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Fall 2011 Make the Holidays Merry

You can take steps to reduce stress levels and stimulate more sales during the coming Christmas season. Schedule early, plan strategies for angry customers and monitor your own attitudes to pave the way for tranquil profitability.

Angry customers. Long hours. Missed deadlines. Sound familiar? It’s the usual litany of woes that hitch a ride on Santa’s sleigh. Little wonder that for most retailers the year’s busiest sales season is also the most stressful. Look for more of the same this Christmas. “Uncertainty about the economy is bound to increase stress levels for both managers and employees at retail stores,” says Jon Schallert, president of The Schallert Group, in Longmont, CO.

High levels of anxiety are bad for your business. Overwhelmed employees stop cooperating with each other and engage poorly with customers. That can only dampen sales—here’s some good news: You can take steps to relieve the workplace pressure cooker and help make your cash registers ring a merry tune.

Here’s how:

Tip #1: Plan work schedules early

People feel frustrated when they lack sufficient time to get their holiday tasks done. So help your employees plan their days by getting an early start on your store’s work schedule. “Going into the season your employees will already be stressed out because of the things going on in their personal lives,” says Anne Obarski, director of Merchandise Concepts, a retail-consulting firm in Dublin, OH. “It only makes matters worse when they don’t receive work schedule information early enough to plan their family and social events.”

Ask for feedback from your staff before you set your schedule in stone, adds Obarski. “Ask employees to give you a list of their ‘must have’ and ‘wish to have’ days off.” Be as flexible as possible with your schedule. The more you can help people enjoy the holidays the better they will work.

Bonus tip: “Encourage your employees to get their shopping done early,” suggests Obarski. “It’s hard to keep your mind on your customers if you are thinking of everything you still need to do.”

Tip #2: Prepare for stressful events

Difficult customers put everyone under stress. And the challenge of dealing with the public will likely be greater than ever this year. “Customers have become more demanding in this recession,” says Schallert. “This holiday season they will want you to bend over backwards to cut your prices and give more services.” Expect plenty of requests for same-day deliveries and free gift-wrapping.

You can pre-empt some of the demands by offering super service to everyone who walks into your store. And why not engage customers like old friends before any sales talk even begins? “Offer each customer a soft drink to enjoy while shopping,” suggests Tom Shay, a retail consultant in St. Petersburg, Florida. “And have some fresh baked chocolate cookies for everyone.” It’s hard for people to get surly when they start enjoying festive treats as soon as they walk into your store.

Even so, bad things are bound to happen that will cause customers to blow their tops. So plan ahead: Rehearse responses designed to calm things down. Stock outs, for example, often trigger emotional outbursts. What will you do when a customer asks for an advertised item that has disappeared from the shelves? This is happening more often in these lean inventory times. Be prepared with a response that communicates genuine regret and offers a choice of attractive remedies. For example: “We are really sorry. We are giving you a gift certificate on your next purchase to make up for us not doing this right.” You might also offer a rain check, an item of equivalent value, or to call the person when the item comes in.

Bonus tip: When customers enter the store don’t just ask, “May I help you find something?” Take that extra step with something like this: “Do feel free to look around. By the way, we have free gift wrapping that may help you save a few steps this season.”

Tip# 3: Keep your eye on the ball

A hectic sales floor and shifting priorities are the orders of the day as customers clamor in and demand your time. You start your day full of ambitions to accomplish a big basket of duties, only to be constantly interrupted by customers. At the end of the day you realize your list has gone untouched. You feel you have failed to move your business forward. That can be 

You can retain your bearings by reducing your “to-dos” to just a few important tasks at the start of each day. Then devote your energy to getting those well-defined tasks done by the end of the day. “You will feel real satisfaction in getting [these] done,” says Schallert. “Instead of being a hamster on a wheel running hard through the day dealing with minutia you can concentrate on the vital tasks. So at the end of the day you have a feeling of accomplishment.”

Tip #4: Inspire your employees

Happy minds are selling minds. Too often, though, the stresses of the holidays cause employees to fall into a funk. The result is that they lose their inspiration to serve customers. You can take steps to inspire employees. Start early by establishing lines of communication, suggests retail consultant Bob Phibbs, from Coxsackie, NY. “Ask ‘What frustrated you about last year’s holiday season?’” he suggests. Maybe something about scheduling practices made life difficult. Or maybe chains of command were not clearly established. Ask “What can we do to resolve the problem?” Then take action to do so.

And more. “When you get close to the holidays cater some meals for the team,” suggests Doug Fleener, president of Dynamic Experiences Group, a consultancy in Lexington, MA. “Order some pizzas or whatever, especially on days such as Black Friday. Your team will look forward to this and it shows the staff your appreciation.”

During the holidays, take care to encourage healthy attitudes. “Make sure employees have a space to sit down and get away from things, such as a spot in the backroom,” advises Fleener. “Store commotion can add to stress levels. People become so overwhelmed they need breaks.” Keep an eye out for signs of stress and suggest appropriate breaks. “A lot of people like to work all the time,” says Fleener. “But it’s important to regroup and get some fresh air. Most of us melt down at least once during the holidays. If you see someone like that have them take a break.”

Communicate, communicate. “Take time to talk to each employee during the holiday season to determine how their life outside of work is going,” urges Obarski. “Are they eating correctly, partying too much, lacking sleep, calling in sick too much? If the employees aren’t happy and healthy they will be less than efficient at work.”

Bonus tip: Pump up your sales team with a number of small rewards during the season. Don’t wait to give one big holiday gift at the end of the year when people are too tired to care.

Tip #5: Control your own stress

Look in the mirror. Now calm down. Employers are as likely as employees to be stressed this year, given all of the negative economic news. Don’t let your concerns about dwindling cash flow and weak orders damage the interplay between you, your employees and your customers. “We know we are going to be hearing awful news stories about the economy this year,” says Phibbs. “You just have to turn off the TV and focus on the customers in your store.” How leaders handle their own stress will affect team stress levels. “The speed of the captain is the speed of the ship,” says Fleener. “Realize the signs you are putting out there during the work day. Set an example.”

Don’t skip doing those things that help keep you on the beam, adds Fleener. Maybe it’s yoga, Starbucks, or the gym. Whatever is important to you, keep at it. “People get cranky when they miss out on what’s important.” Employee attitudes will stimulate your customers to shop . . . or cause them to snap their wallets shut.

“Which way will things go this year?” asks Phibbs. “Right now it’s 50-50. It’s in your power to take the steps that make the difference.”

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.

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