Shop Talk: Practical Answers for tough business questions.

by : 
Kim Perkins
April 1, 2013

Question: I recently hired a nice young woman with retail sales experience in a local boutique. Much to my dismay, I overheard her exchange with a customer, in which the customer asked for a specific journal as a graduation gift, and my employee, very politely, said we were all out of that item and then let the conversation drop! I was helping another customer or I would have stepped in and suggested any number of alternatives she might have liked! What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Answer: Your question has a number of aspects. First, just because someone has worked in sales before does not mean she is a great sales person. You have already said she is polite, so if she genuinely likes people and is friendly, she can probably learn to be good at retail sales.

While you may not be able to guarantee this will not happen again, you can decrease the likelihood by following a crucial rule in retail management: offer training, training, and more training.

Make training fun! Give each employee a topic and ask him or her to create a list to share with co-workers. Topics can be anything you choose, such as “Great Graduation Gift Ideas,” “Gifts Fathers Will Love,” or “My Favorite Inspirational Books.” At the holidays, our sales manager creates a list of “Great Stocking Stuffers” or “Gift Ideas Under $20.” Make sure you participate also. After the lists are complete, ask your employees to make copies and share with each other. That way everybody wins, including your customers.

It would be nice to never run out of a product (especially when a customer comes in looking for it!) but that is not realistic. The important thing is not to lose the sale and for the customer to leave with something they love just as much, or more. Finding alternative choices to recommend may come easily to you because you know all the products, but a recent hire may not be as acquainted with your merchandise. The more you can share the knowledge in your head, the better your sales will be!

Kim Perkins is co-owner of Elysian Fields Books & Gifts for Conscious Living (, an award-winning store in Sarasota, Fla. Send your retail questions to