Spring 2004
Outsell Your Competition

The economy’s tight. The market’s down. Competition’s tough. There’s only so much anyone can do.

Sound familiar? It’s a common refrain these days—retailers hummin’ the blues. And yet, some specialty retailers are doing quite nicely, thank you. Are you one of the ones doing pretty well? Or are the competition’s sales better than yours? It doesn’t have to stay that way. You can catch up. In fact, you can outsell them.

What does it take? According to experts like Ray Keener, sales training consultant and president of Growth Cycle Inc. (Boulder, CO), you have to be on top of three critical areas: customer service, product knowledge and sales techniques. And you have to train your sales staff in those three areas.


Training is key. Without it, how can your sales staffers sell your merchandise? How will they know how it works, its features and benefits, the needs it meets and problems it solves, and how to deal with customers who come to your cart or store for it? Yet in an industry characterized by a young, temporary/seasonal sales force, many specialty retailers tend to think training can’t be done effectively… that young sales staffers making x bucks an hour aren’t committed to your business or their jobs… that they’re thinking about other things… and that while this business is your life, it isn’t theirs. For some reason—maybe it’s just easier—retailers dismiss the training issue with a global and often unfounded “They don’t want to learn.”

“Well, that’s crazy,” says Keener. “Of course they want to learn! Everybody wants to be good at what they do.” Here are his suggestions for how to set up a training program:

  • Bring all of your sales employees together before the holiday season (or other peak period) goes into high gear, in order to familiarize them with your products. This is especially important for your new hires.
  • Work on sales techniques. If you’re a year-round retailer, you can wait till after the holiday rush and really concentrate on this with them.
  • Organize a series of weekly workshops just before your peak selling seasons. If you have a large sales staff, do each workshop on a weekday and then repeat it on the weekend, so that everyone can attend one or the other. When that series ends, follow up with monthly training sessions.
  • Take a day or two to train new staffers.

Keener’s company takes client employees off-site for this training. “We [take] people out of their retail environment in order to spend more time talking about what we’re really trying to accomplish.” A more grass-roots approach is that of Mike McCormick of Montgomery Cyclery (Cincinnati, OH). Training for his own employees is ongoing, and happens right in his store. “It needs to be done continually—it’s not something you can do once and think you’ve conquered the problems of [sales employees] not being trained.”

Whether in-store or off-site, it’s sometimes difficult to measure the effects of training, but an increase in sales is one good indicator. Keener reports that one store’s sales-close rate went from 40 to 65 percent after using a video training program. On the other hand, it may be easier to see the effects of not training employees. According to one retail owner, “If you don’t have a training program, you pay for it in high turnover, employee dissatisfaction, and lower productivity.” And lower sales.

Sales and service

Every retail operation is different, and so is every training situation: content, techniques and the like get tweaked to fit the product and the target customer. But there’s enough similarity in the retail experience to distill it down to common elements like these:

Listen to the customer. Find out what she’s really interested in buying, what she’s going to use it for, what her friends have.

Don’t point to merchandise when a customer asks: Put it in the customer’s hands so she holds it, feels it, has a connection to it.

Set up your cart or store with a spot for customers to try the product themselves, and maybe compare several styles.

Don’t assume the customer knows anything about your product—show them.

Remember to point out all the little details about the product, the bells and whistles, the ins and outs.

Knowledge is power—not just about your products, but also your company philosophy. Pass that knowledge on to your customers. Let them know you’re here not just to sell products, but to sell a solution to your customer’s need.

Make customers feel good. Show interest in them. Relate your product to life—yours and theirs—and get responses back from them. Take the time to listen, reflect back what they say, and relate it to the product.

Don’t passively accept a customer’s “Just looking” response, as many salespeople do. By doing that, you tune those customers out and, in effect, turn them away. Think of “Just looking” as code for “I don’t know [or see] what I want.” Take advantage of that “invitation” by finding out what drew them to you in the first place, helping them want something you stock, and then selling it to them.

Most retailers’ products are customer “wants,” not needs. Sell to the “want” by turning it into a need. Ask questions, listen to the answers, and bring those answers back to the product’s features and benefits.

Be enthusiastic about your products and how they fill a need or solve a problem. Offer information about it, including background (“handmade by island craftswomen”) and how to use it, and show any accessories that go with it. This not only makes the product a useful, fun or otherwise worthwhile thing to own… it also makes buying from you a pleasant experience.

When you and your sales staff are armed with strong product knowledge, solid sales techniques and terrific customer service, you can take on the competition—and win.

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