BrainTrust Query: Is ‘Selling’ a Dirty Word in Retail?

Discussion
Apr 27, 2011

In retailing today, “selling” is
a dirty word. “What?!” you
may be asking, “How can that be? Isn’t retailing all about selling?” Not
really. Think about it. Selling is something that both store employees and customers
hate. It puts the two groups at odds when they can and should be partners with
the exact same goals of helping people buy the products they want in the way
they want to buy them. Traditional sales models involve selling things that customers
do not want — by convincing them that they do. The goal has been to essentially
generate more dollars for the store at the expense of a customer who does not
want to spend those dollars but gets coerced into doing so by a “great” salesperson.

Today’s
consumers are increasingly disinterested in dealing with traditional sales
people. They’re not looking for friends or relationships in stores and don’t
care if the staff knows their name. They want to get what they came for and
get out. They’re busy and want a store that understands that, providing what
they are looking for, efficiently. These consumers want information about products.
They want fair pricing, and they want all the other services such as gift wrapping
and easy returns — but they don’t need to talk about it. They want the information
online. They want it in clear signage in-store around the product and its attributes,
as well as store policies, procedures and services. They don’t want to have
to ask.

These customers spend money just like traditional customers do and
they deserve respect. But most small shops not only fail to give it to them,
they continue to insist on trying to speak with them and showing them items
they did not come in to get. They frustrate and drive out shoppers who have
money and want to spend it. Shoppers do not want to be “sold” or “told”;
they want to shop on their terms. Smart stores allow them to do so.

We encourage
you to transform how you think about sales by designing your store to have
the following things to allow customers to shop how they want. We call it the “Inform & Deliver” selling
model:


  • Have clear signage to provide non-verbal communications. 
  • Don’t put employees at odds with customers by pushing sales incentive
    programs. 
  • Remember — you sell merchandise, not service. 
  • Make sure you have the goods. If you don’t, the customer can easily
    find them with a click. 
  • Brand your store at every touchpoint and then live up to your brand. 
  • Be transparent and avoid phony sales and promotions. 
  • Change your mindset.

 

Discussion Questions: Do you agree that customers today do not want or need to be “sold” or “told?” How would you expect customers in a store that typically uses traditional selling techniques to react to a less aggressive, more informative approach as outlined in the article?

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36 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Is ‘Selling’ a Dirty Word in Retail?"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

All of the bullet points illustrate the fact that “selling” (just like “customer service”) can’t be strictly defined by the traditional image of person-to-person communication. But don’t doubt for a minute that retailers and service providers are in the business of driving sales. It’s no coincidence that the highest-rated retailers in the latest customer service rating have embraced many of the methods listed in the article, from in-store signing to efficient supply chain management.

Max Goldberg
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

I don’t think that the current state of retailing is as black and white as the article would like us to believe. For example, a retailer does not need to be aggressive in order to provide great customer service; a trait that is still appreciated by most consumers.

I do agree that a strong branding strategy at every touchpoint is vital, as is living up to the brand message. This is true for large and small retailers.

There is room in the marketplace for many types of retailers. If all retailers followed the model outlined in the article, the retailing world would be a dreary place.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

A bad salesperson tries to sell a customer a product they don’t want. A good salesperson knows their products and can extol the virtues of each item. A great salesperson can upsell a customer by just a little bit. I don’t think we have a problem being sold, we just have a problem being sold badly.

Total Wine is a good example of great selling. Lots of information (good signage, product descriptions, wine picks by their various in-store experts) and they are very willing to help you or leave you alone, as you request. Invariably, I buy a bottle of wine $1 or $2 more than I was tempted to spend–a trivial upsell but an upsell none-the-less.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

I think it all depends on the store, the customer and the purchase.

I see plenty of people asking questions in places like Best Buy and, yes, they are getting “sold.”

Or, go into an Orvis or many other specialty retailers and you’ll see a customer base that enjoys the sales interaction even though, in many cases, it’s fairly sophisticated.

Do people want to be sold canned peas? Maybe not, but there is a lot more to most transactions than the exchange of money for goods.

Matt Stearn
Guest
Matt Stearn
10 years 21 days ago

I have never “sold” anything. I “help.”

Kevin Graff
Guest
10 years 21 days ago
It’s been a long time since I’ve so vehemently disagreed with an article posted on RetailWire. In an effort to support the author’s own “Inform and Deliver” model, they are using out of touch views on what ‘selling’ is, a biased view on what customers want, and missing the point of the importance of sales staff to both the brand, the customer experience and sales. There’s not much wrong with the author’s program, but to suggest ‘selling’ and ‘sales staff’ are the root of the problem just isn’t right. If you view ‘selling’ with cynicism (plaid pants, white shoes, used car lot) then of course you’ll want nothing to do with sales staff. But if you get the reality that selling is nothing more then understanding and meeting customer needs, then how can this article’s stance be accepted? We often say,’good service isn’t always good selling, but good selling is always great service’. Maybe in the author’s future world view, we won’t need sales staff because we will be able to get everything out of… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

This article misses the point. Shoppers would certainly appreciate some educated assistance. But “aggressive selling” isn’t desirable, nor is assistance from an employee who knows less about what the customer is looking for than the shopper him/herself.

