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Dress Code For Retail Employees – Still Appropriate?

dress code

If a guy walked into your shop and saw you dressed in white makeup, wild red hair, clown shoes, a red nose, baggy colorful pants, a bunch of balloons and a painted on smile, he’d probably quickly decide this guy is a clown.

That’s because customers judge you within nanoseconds of spotting you.  Your good looks, your warm personality and your product knowledge will have to wait until after they have decided whether to trust you.

And that comes based on the way you dress – whether you are behind the counter, working with a customer or just returning from a break.

When we meet a stranger, we all play a sorting game. What is perfectly acceptable in an average department store is a step below a Nordstrom.  Dress codes were created because some employees don’t notice any difference.

And that’s a problem…

Because if customers don’t trust you and don’t feel you represent the brand – they won’t trust anything you say to them about fit, appropriateness or style.  Instead, they’ll trust their friends on Instagram and cut the employee out of the buying cycle.

And that’s not good if customers don’t trust you…

JC Penny’s recently changed its dress code according to this blog  to “jeans, t-shirt, and clean tennis shoes. R.I.P. the tie and dress shirt, good-bye to dresses and panty hose, and farewell to high heels and dress pants. You will all be missed dearly – imagine having a lady in a t-shirt and jeans, no makeup or perfume, fit you in a bra. Now someone like this [sic] giving advice on how to wear a prom dress and what shoes to wear with it.”

If you’re a teen retailer dress codes might not need to be strict but if you are selling luxury watches, clothing or services, your employee needs to be seen as a player right away. That means for a luxury brand they aren’t just wearing a suit, but an Armani.

Boomer customers dropping off their most precious pieces of jewelry want to see people they trust and have faith in. They won’t trust a twenty- something dressed casually.

Prioritizing by brands you already know can help to quickly grasp this concept. To that end, I present my 8 Levels of Dress Code.

The 8 Levels of Dress Code:

  1. Tiffany’s – Designer suiting
  2. Your bank – Business suiting
  3. Nordstrom – Business casual
  4. Macy’s – Casual with guidelines
  5. Penney’s – Casual
  6. Convenience Store – Street clothes
  7. Apple – Branded T-shirt
  8. Fast food  - Uniform

Notice the highest levels allow employees more personalization to standout as individuals. As you move down the scale to uniforms, the employees become more faceless. No one sticks out and anyone can help you.

Discover A Common Mistake Selling To The Luxury Retail Market

Over Dressing

On the other hand if you require everyone to dress in business wear – outside of Manhattan – you could be wrong. By encouraging employees to dress in the traditional suit and tie, they may be making customers feel judged or that certain customers “aren’t good enough to shop there.” That’s dangerous because it means your retail sales crew will have to work even harder to break down the barriers between strangers in order to get the customer to trust them.

For most areas, guys can lose the tie.

But overdressing is much less dangerous than having your employees look worse than the average luxury, i.e. Boomer customer, the ones who still have money, expect when they shop.

Part of the way you set yourself apart comes when customers walk in your doors. If you are an apparel store and you have a girl who dresses sloppily, with haphazard prints and dirty shoes, will she ever be able to sell your best wears? Doubtful because in that setting, she can be judged as someone not to be trusted.

If you are the owner or manager, you should dress one level up. It affects the confidence you give off and you’ll look like someone in charge. Customers like that.

It may be shallow but the old five-second rule is very much alive. When a stranger meets you, by your clothing they’ve subconsciously presumed your social class, education, income and intelligence. The choices of clothing one makes to go to work signals their interest in the job, their respect for the brand and even their level of wanting to succeed in that job.

Once you open your mouth you can either prove those judgments right or wrong but you may never get that chance as customers avoid those they don’t trust.

Dress the part…

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Posted by Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor on September 27, 2012.

This entry was posted in Human Resources, Management and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to “Dress Code For Retail Employees – Still Appropriate?”

