10 Things I Learned Working In Retail

If you are the owner or manager of a retail small business, that first job you had at 18 as a cashier or sales associate may have been several years ago. Now that you’re secure in the retail industry and you’re the one in charge, you may want to be reminded of some important concepts to put in place to bring you more success and a smoother running business. Of course, these things can also be applied to other industries, too, so if you have a successful business (or plan on starting one), this is for you. Here are 10 things I learned when I worked in retail.

1. Smile, smile, smile. It may sound very simple, but you would be surprised how many people forget this. Smile at your coworkers, your boss, your customers, and anyone else you work with (even the girl at the coffee shop on your break). On a good day, this is easy to do, but sometimes this takes more effort. Always smile, though, because honestly, no one cares that you slept through your alarm and had to skip breakfast this morning or that you were supposed to go home at 5:00 and here you are at 7:30. It’s no excuse to be grumpy. While smiling may not reflect what you’re truly feeling, it will make you appear warm and easy to talk to rather than like someone who doesn’t want to be bothered.

2. Know when to figure it out yourself and when to ask for help. Many people like to try to figure out how to do something on their own because that shows they can work independently. But there are times when you are better off asking for help. Avoid spending too much time thinking How in the world can I do this? or Where the heck IS that thing? The busier you are, the quicker you should ask for help. You want to save time, not spend it. Figuring out when to go it alone and when to ask for reinforcement is important. The same applies when you are in a leadership role and you need assistance; it goes both ways.

3. Prepare to be unprepared. You can’t foresee certain situations ahead of time. On the employee side, prepare to be asked to work on your day off when someone calls in sick, to be very busy with mundane tasks one day and have nothing to do the next, or come across a situation with a customer that you just don’t know how to handle. On the employer side, prepare for your employees to call in sick or have to leave early due to an emergency and either ask someone else to come in or expect to take on more work that day. Your employees will ask you to deal with very difficult customer situations and you will experience significant fluctuations in workflow. Better to know this now.

4. You will never like everyone. With so many variations in personality, maturity, and work ethic, chances are you will have at least one employee or superior you don’t get along with. If you realize this now, you will be better able to find ways to make working with the person more enjoyable. Be as nice and considerate with them as possible and keep your opinions to yourself.

5. Attention to detail: deal with it. This is especially true for clothing stores and stores that sell small novelty items. You will have to take time making sure every display and every item looks as perfect and appealing as possible. Sometimes this involves training your employees how to do it or helping out with it yourself. Clothes need to be folded to specific proportions, stacked neatly, and size ordered. Don’t forget to zip zippers, button buttons, straighten collars and adjust hangers. Face items and fill shelves, always leaving empty space to the back and not visible. Other things involving detail include cleaning windows, sweeping and mopping, and updating displays on a regular basis to reflect current promotions or new items. This ensures a good first impression of your business to every customer.

6. Always apologize when a mistake is made. It is one thing for a customer to experience the result of an error—everyone makes mistakes, so sometimes it happens. It is another thing when the mistake is denied or goes unacknowledged. When something goes wrong and a company representative listens, apologizes, and fixes the problem, the customer almost always leaves satisfied. Apologize even if you weren’t the one who messed up or if it was actually the customer’s fault (that doesn’t matter). I had a friend who ordered pizza at the mall’s food court and when he received his food, it was clear that cheese had spoiled. When he brought the slice back asking for a new order, the cashier said there was nothing wrong with his food and said if he wanted a new piece, he would have to buy another one. My friend got food elsewhere and has not gone to that restaurant since. Would it have been so hard to say “I’m sorry about that” and to offer him a free meal? No. The outcome may have been significantly different.

7. Staying late happens. Yes, even for the owner. While the employees who work under you get most of the odd hours, it doesn’t mean that you will never have to work outside of the 9 to 5 (or other reasonable) hours. You may be needed for inventory, meetings, or during busy holiday shopping days to name a few. Part of owning a small business is being willing to stay pretty late at least every now and then. On the other hand, if you’ve got enough help and a young employee with an 8am exam finds out the closing duties won’t be done until 1am, let her go home. Be reasonable and have a little mercy on those busy young people—they will appreciate it.

8. Don’t play the “no-hours” game. Why do employers do it? They hire too many people, need to cut back to their non-seasonal staff, or have an employee that’s not working out, so they don’t schedule people. They are still technically employed, but they may get one shift a week or less. Instead of coming to them and having an honest conversation like “You were hired seasonally, so unfortunately, this will be the end of your position” or “I feel that you are no longer a good fit for our company needs”, they use the “no-hours” game to get them to quit. An employee would much rather sit through an awkward conversation that may result in looking for a different position than be strung along wasting their time without making money. Be honest with your employees. It will save you money and increase your productivity because those who will remain part of your long term staff are the ones that will do better work.

9. There is no excuse for rudeness. Of course, there will be customers (and coworkers) that will be rude to you and at times, impossible. You may be in a bad mood because of something going on outside of work. In any case, you cannot afford to return the rude behavior. Have you seen review sites like Yelp, Google reviews, and Trip Advisor? These are all sites where anyone who has been to your business can post a review about your business and you have no control over what they say and who reads it. You do have control on the other end though—ensure good reviews by being kind, courteous, and helpful at all times. It’s easy to think: What good does it do to be really nice to someone who is just going to be rude anyway? But it matters for the person and the company they work for. Not everyone is perfect, but remembering this concept will make bad impressions few and far between.

10. People come, and people go. In entry level positions, there are some who will stay with the company for a few years, but many people are looking for something temporary when they apply to work in retail because it’s a stepping stone to something else. A lot of times, it’s a support system for their education or a supplement for other income. Not only that, but people move, go to school, graduate from school, and get higher paying jobs. Those who do stay at a retail company for longer than a year or two most likely get promoted eventually, still leaving those entry level positions unfilled. Be prepared to hire often, experience unexpected vacancies, and maintain your interview strategies. This is the nature of the retail industry.

Hopefully, you learn something new or remembered a practice you had long forgotten. These things are easy to implement and will only help your business grow.