I worked retail at a national women’s clothing retailer for three years in college. Contrary to many people, I loved it. Retail is fast-paced and fun. Sure, folding clothes was boring, but selling was an exercise in creativity and people skills that I just couldn’t get enough of.
The industry also has high turnover, and in my time at the store, I learned that great retail employees possess certain traits and skills that other retail employees just don’t.
Before we jump into this, I want to stipulate that when hiring a retail sales associate, managers should look at a candidate’s natural traits and attitude. All the skills involved in retail are developed out of the inherent traits and can be taught on the job.
As an Apple recruiting manager has said, “We’ve learned to value magnetic personality just as much as proficiency.”
Retail skills and characteristics that typically come naturally
1. The desire to help others
The most important trait in a sales associate is an interest in helping others. Retail as an industry is geared towards making customers’ lives better through one product or another. A tremendous retail employee is interested in figuring out what a customer wants and how to get it to them.
Take, for instance, Apple. The retailer looks for “people that can’t be told things are impossible.” This will ultimately lead them to be able to sell well, educate the customer on products relevantly, and provide top-notch customer service.
An empathetic employee is one who can put themselves in your customers’ shoes and truly understand what they want.
Empathy is the basis for amazing active listening skills and more than one expert has identified this trait as the thing that will save brick-and-mortar retail.
Patience is a crucial ingredient in excellent customer service skills.
The truth is that sometimes you will have to work with a customer who wants to take things very slowly, and you’ll have to match your pace to theirs. Or you’ll be confronted with a customer that wants you to run to the back ten times to find exactly the right product.
While you don’t need to be an extrovert to be a great retail employee (I knew one or two introverts who crushed the game), you do have to be friendly.
Retail is a people-oriented industry. Sales associates must be kind and welcoming to everyone who walks through the door. Friendliness provides an essential basis for all selling and customer service skills.
5. Must be a quick learner
From your very first day on the job as a sales associate, you’ll be inundated with information: how to work the register; how to run a sale; how to fold the clothes correctly.
This never really ends either. Stores update their inventory roughly once a month, giving employees a whole new catalog to memorize. Stores also tend to change their displays up weekly, requiring employees to learn anything from a minor new layout to a complete store shift.
As an extension of this, retail employees of today *must* understand how to use technology. So much of retail work is seamlessly integrated with things like mobile POS technology that it is not an option for a sales associate to struggle with technology. (More on this later.)
During my time there were more than a few older employees who could never figure out how to work the register well and as such created backups at the counter, ultimately causing a lot more work for everyone else and headaches for customers.
6. Must be able to multitask (and prioritize)
Retail associates must be able to work with multiple customers at once while taking care of go-backs and keeping the store neat. Associates must also be able to prioritize customers and other tasks.
Plus, it happens all too often that multiple customers will actually seek your help at the same exact time, so employees must be able to handle this.
7. Must be able to handle physical exertion
For a job that requires you to be on your feet for 5+ hours, you would think this trait would be a no-brainer for managers to hire for.
You’d be wrong.
I saw multiple employees hired during my time who were unable to handle physically exerting for that long. There’s not too much more to say about this other than that working the floor is a demanding activity and people need to be hired accordingly.
8. Must be resilient
Retail is a tough industry. Associates must be good at bouncing back whenever they encounter difficult customers. Resilience is also required to weather sales slumps. If your store is experiencing a downturn, your employees need the ability to recover from slow days or months.
Need more staffing tips and insights? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Training and Motivating Retail Employees, an in-depth resource packed with actionable takeaways for motivating employees and boosting staff productivity. In this guide, you’ll learn:
- How to empower your workforce to maximize happiness and productivity
- What tools and methods to use when educating your staff
- How to motivate your staff to bring their best selves to work
Retail skills that can be taught
9. Active listening skills
Active listening skills are crucial for all customer service and salespeople. It’s not the most natural skill to develop but with practice, anyone can become an active listener.
How to develop active listening skills
- Encourage your employees to speak to customers in a format where they repeat back most of what a customer has just said to confirm it. This template forces an employee to pay more attention to what the customer is saying.
- You can also coach your employees on their body language. Open body language helps the customer feel heard — and it can actually help your employees pay better attention.
10. Deep product knowledge
A great retail sales associate has a very deep knowledge of your catalog. This enables them to field questions and create solutions for your customers.
This is a skill that can only be gained after working hands-on with all your products for a period of time, but there are some things that management can do to make the process easier.
How to develop retail product knowledge
- Identify a few key products and what makes them special. Teach these to your brand new employees to as the foundation of their knowledge.
- Keep flyers or posters in the break room or behind the register for your employees to quickly check with relevant product information. For instance, a store that sells multiple fits of pants may want to create a little infographic of the key differences between the pants to help employees learn them quickly.