In other words, most consumers (unless they have enough disposable income to shop at Nordstrom or the Apple store), don’t even have a context to put service or selling in.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
10 years 21 days ago
With all due respect, selling does not put people at odds. Use “helping” if you have a problem with the word selling, but selling is what is done with the customer. When the writer says as fact, consumers are “disinterested in dealing with traditional sales people. They’re not looking for friends or relationships in stores” and “Traditional sales models involve selling things that customers do not want”–you’re just plain wrong. As the sales guru and trainer for some of the very best brands in the world, I really take exception with this piece. This is not written by someone who, like me, has trained thousands how to sell merchandise at retail; sorry. And if this were the advice you are getting I would consider you to check with me or some of the other great sales trainers’ websites to increase conversions, not just have a pretty store. People DO want to make connections in retail, at work, in life. If someone comes into your shop, they obviously WANT something. If I buy a luxury watch,… Read more »
Lee Peterson
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

The art of selling has never been about selling! No one wants to be sold to, ever. Sales is about good customer service, knowledge dispersal and genuine, honest, passionate behavior. Of course, it also helps to be a likeable person and to actually ‘love’ the product.

But even more fundamentally, you have to hire people that like people! I know this sounds basic, but it’s a missing attribute you can spot at retail every day–many ‘sales’ people just don’t like people. You can tell by the way they treat you.

The best example at retail of good hiring practices to me is at Starbucks. Those people are having fun just talking to people, ringing up $3 sales all day long. If retailers were serious about hiring ‘non-sales’ sales people, recruiting at your local coffee shop might be a good place to start.

Dean A. Sleeper
Guest
Dean A. Sleeper
10 years 21 days ago

I would agree that the premise does not apply to every retail context. But I would say:

a) today it does apply to the majority of retailers, almost all big box and large store count chains

b) just because customers are speaking with store staff does not mean they want to “be sold”

I believe the critical distinction is that the new consumer wants the information necessary to buy. They never want to be sold. In some cases they may wish to interact with staff in order to procure the information necessary to sell themselves.

I believe this is the majority of retail today and that whatever that percentage is today, will only increase as time passes. The new consumer will demand it.

Doug Fleener
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

If someone is buying, that means someone is selling. I agree with Alyson that customers don’t want pushy and obnoxious salespeople but sadly, a lot more store employees ignore people than try to sell them something.

I have clients in some if not all the top centers in the country that have salespeople who sell and deliver an experience second to none. The key is the staff’s job is to add value to the customer’s experience by providing knowledge, know-how, and to assist the customer in making the best possible purchase IF the customer chooses. Most do because the employee truly cares about the customer and their experience.

The key is to do many of the things Alyson listed, but I also believe that people are a key differentiator that keeps specialty retailers from becoming an Amazon.com showroom.

Warren Thayer
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

Depends on the store, the location (urban/rural) and the individual shopper. Ryan had it right. When I lived in NYC, I wanted in and out quickly, at least partly because of the crowds of people competing for their 30 or 60 seconds with a salesperson. Now at my general store in Vermont, I know all the clerks, their families and it’s a whole different experience, that I cherish. I’ve always hated the stereotypical used car salesman. (Gawd, why can’t they change, or get new ad agencies?) Clerks who know their stuff and just try to help are the best salespeople, if you can only find them or afford to pay them vaguely what they’re worth. But most retailers are conditioned to push PRICE all the time, so we get the bottom of the barrel. Finally, I don’t think human nature on the buyer-seller relationship has changed whatever. Nothing new under the sun here.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
10 years 21 days ago

I’m afraid I have to join the “completely disagree camp” on this one.

I think the article is dangerously general in its view and out of step in its characterization of professional “selling.” And as others have noted, so much depends on the fundamental positioning of the retailer. What kind of store is the author talking about, Walmart or Bergdorf Goodman?

If the proposition hinges on in-and-out convenience, then sure, don’t create undue friction with gratuitous and potentially fruitless sales interaction. However, if the customer’s expectation is that they be provided with suggestions, companion product ideas and alternatives, then they are expecting to be sold–so don’t disappoint them.

Some of the finest and most successful retailers in the world take a strong sales and expertise approach to their business. Other very successful businesses rely on a self-serve model of convenience. What you can’t do is offer neither. Offer neither and you’re dead.

