Retailers Try Selling Stuff

Discussion
Apr 20, 2010

By George Anderson

There’s only so much cutting any retailer can do to prop up the bottom line.
Eventually, merchants need to move the top line upward and that, according
to a Wall Street Journal article, is why an increasing number of companies
are investing in training and adding financial incentives to get store staff
selling again.

J.C. Penney has given workers bonuses to promote greater customer service
and the sales that come with it. "We really want to drive the top line,
and we think the best way you can do that is by increasing customer service," Mike
Theilmann, executive vice president of human resources and administration for
the chain, told the Journal.

The department store has also planned a three-day conference to improve the
sales skills of managers, hopefully something they can pass on to staff. Managers
will take part in one-hour sessions on how to sell products in a variety of
categories in Penney stores including clothing, furniture and jewelry. Managers
will come out of the conference with an "action plan" for improving
sales in each category, according to the company.

Home Depot is also looking to translate better customer service into sales.
The company now puts its cashiers through a training program that sales associates
complete. Cashiers are trained to find out if shoppers found everything they
were looking for and, if not, calling appropriate departments to find a product.

Thomas Spahr, vice president of learning with Home Depot, told the Journal, "It’s
about building a strong relationship with you, so you come back, and that results
in improved sales."

Discussion Questions: How would you rate the general level of selling skills
in retail stores today? What are the keys to selling at retail and how do
successful companies achieve high levels of performance across the organization?

Join the Discussion!

23 Comments on "Retailers Try Selling Stuff"

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Paula Rosenblum
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Even though I’m a technologist by trade, I am delighted to see the era of self-service as a proxy for customer service winding down. It used to make me laugh when people said “Yes, self-service has worked really well in the airline industry…we should adopt that model.” Doing something yourself because you want to avoid awful lines is not a satisfactory customer experience. It’s a survival technique. The difference at Home Depot is palpable, and I hope to see improvements at retailers who think they’re already good (you know who you are!). Opportunity knocks–the recession has elevated the talent pool… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
7 years 7 months ago

The question is too broad to answer correctly. What we can say is that–for many price oriented formats–sales skills are lower than they should be. But, even here, there are exceptions. Best Buy promotes better sales skills by not offering commissions. Other retailers, like J.C. Penney see bonuses as a great tool for building sales.

It all comes down to two things–good hiring policies and great training. Hire the right folks and tell them what you want–and how they can get it for you–and you’re a lot closer to solving the sales “problem.”

Max Goldberg
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Asking a customer to buy something is completely different than selling through service. The later may get a consumer to buy an additional item, but the former has the potential to build a relationship, and retailers need to rebuild relationships. It would be a pleasure to see great customer service become a part of the DNA of many retailers, but I doubt it will happen. A three-day course for managers will not inspire sales associates. Great customer service starts at the top and succeeds when everyone connected with the store will accept nothing less. How many retailers are willing to… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
Guest
7 years 7 months ago

Asking, “Did you find everything OK?” is not selling or customer service, it’s damage control. To really grow sales, you have to have a sales process that is proactive, not reactive. And to get true buy-in from employees, they have to understand that shoppers personalities dictate how to engage them which I cover in my new book http://www.retaildoc.com/guide May 3.

