How to Engage Shoppers in Your Store: Say Goodbye to "How Can I Help You?"

Female salesperson engaging a shopper

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Have you ever been in a retail store where the employees all seem like they'd rather be anywhere else but there? Maybe they're standing around chatting with each other or on their phones, or maybe they just have that vibe that conveys they don't want to be bothered with helping shoppers.

Whatever the case may be, it's not a good look. And it costs retailers billions because those shoppers come in to buy.

No one is ever just looking. 

As a retail store manager or owner, you must ensure your employees engage with shoppers effectively. After all, if your employees are giving off the wrong impression of being either dismissive or overly fawning, it reflects poorly on your stores. 

I had a lively discussion on my Facebook page the other day when a fan suggested, “I don’t think it makes one bit of difference what question you ask a potential customer who has come in. We are experiencing more rude people who use our shop for a waiting room for takeout, as a space to let their nails dry before getting in the car, and for entertainment because they have nothing else to do.”

Retail has always had a few people use stores as a time filler. I had one such guy when I sold cowboy clothes in Los Angeles. I took the time to engage him. He came around a lot and looked like he had walked off a movie set.
One day I told Tim, one of the guys I worked with, “I’m going to find out this guy’s story.” I simply asked, “It looks like you know how to wear cowboy clothes with such style – were you a rancher?” He smiled, “No, but I’ve played one.”  That opened a window of conversation.

From there, I learned his name was Richie. He had a life as a stuntman, and not being able to do the work anymore, he just liked being around our crew. Fine, you say. But he also had a lot of money. We found that out when, about every other month, he would buy a pair of $500+ boots.  
He confided in me one year, “You know I don't need to buy these boots - I got plenty. But I don’t want to take your time away from selling your merchandise.” The final time I saw him, he thanked me for my kindness. He had gone to his insurance company, and they told him he had so little time left to live that they were giving him all of his benefits in one lump sum.

“I guess they know more than I do,” he said with a gentle laugh. He was gone in a little more than six years from when I met him. I learned so much from him. So many laughs. So much human-ness.

But conversations like that all start with your initial desire. You either want to find the diamonds like Richie – due to his soul, not his money – or expect them to make your day.

In my nearly 30 years of working in retail, I’ve never heard a customer say, “I hope I make their day.”

And yet my Facebook poster went on, “I can connect with my customers just fine, and my loyal customers have been shopping with us for 18 years, and we take very good care of them. I am referring to new people we are trying to cultivate as customers….kindness oozes from us starting when the door is opened, but when people walk around with arms crossed, they don’t want to engage and will respond accordingly. We always attempt to help folks connect but crossed arms say, “don’t bother me,” and I stop.

Selling is a cause-and-effect sport. You learn what works and what doesn’t.
Don’t want people to say, “Just looking”? Then don’t say something that triggers it.
Don’t want people to avoid you? Then look in the mirror. Maybe the desperation of having to make a sale is there. Or the void of empathy for a weary world looking to connect.
Do you want to authentically engage your customers? Inspire your employees to try a different approach.
I can tell you one thing, I’ve been traveling extensively over the past few months, and everyone I meet wants to connect. To share. To smile. 

So how can you ensure your employees engage with shoppers professionally and effectively?

Here are five tips on How to Engage Shoppers in Your Store

1. Give them a script to follow

One of the easiest ways to ensure your employees engage with shoppers effectively is to give them a script to follow. I recommend only two, and the first is simply to say, “Good (time of day), and shut up. Of course, this doesn't mean they should be robots; they should still be friendly and personable. But having a scripted greeting will help them stay on track and keep the conversation focused on the shopper's needs.

2. Train them on active listening

Active listening is a skill that all employees should learn. Active listening involves being fully present and engaged with the person you're speaking to, and it's an essential skill for anyone on a sales floor. You have to be in the moment and hear what the shopper says because of what you say. If it isn’t good – that’s on you. Ensure your employees know how to practice active listening to better hear shoppers' needs and treat each as a person – not the enemy. There is no “new shopper.” Everyone wants to be seen and heard. 

3. Encourage them to ask questions

If your associates fear asking questions, they won't effectively engage with shoppers. Encourage them to ask questions to get more information about the shopper's wants. If they are younger, they may never have had to ask a stranger anything and therefore avoid it. Part of why you are there is to build their confidence so they don’t fear interactions – they welcome them. The more information they have, the better equipped they'll be able to make the sale. 

4. Role-play with them

Role-playing is another great way to deepen your employee training on engaging with shoppers. You wouldn’t put someone into a new car with no license, would you? Yet the stakes are just as high if your crew can’t show you what you have taught them. I’m a fan of mystery shops, but even to start, just put yourself in the shoes of a shopper and have your employees interact with you as if you were an actual customer. This will help them get used to thinking on their feet and developing creative ways to keep their own personality while providing a memorable experience.

5. Reward them for good customer service

Finally, make sure you reward your employees for providing excellent customer service. This could be anything from verbal praise to monetary bonuses. With 58% of young adults living at home, monetary bonuses may not mean as much. A “great job” could be enough for some, while others would want you to attend one of their live events. The key is that if you show your employees that you value their efforts, pay them enough they can cover their bills, and give them a feeling they matter for doing the job of engaging strangers, they'll be more likely to go above and beyond and stick around.

See also, The Five Stupidest Questions To Ask

Karen Marie posted on my Facebook post, “When using Bob’s greeting instead, I’ve noticed I’ve already built an initial rapport that I can build upon when I come back to talk with them again. This has disarmed the interaction, and it’s almost like we feel like ‘friends.’ I’ve also noticed customers seem much more comfortable and willing to engage. It really has surprised me. But then who wouldn’t like a simple, genuine welcome vs. something disingenuous or that feels scripted?”

Exactly. It’s time to drop the “they’re just looking,” “they’re just killing time,” and "they are different." People want to connect. If what you’ve been doing isn’t working. STOP DOING IT!

You don't make sales by dismissing people. You make sales by opening your heart. 

Engaging with shoppers effectively is essential for any retail business that wants to succeed. By following these five tips, you can ensure your associates do just that.

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