The Riddle in Retail

Salesmen, like waiters, should materialise only when they are needed, not hover in the background like persistent dark clouds. Somehow, the salesman (or woman) who ‘tags’ along wherever you go is almost like the shop owner letting you know you’re being watched and you can’t make away with any merchandise. There’s no real sense of being helped or guided.

The net result? Most people walk out without buying. The other reason is that most sales people in the fancy stores in India come from underprivileged backgrounds. They have limited social skills and while the street smart ones learn and adapt, most are uncomfortable just making ordinary conversation with affluent customers and figuring out their preferences. Much like policemen who will stop all the two wheeler riders who don’t wear helmets, but let the big cars run the red lights without flagging them down.

Even with India’s so-called retail boom and the huge number of jobs that have been created in this sector, the training and conduct of the sales people is woefully inadequate. The only difference is that they wear fancy uniforms and are turned out better. Ask them to locate an unfamiliar brand name and they will blink. In fact, a lot of them cannot pronounce the names of several brands stocked in the store, especially the ones of recent origin.

So when advertising does draw an interested customer, its quite likely that the store sales person won’t have a clue. Which brings me to the question of whether companies need to spend more time training sales people in the store rather than having fancy launches in 5 star hotels. If they got together all the sales people from a retail chain, gave them a good product demonstration, told them why the product was better and rounded the evening off with some great food and entertainment, chances are, the odds of success could improve dramatically. Right now, that task is left to the company sales person or the distributor – who rarely interacts with the actual end customer. But the retail sales person does that all the time, so the chances of a sale improve if they can be involved with the promotion.

To return to where we started, sales people can be most effective when they anticipate a need and help a customer make up their mind without trying to hard sell. Its a fine line and customers are very perceptive about the sales person who tries to force a sale.

Which brings me to a retail experience that made me return to a store called Cotton World. When I picked a shirt I liked, the sales person removed it from the cover, opened up all the buttons and offered it to me with a smile. They had been instructed that they should provide the shirt ready to be tried, without having the customer fumble with the buttons inside the trial room. Quite a refreshing change from the showroom where ‘trial shirts’ are marked and placed separately. From a store point of view, the trial shirt is a good way to ensure that they keep their inventory fresh. But for the customer, it could be a deal breaker – and an excuse to go to a store offering a more personal experience.