  1. Mark Snyder says:


    This is exactly what I was looking for and spot on!! Dress does matter. As I said to you in my email…dress up two twins in different attire (one very casual, the other in pants a shirt and jacket, no tie) and send them out into the world. The better dressed one will get better treatment every time (excluding biker bars, surf shacks and other very informal affairs). Thanks for the blog, it is already in the inbox of all of my employees.

    ~Mark S.

    • Great to hear Mark! You touch on something I used to put to the test when shopping or flying. I purposely didn’t go out of my way and you know what? Neither did they. When I fly and shop I find it makes a difference how I am dressed. Maybe that’s where we need to start – people need to experience better service from dressing with more purpose to understand why they need to do the same for their customers. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Jeff Toister says:

    Bob – You are absolutely right that dress code is important. Customers will judge you by what you wear.

    Your JCP example brings to light that it’s one thing to have a dress code, it’s another thing to observe how associates actually dress. The actual dress at department stores like JCP or Macy’s has been on a slow decline for many years. Associates often look downright sloppy.

    In apparel, if you can’t get your associates to look like an ad for what’s on the rack, it’s going to be pretty hard for them to convince someone else to make a purchase.

    • Your last line is so important Jeff – yet we see hoodies, sloppy jeans, spaghetti straps and underwear working in apparel stores. Doesn’t anyone in upper management notice that it would be easier to sell the merch if customers didn’t feel worse having seen your employees? Thanks for commenting Jeff!

  3. Melissa says:

    I managed a furniture store where our dress code (from corporate) consisted of 6 colors: black, gray, brown, navy, white, and maybe olive and solids only – no prints. They wanted the furniture and accessories to stand out. What they did not realize is that our customers had a hard time believing us when creating a custom sofa in a print or bright color because we all looked so bland. It was such a relief when, after a year of us lobbying, they said just business casual. And sales went up!

  4. Jodi Riolo says:

    So happy to see an article about the dress code! One thing I would like to add is that when employees “dress down” it’s been proven that their attitudes about business and customer service lack as well. The sloppier they are about their dress, the sloppier they are about their attitudes toward business and customers.

    • You are spot-on Jodi! I’ve witnessed it several times over the years. When the dress habits slack, the mind has moved on – better to have the tough conversation and convince the rest of the body. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Connie Cook says:

    My experience with dress for myself as the owner of the business is reversed! The business is retail for local shoppers, a gift store, however primarily a candle/scented products store, in which we manufacture almost 90% of our fragranced products. Our customers spend more with us when we are dress in jeans and very casual knit shirt or t-shirt. We aren’t viewed as approachable dressed up and not looking like we make our products. When we dress down and even have a little splashed wax or color dye on our clothes or person, people tend to respond to me as a working owner and they respect that, rather than just a figure head.

  6. Roosevelt says:

    My wife and I own a specialty Lingerie shop. We sell mostly European items. I have two questions. 1) I have staffs with piercing and nose rings. Should I tell them to remove them for work? 2) Does customers care that the person in the fitting room with them has a nose ring? Our staffs are young and most of our customers are between the age 35 to 50.

    • Wow, excellent questions Roosevelt! I encourage all retailers to have a piercing policy as well as tatoo policy. When you hire them you can ask if they would be willing to remove while working. If yes, you’ll want to get that written into your job description too. I can tell you as a guy in his mid-50′s, nose rings are not something our generation generally understands or embraces. The very idea of a nose ring draws attention to the person wearing it – you don’t want to draw a customer’s attention to the employee in any way that makes them uncomfortable. Now if you operate a 20-something boutique – and that’s exactly who you sell your merch too – it is a perfect fit.

      • Roosevelt says:

        I already hired people with nose ring and I feel it’s hurting our sales with the older folks. How do I go about tell them to remove it when working on the sales floor?

        • The only way you can do it fairly is to initiate a written dress code policy saying what is and is not acceptable. You’ll need to get everyone’s signature on it that they know, understand and will follow the new policy effective immediately.