Jonathan Marek
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Great idea–if you can differentiate the programs that work from those that don’t. Given the lack of focus on selling skills in most current retail hiring and training processes, the general level of associate selling skills is low. If anything, associates have been focused on service, not sales. The right hiring and training programs might make a difference. The good news is that this economy should be a tailwind, as retailers can get better and “hungrier” staff. The bad news is that the vast majority of training efforts fail to produce real change. The retailers that do this right will… Read more »
Kai Clarke
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Knowledgeable, customer service driven sales staff in a retail store is almost impossible to find. There are a few stores (Home Depot, Whole Foods, sometimes Best Buy) where this can exist, but it is still not a true reality. To say that this has hurt retailing is an understatement. However, it is also a sign of the times. We are a more sophisticated, research driven (and product-focused) consumer. We know what we want, why, and often how much it should cost. This is what drives online purchasing and decreases the retail dollars being spent in the brick and mortar world.… Read more »
Kevin Graff
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Too many retailers leave so much money on the table every day simply because the front line staff doesn’t know how to sell effectively. As we always say, ‘good service isn’t necessarily good selling, but good selling is always great service’. It just isn’t that hard to get your staff to sell an extra item to a customer, or to close one or two more customers each shift. The result is almost always a 5 to 15% jump in sales. The keys to making this work? Proper hiring, comprehensive and continual training, effective coaching, increased accountability for performance and an… Read more »
Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
7 years 7 months ago
I would say, overall, selling skills at the retail level in the US are above average while here in Canada, they are below average. There are 2 key elements that I put importance on and it’s ok if you can’t have both: 1. Belief in the brand – if you can get your associates to believe in your product, service and brand, you can train them to sell it. 2. Product knowledge – even if you can’t get them to believe, you must get them to understand the product. Merchants make the mistake of trying to get associates to be… Read more »
Marge Laney
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Sell has been a four letter word in retail for some time. Sales techniques and behaviors have been berated and linked to schlocky retail and have been pretty much eliminated and replaced by people who greet you on the way in and take your money on the way out. Or, my favorite, self-service as customer service! I will admit that selling at the hands of poorly trained amateurs is not pretty and can be downright abrasive and unpleasant. On the flip side, however, a well selected well trained sales person is a symphony of engagement and service, and they improve… Read more »
JULIE QUICK
Guest
JULIE QUICK
7 years 7 months ago

In a world where many retailers carry identical merchandise, personal selling should be an important tie-breaker. The irony is that frontline salespeople who don’t see their offering as special or superior lose pride in the craft of selling. They know shoppers will research and simply choose on price, so why not just send them to the web for product info and comparisons?

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
7 years 7 months ago
Sales training, bonus programs, and renewed focus on selling skills are all terrific. The organization is energized, the service on the floor improves, and there is usually a bump in sales. Over time, however, these programs almost always fade and the sales floors, especially in the lower volume stores, returns to the state that we all bemoan. The reality is that, while these programs are terrific, they don’t add the essential ingredient for sustained success–time. For these programs and new-found skills to be successful, the associates must have the discretionary time to utilize them. With the retail landscape over-stored and… Read more »
Herb Sorensen
Guest
7 years 7 months ago

It is interesting to see “selling” more or less equated with staff. How can this be in a “self” service world? The fact is that self service is NOT going away. The key to selling more in a self service world is to realize that selling skills at self service were lost 100 years ago, when the massive increases in productivity of self service hit stores. It is possible to do a far better job of selling in a self service world. The challenge is to think selling, not just merchandising.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
7 years 7 months ago
The Home Depot cashier training program, without knowing more about it, makes no sense to me. When have you ever been in a Home Depot that didn’t have lines at the cash registers? In a high volume store, which all HDs are, asking a customer if they found everything at the cash register is too little, too late. The cashier can’t hold up the line while trying to get someone from a department on the phone (good luck with that) to find the customer and bring up an item. And, interrupting the transaction and asking an impatient customer to stand… Read more »
James Tenser
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Selling at retail. What a concept! For some FMCG merchants this is truly a revolutionary idea. I’d like to see what might happen if some of those folks had the trade allowance needle yanked from their arms so they have to survive on profitable sales. For some specialty and apparel retailers, sales training and reward might prove to be a short-term difference-maker, but as a confirmed “retail structuralist” I must avow my skepticism. No amount of training or spiffs will make a retail clerk into a successful sales person unless the total system is designed for it. The merchandise must… Read more »
Lee Peterson
Guest
7 years 7 months ago

Oh, we can only hope that retailers carry through with this! After decades of free money, which gave birth to too many stores, which in turn created weak and self-serving customer service, it would be a tremendous breath of fresh air–and more importantly, a reason to go back to retail–for the whole world of physical retail. Hurry up and make it happen!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
7 years 7 months ago

“…three-day conference to improve the sales skills of managers … will take part in one-hour sessions on how to sell products in a variety of categories in Penney stores including clothing, furniture and jewelry.”

