Spanish for Retailers Pays Off

Discussion
Jul 21, 2006
George Anderson

By George Anderson


Tyrone Wicks, a manager of a RadioShack store, didn’t care much for Spanish the year he took it in high school.


Now, he’s finding that understanding the language (at least a little of it) is both personally rewarding and good for business.


Mr. Wicks is among a number of business people who have taken SpeakEasy Survival Spanish classes at Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College to find ways to better communicate with and serve Latino customers.


“We have a lot of Latino customers,” he told the Pensacola News Journal. “Often, when I approached them in the store to ask if they needed help, they would answer or signal to me that they were just looking. I learned they were just intimidated to ask because many of them can’t speak English.”


While Mr. Wicks is admittedly a long way from fluency in the Spanish language, he said, “I’m now able to find a common ground with these customers, and just a ‘buenos dias’ (good morning) helps a lot. Our sales had a significant increase.”


Myelita Melton, author of SpeakEasy Survival Spanish, said a little Spanish (“poco español”) can go a long way.


“Focus on communication,” she said. “Use body language. Speak clearly, slowly and learn the words that have a similarity.”


Discussion Questions: What role do language classes have in retailer training programs? On a scale of importance for successful store operation, where
does language compare to other disciplines, such as checkout responsibilities, facility maintenance, stocking procedures, etc.?

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15 Comments on "Spanish for Retailers Pays Off"


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Kai Clarke
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

We are a global society dependent on a global economy. Language is the tie that binds us. The faster that businesses recognize these criteria, the better they will become in responding and serving the global individuals who demand their goods and services. This will become more and more important as our society moves closer and closer with improved communications, transportation and the continued growth of economic prosperity.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

If retailers take Ryan Matthews’ and Mark Lilien’s comments seriously, there should be a real increase in language training. You can’t answer consumers concerns if you can’t communicate and Spanish is not the only language needed.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

It’s absolutely worthwhile and important but here’s another thought – if English speaking staff can speak a second language, they may get on better with (and enable the hiring of) staff that speak the same language as customers. Ooops, could I be suggesting a multicultural store?

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
14 years 7 months ago

Vocational language training that focuses on the language of the business (banking, fashion, food, etc.) is a valuable and often essential tool for success with multi-lingual customers. It is like having computer skills. It should not only become part of training, but for in some cases there should be a premium paid for the ability to converse in more than one language.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
14 years 7 months ago

The sage comments above answer the posed question quite well. Ryan hit the nail on the head. If you can’t talk to customers you won’t have to worry about checking them out.

Since it’s Friday, let’s turn that coin over. When you go to a new country to live and pledge your loyalty should you learn how to talk to your new neighbors and shop keepers?

Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Smart retailers in multi-lingual areas hire multi-lingual staff. Lechters Housewares’ New Jersey warehouse staff spoke Haitian Creole, Spanish, Portuguese and English. Certainly a Radio Shack store needs multi-lingual people since there are few unassisted sales. The key to comp sales increases: retailing is a mature business so every 1% sales increase has a huge impact. Why not get the extra sales by communicating well?

Bernie Slome
Guest
Bernie Slome
14 years 7 months ago

Anytime a retailer can speak to a customer and make that customer comfortable it is a big plus. When traveling in Europe, Americans have become accustomed to retail shopping personnel being able to speak English. Here, those shops that are bilingual will have a decided advantage over other shops that only speak English. Spanish speaking patrons will tell others of their experience and increased sales will follow. Additionally, a bilingual sales associate will be able to up-sell and suggestive sell while in the English only store it is a lost opportunity. Yes, speaking Spanish pays off big time.

Barry Wise
Guest
Barry Wise
14 years 7 months ago

No matter which side of the debate you’re on over whether Spanish should officially be recognized as the nation’s second language, it’s become clear that retailers need employees that speak Spanish. In retail we like to think that the customer always comes first, however, Hispanics have learned to shop even when the clerks aren’t able to communicate with them.

