Make the Holidays Merry

Five ways to increase holiday success by reducing stress in your store.
by : 

Phillip M. Perry

October 1, 2012
Make the Holidays Merry

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, Longmont, Colo. (www.destinationublog.com).

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.

Well, here’s some good news: You can take steps to relieve the pressure, create a sanctuary for your customers, and help make your cash registers ring a merry tune.

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, Ohio (www.merchandiseconcepts.com). “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, Obarski adds. “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 likely will 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 preempt 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, Fla. (www.profitsplus.org). “And have some fresh-baked chocolate cookies for everyone.”

Yum! 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 frustrating

You can retain your bearings by reducing your “to-dos” to just a few MITs (“Most Important Tasks”) at the start of each day. Then devote your psychic energy to getting those well-defined tasks done by the end of the day.

“You will feel real satisfaction in getting MITs 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.”

Bonus tip: Hold brief employee meetings at the beginning and the end of each day to review MITs. Any MITs that fall through the cracks get moved forward to the next day.

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, Coxsackie, N.Y. (www.retaildoc.com). “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 go further: “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, Mass. (www.dynamicexperiencesgroup.com). “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 back room,” Fleener advises. “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, communicate. “Take time to talk to each employee during the holiday season to determine how their life outside of work is going,” Obarski urges. “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.”


Peace of Mind

A healthy mind and body will provide a firm foundation for better sales this holiday season. “Stretches, meditation, and breathing techniques have been proven to calm the mind while relaxing the body,” says Barbara Purcell, New York City-based yoga instructor and personal wellness expert (www.barbarapurcell.com). Here are some of Purcell’s tips for a more productive season:

  • Positive visualization. “To better manage the holiday shopping frenzy, retail clerks should take a moment before their shift to anticipate what’s in store for them during their shift,” Purcell suggests. “Find a quiet moment to close the eyes and imagine which scenarios would trigger stress—perhaps an angry customer, a screaming child, a yelling boss. That will help to better identify, manage, and let go should such an unpleasant situation arise.”
  • Half-smiling. “The half-smile is a form of biofeedback, connecting a positive physical gesture to a similar emotional state,” says Purcell. “This simple physical act notifies the brain to produce feelings of joy and relaxation. It also creates a positive mirror in dealing with others, as they’re more apt to reflect a similar facial expression and tone. But just as lightheartedness or joy can be contagious, so can stress. So be mindful of not overly tensing facial muscles during trying moments with customers or fellow staff.”
  • Deep breathing. “Inhaling and exhaling deeply has been proven to quiet down the central nervous system,” she says. “If a staff member feels a bit internally riled, five deep breathes creates space in the situation while centering his or her mental state.”
  • Stretching. “Though it can feel like a chore, taking just a few minutes to stretch the body will often help combat fatigue, muscle aches, and tension,” says Purcell. “Retail staff often spend the majority of their shift standing. That’s a recipe for discomfort on the lower back, legs, and feet. Simple movements such as wiggling the toes, rotating the ankles, and bending over the legs while standing will help release tightness in these often targeted areas.”

Phillip M. Perry is a freelance business writer with over 20 years of experience in workplace psychology, employment law, and marketing.