Yeah, that’ll really make for firing someone with decades of experience in order to replace them with a minimum-wager; then again, I suppose it’s a variation on an old song: something to nothing leaves something.

Doug Fleener
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
A lot of great comments. I agree that a three-day management training program or training cashiers how to follow-up isn’t going to instantly turn these people into successful sales people. At the same time I commend any retailer who is trying to improve their people and teach them how to better engage the customer. Kudos to them. I believe the key to selling at retail and improving overall sales performance is getting everyone in the company more focused on the customer. Too many sales trainings are focused on the company’s needs and not the customers. Selling is quite easy when… Read more »
Mel Kleiman
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Most retailers don’t hire for sales skills and attitudes; they hire for compliance and willingness to work the schedule. Managers are afraid of associates who can sell because they take more management. Look at most of the tests designed to determine good to great retail associates and you are going to find they want honesty, dependability, and willingness to follow directions — team players. They are not looking for people who will make it happen because they are harder to manage and are more demanding of management. If they do hire people who want to sell, they turn them off… Read more »
Steven Collinsworth
Guest
Steven Collinsworth
7 years 7 months ago
“Duh!” Millions of dollars have been spent and millions more will be spent, again. All in the name of training, customer service, knowledgeable sales staff…etc. Isn’t this what has been written about “ad nauseum” for years? Newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, and newsletters, etc, are written by the hundreds if not thousands every year regarding these very subjects. Retailers really need to get out of the office and talk directly with their shoppers. More importantly, those who choose to shop elsewhere versus their store. Talk with your front line employees to understand the obstacles to success they encounter every day.… Read more »
Randy Cantrell
Guest
Randy Cantrell
7 years 7 months ago
It’s impossible to lump all retail together. The systems/processes of a car dealer are very different than the approach of a pet supply shop. Systems are necessary, and so are processes, but retailers who concentrate solely on those will never be remarkable. By definition a system or process results in a desired outcome–more often than not. That means, it bears an average output. Average is not remarkable. Focus on add on sales and you can increase average ticket amounts. Focus on closing ratios and you can increase revenues. Focus on hiring people who can make connections, give them the tools… Read more »
Melodie Russell
Guest
Melodie Russell
7 years 7 months ago
What I see as a Main Street business owner in this discussion is the “Big Box” retailer figuring out why they haven’t killed us off completely. The consumer still wants to be told what stuff is good to buy and what an associate thinks is a good product. They are taking (and now it seems, finally attempting to use) our business model of actually selling their consumer–not just ringing up the sales. Clearly as is the case with independent brick and mortar stores, this philosophy works. It will be interesting to see if the public responds to a new way… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
Let’s speak about the difference between being a sales clerk and a sales person. First, the sales clerk is just that, a clerk taking an order or showing a shopper where a certain size or brand item is located. Then back to the cash wrap and wait for the next shopper to bring their selections to check out. Maybe that is too simplistic, but I hope you get the direction this is headed. Then comes the sales person, a skilled person willing to help first and sell second; and only after knowing the shopper is getting what they want. The… Read more »
Gordon Arnold
Guest
7 years 7 months ago
To sell, a person must accumulate the awareness and use of a group of measurable intangible skills which when properly presented with proven product(s) and or service(s) to a qualified prospect will result in a mutually rewarding transaction. The exact amount of skill and creative ability needed to be successful in a given marketplace can and should be ascertained by company management as a high priority and explained in detail in the original business plan. The thriving companies will have their own sales experts making all “What’s Needed” decisions for the plan and its use never relying on outsource accept… Read more »
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