The problem with zombie sales staff

How come so many sales assistants act like they're in Night of the Living Dead, asks Michael Baker.

How come so many sales assistants act like they're in Night of the Living Dead, asks Michael Baker.

You're one of the world's greatest fashion retailers. Your product line is unique, high-tech and attractive, your visual merchandising the most innovative on the planet. But you insist on doing something absolutely stupid. You instruct your sales staff to behave like zombies.

Your name is Uniqlo, and at your flagship in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay, and most others worldwide, the store associates walk around intoning the words "Welcome to Uniqlo" to every customer they encounter, no matter how many times they meet and greet that customer. They've been told to do this by corporate management in Tokyo as a way to create a welcoming environment. It is idiotic as a selling technique, and its capacity to annoy is obvious to everyone but management.

A well-known principle of retailing is the chances of converting a browser to a purchaser rise significantly if there is interaction between shopper and staff. Contrary to belief, customers do not want to be left to their own devices.

So which kinds of employee interventions are productive and which are counter-productive?

Independent retailers have a clear advantage over retail chains in this area. Why? The owner of just one or a few shops can spend time on the sales floor setting the tone and developing meaningful interventions that enhance the shopping experience and generate loyalty.

Here is an example. On 52nd Street in New York, there is an independent wine store where the owner works on the sales floor and greets his customers as they enter. Two women, having just left a restaurant across the street, walk into the store about 9.30pm. The owner smiles and asks if he can help. One of the women, slightly tipsy, giggles and says: "We'd like to get a bottle of red, but we're really broke".

Unfazed, the owner smiles even more broadly and launches into the encounter: "No problem. It doesn't matter whether you buy a $15 bottle or a $100 bottle at my store, all of the wine we sell here is good. We don't stock anything that we haven't personally tried and think is up to our standards." Then, his masterstroke: "And if it's a more expensive bottle you want I'll give you a discount. I want you to go away happy and come back and see us again."

He ends up selling them a $25 bottle with a 20 per cent discount.

It's a successful intervention because the store owner was engaging and had the flexibility to make a decision on the spot.

But what if you're the owner of a retail business and you cannot be on the selling floor all the time, or even a large part of the time?

The crucial issue is recruitment. Despite Australia's reputation as a place with an abysmal retail service culture, it may not be so hard to find good sales associates if you take the right approach. This includes two tricks. First, do not just recruit selling staff who have experience in retail, or people who satisfy a list of technical qualifications. Instead, recruit staff who are good people and who enjoy interacting with others. The technical skills required for retail work are typically easy to learn - the "soft" skills are absolutely not.

Second, do not recruit exclusively by advertising just when you need someone. That will give you a choice from the shallow pool of individuals who see your ad. Instead, make a habit of keeping an eye out for cool people you meet day to day. At some point their interest in a job and your needs may coincide.

In retail, a zombie store used to be one with a lot of empty shelves because the retailer was losing competitively and shrinking the categories it stocked. It's a dead store pretending to be alive. Now there is a new take on the zombie store - one staffed by zombies saying again and again with a painted smile: "Welcome to our store." Against the zombie retail chain, small retailers have a big chance to win for a change.

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at and

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