Richard Gordon
Guest
Richard Gordon
10 years 21 days ago
I think that the philosophy outlined is close to 100% correct for mass merchandisers, and I certainly agree that people do not want to be sold something they do not want. I also agree that shoppers should be allowed to shop the way they want to shop. However good salespeople who know their products and can elaborate on the virtues of a product can be invaluable and prevent a customer from making a mistake. A great salesperson reacts and caters to customer wants and needs and they may certainly upsell a customer by just a bit. I think in many cases, customers love to be encouraged and catered to in a way that excites and delights. As Max stated, we just have a problem being sold badly. Selling badly in many cases, means not taking a queue from the customer and reading whether they want to be helped or they wish to do their own thing. I totally disagree that customers are not looking for friends or relationships in stores and don’t care if the… Read more »
Mark Burr
Guest
10 years 21 days ago
I will have to join the line of disagreement with Alyson and align more with Bob’s strong disagreement. However, I would add a few thoughts and a bit of caution. First, disagreement is good. It makes for good and spirited caution. Secondly, the experiences that certainly I would like and I am quite confident that others would like are rare. As a result, it has made the race to the bottom possible and has led retailers like Walmart to a strong position of dominance. With ever growing web-based retailing and experiences at shopping with retailers online like Zappos and L.L.Bean, it is possible that there is a growing number of shoppers that will begin to disconnect shopping with connecting with people. No, I didn’t say that there aren’t people behind the experiences at great web retailers. There are great people. Yet, the interaction is there only when necessary and in the background the execution creates the experience. So, great people are necessary in both environments. However, the exposure and the interaction is different. To a… Read more »
Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
10 years 21 days ago

Sounds mostly like a question of definitions.

No, store help should not be at odds with the customer. But in store selling IS primarily an informational process. As I listen to people around me talk about good store experiences, they all involve store teams who do smart selling–not the confrontational selling described.

But, I think we do ourselves a disservice to decide to jettison the word “selling.” This has caused potentially irreparable harm in the advertising business, is leading to horrendous wastes of money in social media, and would speed up retail’s descent into what consumers hate most: a place where you can’t find anyone who knows anything about the product you are buying.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
10 years 21 days ago

I am afraid I strongly disagree with Alyson’s comments. I can also only assume Apple Stores and Trader Joe’s would disagree with Alyson as well. These stores focus on not good, but outstanding sales professionals that are in store to assist their customers with anything they may need including questions about a product. A person that is trying to sell something to someone that does not want or need the item is 1) a poor sales person and 2) not properly trained.

I can’t imagine walking into a store with no one there to help me. Just signs in the store with information about products? That sounds really scary.

In my humble opinion, this article totally missed the mark. What this article should help store owners do is realize they need to invest heavily in hiring the right people and train them on how to best service the stores customers. That approach seems to be working incredibly well for Apple and Trader Joe’s.

David Zahn
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

The article does point out a level of frustration that some have with the state of the art in retail. While I am not prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater here when it comes to “good” vs. “bad” selling, the message is not completely off track.

Shoppers want to buy, clerks, sales people, retail employees are there to facilitate the transaction, and businesses are not in it for the emotional reaction, exclusively (they have to make a buck). How to put all of that into the blender and create a palatable mixture is all that we are after. It need not be any more complex than that. Help me to buy, answer my questions, make RELEVANT suggestions and I will return. Make it harder for me to accomplish what I came into your store to do–and I will choose other options.

Michael L. Howatt
Guest
Michael L. Howatt
10 years 21 days ago

What a horrible picture this paints. Everyone complains about customer service these days but isn’t the opposite just as true? Consumers have turned into a bunch of bad people as well. Give me what I want and don’t try to “sell” me. Where selling needs to be more about information giving than pushing, the consumer has overcompensated. The problem is on both ends and won’t be solved until it’s illegal to talk on your phone anywhere in public.

Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

Equating "selling" with personal staff is a big mistake from my point of view. But "selling" without personal staff–what self-service retailing is all about–is VERY poorly done in bricks-and-mortar retailers, period. It is so bad as to raise serious questions as to whether self-service retailers really know what selling is. I write on this subject regularly, in one such Views being "The Amazonian Ghost."

Dave Wendland
Guest
10 years 21 days ago

Although the point has been made by other experts represented in this post, I must echo my disappointment with the limited view of the selling process. Well-trained and well-meaning associates within the retail segment are not only helpful–they are essential.

Having trained many, observed many more, and been served by still more, I do value the relationship of an informed retail team member and their willingness to listen, facilitate my decision process, and lead me to a good “solution.”

David Rich
Guest
David Rich
10 years 20 days ago

We have struck a nerve here. I love the passion behind this discussion. All points have merit. At the end of the day selling must happen. It needs to be done right to reflect the organization’s DNA. That comes from understanding who they are, who the customer is, and both being aligned how to do that in a way that reflects what the brand stands for in the marketplace. Once this is in place the associates, sign, website, store design or all of the above can help both the company and customer win.