Even more important is that retailers now need to have English-Spanish speaking employees in order to operate their stores. In order to overcome labor shortages, retailers are hiring more and more Hispanics at all levels, however, they’re finding difficulties in communicating with some of them even at the basic instruction level. Therefore language is quickly becoming one of the basic disciplines for operating a retail store. Whether it’s communicating with a customer, maintaining and stocking the store, or communicating basic company policy speaking Spanish is quickly becoming a requirement. Like it or not, Spanish is now the unofficial second language of retailing.

Bill Robinson
Guest
Bill Robinson
14 years 7 months ago

Every retail store must do everything it can to be in synch with its local shoppers. If the local shoppers speak Spanish, the store personnel should also, even it means teaching Anglos the language.

Chain stores struggle with this concept because so many of the decisions about promotion, price and assortment are made centrally. Yet competitive advantage lives at the retail store level.

In the last few years, many chains have made huge advancements in “profiling” their stores, by setting up attributes to denote local tastes and tendencies. They are then able to mine their data to gain more insight into micro-marketing trends. There is no limit to the knowledge that can be gained from this endeavor. Speaking store Spanish is an example a positive action that will undoubtedly produce a good outcome and competitive advantage for RadioShack.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

It’s all about the customer. If you can’t talk to them, you won’t have to worry about checking them out.

Warren Thayer
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

It depends on how much interface employees have with shoppers who speak Spanish. Obviously, this would work best in stores with a lot of interaction, and where there is a high incidence of Spanish speakers. It wouldn’t help much here in Vermont, or in stores where there’s very little interaction between associates and shoppers (often because there’s just a lack of associates on the floor). But otherwise, Spanish can come in very handy. When I was selling advertising in Miami, I’d hear company execs go back and forth in Spanish discussing my proposals, thinking I didn’t understand. Well, I knew enough, and always listened very closely. One unforgettable day, a key client’s president seemed to notice I might be following the conversation, and asked his advertising VP (in Spanish), “Do you think he knows Spanish?” and the VP said, “Him? He doesn’t know from Wednesday!” It was really hard not to smile.

Zel Bianco
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Obviously it is critical for the retailer staff although in most retailer establishments and in most areas of the country, the consumer will need at least a comfort level with Spanish as well to make the shopping experience a productive one.

Alan Pickelsimer
Guest
Alan Pickelsimer
14 years 7 months ago

Since it’s Friday, let’s turn that coin over. When you go to a new country to live and pledge your loyalty should you learn how to talk to your new neighbors and shop keepers?
Gene Hoffman, President, Corporate Strategies International

Great point, Gene, of course most of us would try to speak the local language, but consider that many of the Latinos we’re talking about have maybe a fifth grade education from a dirt floor school in Guatemala, and may be functionally illiterate in Spanish, perhaps speaking it but unable to read. Given the same circumstance, how would you fare in that foreign land?

The onus is upon us.

Myelita Melton
Guest
Myelita Melton
14 years 7 months ago

We often hear about retail employees who look the other way or take “breaks” when Spanish-speaking customers arrive. Providing language and cultural diversity training that increases the associate’s comfort level and in turn allows him/her to provide a higher level of customer service is a worthy objective. When the customer is comfortable, he/she will make purchases and recommend the store to others, consequently increasing the retailer’s bottom line. Since Bravo Radio Shack!

Robert Leppan
Guest
Robert Leppan
14 years 7 months ago
I headed the marketing team at a major importer/marketer of leading Mexican food & beverage brands for many years. Not surprisingly, the best volume stores for us were those stores across the country (primarily independents) who catered to Hispanic shoppers. What were these retailers offering their customers that the large “anglo” chains were not? Well it wasn’t the best prices nor was it cleanliness. Consumers told us they shopped at their local mercados because they felt “comfortable” there. When they went to the large chain grocery stores they felt strange, out of place. In various pieces of research (I recall studies done by the FMI, ADVO and others), while assortment and service are certainly important, the key factor in a less acculturated Hispanic’s decision to shop a specific store was bilingual employees – followed closely by bilingual signage and packaging. And, away from the grocery industry, retailers like Sears have been very successful at attracting Latino shoppers by hiring & training bilingual staff, among other initiatives. Those retailers who can go way beyond a token… Read more »
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