- Hold “unboxing sessions” with your team. That’s what Elevator, an accessories and jewelry boutique in Toronto is doing. “Whenever new designers arrive at the store, we sit down with the product in front of us, look at it really thoroughly. We talk about the materials that it’s made from, who the designer is, what’s particularly unique about this product, and how to demonstrate it,” says store owner Niko Downie.
- As you release new items, pick the top 5-10 items to include on some type of infographic to again, disseminate the information about these products. The store I worked at released a new poster each month of the “Key 10.” This poster included not just information about the items we were meant to learn, but they actually chose the Key 10 items based on what sold well together, making it easier for us to upsell new items.
- There’s no better way to learn about an item than to use it. Have your employees get hands-on with your products so they can fully understand how they work. LUSH, for instance, actually sends new employees on entire days of interactive training to fully understand LUSH’s products.
The store I worked at used all of these methods at different times throughout my employment and I always found them to be extremely useful. I can still tell you the four pant cuts they had during my time and what made them different.
11. Industry expertise
Modern shoppers are extremely well-informed and 83% of consumers believe that they’re more knowledgeable than retail associates.
To successfully engage shoppers, your team must develop the right industry expertise. It’s no longer enough to have basic product knowledge. In-store associates need to be true experts and provide information that shoppers don’t already know.
How to develop industry knowledge in retail
- The best way to develop industry knowledge is to regularly keep up with what’s going on in your field. Attend trade shows and events, read industry publications and follow experts in your space. Engage in these learning activities daily, and you and your team will have no trouble developing and maintaining your industry knowledge!
12. Communication skills
Your employees will need to be articulate while greeting customers, answering their questions, explaining to a customer why one of your products will solve one of their problems and more.
How to develop communication skills in retail
Consider role-playing during slow or off hours. This article provides a solid guide to get started, but the general idea is to create a scenario with goals for your staff to act out.
You should provide the players with a template for what you want them to say to start out with. Use positive and negative scenarios that have actually happened in your store to help employees learn from real mistakes or successes.
It’s also important for managers to immediately call out communication successes and failures while they’re fresh in the employee’s mind. If you notice something happening, wait until your associate disengages with their customer and quietly correct or praise them.
I had a manager who was excellent at this. She helped me develop a presence of mind when I spoke to customers by pulling me aside and kindly letting me know how I can improve.
13. Sales/customer service skills
I’ve lumped these two skill sets together because your best customer service providers should be your best salespeople. Your employees need to know how to work a customer through the stages of the sale.
They need to be able to greet someone, access their interests/problems, create a solution for them, and move the customer from curiosity to closing successfully.
You can help your employees develop these skills in many ways but here are some suggestions:
- Use modular training, in which you train in short segments, rather than long ones. My store did this with new recruits in three-hour sessions over some days, but Hank Boyer, President and CEO of Boyer Management Group suggests time periods as short as 1 hour.
- Use different learning tools and methods. Everyone learns differently, not to mention, certain types of training methods can save you time. For instance, at my store, new recruits were shown a series of short videos which provided a lot of information about the sales cycle, store policies, and other things to expect. These videos ultimately saved my manager a lot of time instructing me with the basics. And while my videos were made by our corporate office, even a very small store could use a mix of Youtube videos on retail selling and perhaps a few self-made videos on your particular store using your phone.
- Role-playing is one of the very best ways to train someone in retail. You can practice anything from implementing a return policy to how to react when someone walks out of the dressing room in their underwear (true story).
14. Tech skills
Being able to understand gadgets like mobile devices and retail systems is another important skill. Not having a solid grasp of retail technology could result in mistakes and inefficiencies. For example, if an associate is slow to understand how your POS system works, they may end up delaying the checkout process, thus diminishing customer satisfaction.
How to develop tech skills in retail
- Implement hands-on training. There’s only so much that a tech manual or demo can teach. If you want your retail employees to fully grasp your in-store tech (e.g., POS system, CRM, inventory management solution) you need to give them first-hand knowledge. If someone is still learning the ropes, consider creating a test account that they can play with. Another idea is to pair trainees with tech-savvy employees who can show them how things are done.
- You should also take advantage of your solution provider’s support offerings. Some vendors provide resources like help centers, webinars, whitepapers, and more. Your provider may even assign a dedicated account rep (sometimes called “customer success rep”) who can chat with you on the phone and talk you through any support issues. Be sure to put these resources to good use so you and your team can fully understand your in-store technologies.
15. The ability to be a brand ambassador
As social media and influencer marketing becomes more popular, associates may need to act as “brand ambassadors” who endorse and help promote the retailer on social media.
Forward-thinking retailers are starting to capitalize on this practice by turning their associates into influencers. Macy’s, for example, launched Macy’s Style Crew, a brand ambassador program that encourages their employees to create more brand engagement by sharing fashion and style content on social media.
There are many great retails employees out there. I’ve been lucky enough to work with more than a few. Ultimately, remarkable retail employees are both born and made. A retail manager should strive to recognize their staff’s the innate talent and then develop it.