Making a great first impression at retail

Jan 24, 2014

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article from Convenience Store Decisions magazine.

I was in a client store recently and saw a familiar, middle-aged cashier behind the counter that recently began paying a little extra attention to her work appearance. Dressed in the normal company uniform, she had her hair and nails done professionally and spent a little extra time on her makeup. It was a noticeable difference.

I told her she was raising the bar on the company uniform and she was quick to inform me that she had attended a jewelry party earlier in the day and had not had time to change. But she also confided that she had received many compliments from her regular customers and it was obvious, from the way she carried herself, that she was riding a wave of self-confidence on that sunny Atlanta afternoon.

A few days later I was back in the store and the difference in her presence and demeanor was absolutely striking. She had removed the makeup and jewelry and reverted back to the everyday cashier I had remembered. Gone was her confident demeanor. Despite the compliments and praise that came with putting her best foot forward, she lacked the drive and commitment to sustain change. I noticed and, more importantly, the customers noticed.

I must admit, after witnessing the positive change in her appearance and attitude after the jewelry party, I wondered why someone wouldn’t take the extra steps to sustain such good feelings.

While you might not agree with these thoughts, it is important that you know how management sometimes thinks. We put on a show for the customers. Actors always look their best on screen and the convenience store is our theater.

In his 1970s book, Dress for Success, author John Molloy made three key points that apply to the retail industry:

  • People who dress well are treated with respect. Given the choice between a well-dressed applicant and one in sloppy attire, an employer will choose the better dressed one.
  • Dressing above the level of the job you hold presents and portrays you as a valuable commodity to management, even one the company is fortunate to have.
  • Dressing for success presents your true potential and gives you a definite competitive edge when decisions have to be made.

For convenience stores, presenting yourself to your customers with pride. Acting like a professional is not just for those looking for their next step up the ladder, but also for those who strive to be better.

What’s the right and wrong way for store managers to handle associate appearance issues? When is the line crossed between managing and mentoring versus offending and overstepping bounds?

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23 Comments on "Making a great first impression at retail"

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Bob Phibbs

As I wrote in this blog about employee appearances, there should be a dress code for all types of retailers. It’s as much about the way they look as they show the way they feel.

Ian Percy

“When people plan the battle, they don’t battle the plan.”

The most useless thing to do is tell employees what to wear and how to look. Use an educational approach for example by having them respond to pictures of people in various kinds of dress. Which one will sell more? Which one will likely be admired by others? Which one looks confident? Etc.

Then have them decide on what the “look” should be in their own store. More importantly, have them monitor themselves.

Of course the easiest thing is to have an attractive uniform – that is uniform choices that look attractive on all body types. This the airline approach – a range of clothing all reflecting the same look. Dress shirts look better on heavy men than do golf shirts and so on. More expensive for sure, but you’re likely to earn it back many times over. Every store can look classy.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

The greatest challenge for retail stores today is “People Power” and how to harness it.

A recurring theme at NRF was competing with Amazon requires focusing on what Amazon can’t deliver – personalized customer experience. To do that stores need associates to more than stand and take your money.

Dress and appearance is important. In lower salary jobs, it is easier for the associate to have a uniform of sorts. But as this article points out, being dressed in the appropriate attire does not ensure that the associate will be positive and engaging with consumers.

Some stores have been successful at setting “standards for behaviors” they expect. Mystery shops can provide feedback to both the store and the individual associate on what the experience feels like from the eyes of the consumer.

At the end of the day, “attitude” is not something that can be “trained. Attitude is a reflection of the work “tone” and environment.

Everything flows downhill. To change store climate, attitude and behavior of associates starts and ends with changing the behaviors of store managers.

Zel Bianco

This is such a tough issue. It does indeed make such a difference in attitude when your staff takes pride in their appearance. Although we are a solutions provider to the industry and therefore not in a store, it is still an issue we grapple with and something I wish I could change. Software developers are not necessarily known for dressing professionally, and when a meeting requires their attendance, I struggle with how to get them to see that they and, in fact, all employees and staff are the face to the customer.

You can be the smartest person in the room, but sometimes your appearance prevents others from seeing that. Take pride in the way you look!

Steve Montgomery

The first thing is to makes sure that there is a clearly established baseline/policy for appearance stating what is and what is not allowed. This ensures store managers have a starting point.

Beyond this is where it gets tricky. Complementing someone on their appearance when you are their boss can easily be misinterpreted as can any remarks about how or why someone should go beyond the company’s appearance standards.

