with a simple yes or no, explain, ask follow-up questions, and offer alternatives and further ideas. All that being said, no one likes to be trailed around a store; give shoppers space to browse at their leisure. There’s a balance between helpful and hovering, and it’s your job to find it.


Be perceptive

This relates to nearly all the points on this list, and it’s important in any service industry work (really, any job period). But it’s such an essential skill in retail that it bears mentioning on its own. The best way to deal with customers, be a better salesperson, and not go insane on the job is to pay attention. Watch other salespeople, note which interaction approaches work and which don’t, and learn the characteristics of your base clientele.

Most of all, get into a mode of noticing everything. You’ll need to be able to simultaneously read patrons for mood and preferences, spot shoplifting, keep an eye on merchandise order, and more. While it requires mental energy and practice, it will make you much better at your job once you get the hang of it.


Develop a thick skin

Let’s face it: not everyone is a happy shopper. Dealing with customers can be both the most enjoyable and the most painful part of a retail position. It will make your day much easier if you learn to smile, treat everyone with patience and politeness, and not take things personally. There will be crabby and/or dissatisfied clients, and usually it’s the fault of the company, another person, or simply a bad day — not you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t recognize when you’ve made a mistake, but learn from it and move on.

At the same time, stick by company policy, even if it isn’t what the customer wants to hear. Unfortunately, as an employee dealing with patrons face-to-face, you’ll bear the brunt of their frustration even when the situation isn’t your fault or in your power to change. However, you could get in a lot more trouble by flouting company policy (or the law). So we return to point No. 1: smile, do your best to fix the problem, and move on.


Tell the truth politely when asked for your opinion

Your mom’s admonishment,“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” still applies. Sort of. Needless to say, being pleasant to customers is a requirement of any customer service job. That being said, most people can tell when they’re being lied to or given an insincere answer. It doesn’t foster trust in a company or a desire to return, and having an embarrassing experience with a purchase later won’t help either.

It can be extremely awkward to be asked for your opinion on a potential purchase (especially in the dressing room). Answer honestly but politely, never comment on a person’s body or appearance, and offer alternatives if possible. Then fervently hope that shopper brings a personal consultant along next time.


Always ask the reason for a return and try to fix the issue

There are a million reasons why people make returns — an item didn’t fit, it didn’t match the house, it didn’t match the cat, the wife hated it, and so on. It’s not your fault, and there’s a good chance there’s nothing you can do. Still, it’s your job to try to remedy the situation (see above point about customer experience). Inquire why the item was returned, and see if you can help find an alternative.

And of course, actually follow through with the response. This opens the door to another purchase (good for business) and makes the customer feel cared for (ditto). Admittedly, you might get an earful in response, but you could also make someone’s shopping trip.


Be meticulous about order

Customers will make an inexplicable mess. Think of how quickly your closet turns to chaos when you’re going out, and multiply it by a hundred. In other words, neatness is key. Each business has its own organization system (which you should know), but items are usually ordered by type and/or size.

If you have nothing else to do, there’s always something to clean or neaten. A little nit-picky, yes, but it’s essential to the functioning of any retail establishment and makes shopping much easier for patrons (which means less insanity-inducing for you).


Content Manager

Stanley leads content at Merlin. He's on a mission to match the right candidates with the right employers. When he's not writing, he can be found playing with Google Analytics, running A/B tests, and learning Javascript.

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