While there are clearly things that can be said that are inappropriate, the line is crossed when the person receiving the mentoring perceives it to be inappropriate. Where that line is often depends on the working relationship between the individuals, the context of the statements, the timing and circumstances. We no longer live in a “Mad Men” world (thankfully).

Mel Kleiman

The best way to handle the dress problem is before you hire them. Set the standards and hold yourself accountable first, and then your employees.

Tell them before they start not only what you expect but more importantly, why you expect it: the effect it has on the customer, the team members and more importantly, on them.

J. Peter Deeb

Managers have the ability to influence prospective employees on both appearance and attitude during the all important interview stage. Setting the standards at that time makes it much easier to address the issue if an employee slips below the expectations of management. The consequences of not meeting expectations should be laid out in the hiring stage.

Handling discussions with employees is critical to changing appearance or behavior and a manager should not harass an employee or use personal attacks to influence the desired behavior. They should be consistent with all employees and use results (happy customers, repeat customers, more sales, job security, etc.) as the discussion points for keeping up standards.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

What product are you selling? To which consumers? With what expectations?

Once in an Apple store someone questioned a manager about why they allowed an employee to have hair dyed green to work there? The manager’s response was, “see the stack of products he is checking out for that customer? That is why he works here.”

Ed Dunn
3 years 8 months ago

I visited the downtown public library several weeks ago and found a 1970s book for starting a career in retailing. The book had an extensive chapter on how to buy sport blazers, color combination and professional sales associate appearance with plenty of pictures.

I do not remember seeing any book or published material in 2014 for this topic. Maybe someone needs to write a more modern book on this topic as a general guideline for all store managers to base their policy on dress and professionalism.

Ryan Mathews
I was personally appalled by the sentiment in this article. Why not ask all female cashiers to wear pearls and big hair? Ian is right, it’s useless to tell employees how they should look. Why? Because they probably think they look good. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. That young man or woman applying for a job with their arms, neck and legs covered with tattoos; their noses pierced and “zeros” in their ear lobes modified their bodies that way because they thought it made them look more attractive. The idea that a cashier or clerk should — or worse, ought — to wear heavy makeup and jewelry to work so they will be more attractive to “management” borders on an HR violation. They aren’t being paid to cater to management’s idea of what attractive looks like, they are being paid to do their job. Uniforms are a good idea — unless you work at the Tilted Kilt or Hooters — assuming (again as Ian points out) the uniform is selected with “everyman” and “everywoman” in mind. Clearly store managers have a right to demand that employees wear uniforms (if that’s the policy); are clean and… Read more »
David Zahn

The best ways are: 1) establish expectations up front (and WHY). I think Ian’s suggestion can get at the “why” by putting the applicant/employee into the position of seeing their own reactions to how people appear – however, I do not agree that it is up to them to decide. I am not for voting or majority rules – that is abdication of management responsibility and authority in my book. 2) model the behavior one seeks. Showing up disheveled or less professional yourself does little when the message is “do as I say, not as I do.”

John Karolefski

Most of us would agree that associates having a sharp appearance beyond the basic uniform requirements is a good and desirable thing, and perhaps a competitive advantage. So, before hiring associates, tell them what the expectations are beyond the basic uniform requirements. Set a higher standard, explain why, and and hold associates accountable.

Let’s hope associates see the reasons and benefits of such an appearance. In a practical sense, they should be eager to meet a higher standard given the number of unemployed and under-employed people in the country.

Mohamed Amer

This is a very broad topic – think of the many varieties of retail stores and chains from size to format to assortment to locations and so on. An associate on commission will dress the part with little direction, an hourly part- timer might need more coaching. What’s appropriate in a smoke shop will not work at a fashion boutique.

Walk the talk: the most effective way is to show by example and role playing. The shopper walking in the store will immediately form an opinion based on associates’ dress, mannerisms, and eventually speech. Whatever the ‘dress code’ in place, it needs to be in sync with the customer base and reflective of the store / brand.

This only gets tougher in this age of individualism and non-conformance (brief respite in the ’80s). Just hark back on that modern classic movie, “Office Space.” Whenever I think of work place dress codes, this clip pops to mind.

How many flairs do you require?

James Tenser

In a minimum wage world, it may be unreasonable – even onerous – to require employees to hew to a detailed dress code. Requiring makeup or jewelry seems like an HR no-no to me, even if it instills some employees with a sense of self-worth.

An employer who provides uniforms or shirts can engineer this a little better. Walmart’s famous vests are certainly egalitarian (that is, equally humiliating for all). Trader Joe’s Hawaiian shirts are more fun and upbeat. An alternative might be simple guidelines, such as white-button-down shirts for store cashiers, or black tops for hairstylists.

Finally, norms should be appropriate to the situation. For some reason (innate prejudice?) I am more tolerant of multiple piercings and visible tats on a barrista than on a flight attendant – even though they both bring me coffee.

Connie Kski
Connie Kski
3 years 8 months ago

I own a pet store. We have a very specific dress code and uniform. Most of my employees are young people in their first job. If I don’t tell them what I expect, they simply will not know what is acceptable and what is not. Over the years I have tightened up the dress code and become more specific. Winning the Small Business VIP Contest sponsored by Lands’ End Business Outfitters last fall enabled us to upgrade our look even more. Now, tee shirts are not allowed, and everyone must wear a logoed shirt with a collar. It’s made a huge difference in both the look of the store and the way the staff is perceived by the customers.

Brian Numainville

Knowledgeable. Positive. Engaging. Professional. Well-Trained. All of these things are likely more important than a detailed dress code and will instill a sense of confidence. At the same time, there does need to be some level of clearly spelled out expectations on dress and it will vary based on the business environment. But going to far with a dress code may have the opposite effect and actually make employees resentful and less motivated.

Tom Redd

Retailing is a unique business so there is not a single answer to solving this. Each retailer has a different type or style of shopper. The priority is make the customer comfortable in your store. Comfort builds trust. Trust creates sales and return visits.

Apple has a unique way of applying some standards, but letting the creative image of each individual show. Home Depot has an style that is pure comfort – you can tell the feel of associate expertise by their smock…the badges, etc.

So, store managers need to help their teams dress for their personal success with the shoppers. Not an easy challenge.

Shep Hyken

There is a pretty good chance that the person you hired made a good enough impression, or you wouldn’t have hired them. However, if that impression was just a front, it’s valid to ask, “What happened to the person I interviewed?”

As for offending/overstepping, I believe that management has expectations. If the employee isn’t meeting those expectations – in any area, not just appearance – have a talk. Make the expectations clear. That’s not overstepping. That’s managing.

Sally Beckner
Sally Beckner
3 years 8 months ago
This whole question is so subjective. The answers entirely depend on the type and size of business you have, the type of clientele you want to attract, the caliber of employee you need/want, and the type of ambiance you wish to create. That said, dress codes are always a good idea, even if it boils down to “express yourself.” But whatever the final decision is, it should be clearly spelled out before the employees are to show up for work the first day. Whether they are required to wear a uniform shirt sporting the company logo, or they can wear anything as long as it’s clean, or they must wear a suit and tie makes no difference. Makeup and jewelry should NEVER be dictated by management unless the jewelry is a hazard to the person wearing it. If you don’t like the way a candidate wears their makeup or jewelry (or tattoos for that matter) at the interview stage, you won’t like it after they are hired. I stopped wearing makeup about 12 years ago because I realized it was buying into the idea that women were not considered attractive enough to look at without it. Why should women have… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

Simple: Set the bar high for dress code. The trend today is to dress down, so you need to respond to that and require a high standard that the staff will tend to deviate away from by nature. Then have store management set the tone by “over-dressing” their roles. Nice shoes, clean, neat appearance, etc.

Lee Peterson

The limited used to use a manual called PDLA: Perfectly Dressed Limited Associate. This manual came out with new lines, floor sets and for specific high traffic times of the year. Seems a little ‘controlling’ but actually was a relief for most associates and was also very flexible in terms of options. I.e.: it worked.

A healthy discount on the items in the PDLA Manual went along with it, of course.

Alexander Rink
3 years 8 months ago

I agree with Mel that the best way to handle this type of issue is to set clear expectations when hiring, and then continually reinforcing them afterwards. I also agree that there is some scope for changing the expectations later on, as Connie indicated. As for the boundaries, I think it comes down to being reasonable and non-intrusive: company uniforms certainly seem reasonable and professional to me; as for personal appearance, I think most customers will gladly overlook such things as hair colour in favour of superior product knowledge and service.

Tom Borg
Tom Borg
3 years 8 months ago

Some things to consider when communicating with your associates on their appearance issues are:
1. Call attention to your concern indirectly.
2. Make sure you converse with the person in private, away from earshot of customers or other associates.
3.Talk about some of your own errors in how you use to dress inappropriately.
4. Use the analogy of a professional athlete who dresses in a team uniform for a game, yet he or she can dress any way they like while not “working.”
5. Tactfully make your suggestions.
6. Praise any and every improvement the associate makes.


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