Five Retail Sales Training Tips From Selling Shoes

men's shoes display

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Updated April 26, 2024.

"Persistent demand for brick-and-mortar shoe shopping has helped sustain shoe store visit growth," according to a new report from Traffic in shoe stores is "ahead of visit growth to the apparel category as a whole."

I'll get to my tips for selling shoes, but first, a story about how my knowledge of retail sales training began at the feet of others.

I put myself through college in the '70s as a men's shoe salesman. My shoe store was run by a sales manager whose simple motto was, "Sell shoes."

There were five of us on the floor at any time, which was a problem for a 700 sq. ft. shop. We were all commissioned, working against an hourly wage (also called our "draw.") Because of this, we had an ups system, much like in baseball. The process worked like this...

Once you engaged a customer, you went to the bottom of the order. As enough customers came through, you progressed up the order. When it was your "up," that meant you got to wait on the next customer.

Whether you sold them or not, that was your chance to make a sale

Blow that, and you were back at the bottom.

If you didn't satisfy them, you'd get product returns that cut into your paycheck.

Because of that, you had to build trust with a customer quickly and, knowing how much guys hate to shop, make it easy for them to get their annual footwear purchases out of the way. This meant always looking for the higher ticket by helping the customer get what they wanted.

Selling shoes in a store has to be better than online

Back then, and still today, most clerks in shoe stores would just ask a guy's size when he picked up a shoe. Our sales team always told the customer, "Let's check that because one foot might be larger than the other."

We did truly want to find the exact size because:

  1. It saved us time. From what he told us, the guy was off by a full size half the time.
  2. It would automatically limit the salesperson's choices if you didn't know by the length and width that the guy had very narrow or wide feet or if his instep was too high or low.

Having understood why we measured everyone, the sales process was to match the customer’s foot mentally with what they said they were looking for before going to the stockroom.

That way, if the customer had limited options, the trainee could collect all his choices simultaneously, saving the customer time and maximizing sales opportunities.

This sales strategy also kept trainees from a conversation about features and benefits on the sales floor about why a particular product was so well made or why it would fit a customer’s foot, only to go to the stockroom and discover no shoe in the customer’s size.

Your up would have been wasted...

How to get started with retail sales training with this comprehensive primer.

When I took over the store, I trained the men's shoe salesmen to bring out four boxes of footwear: the requested pair in the same color but a different style, the originally requested pair in another color, and a casual.

After the customer decided on the original pair, he would ask the salesperson, “What’s in those boxes?” This is much easier selling when they ask rather than you push.

The salesperson would reply, “I found a few others in the back. Would you like to see a few more in your size?” The customer would, 99 out of 100 times, answer "Yes."

They’d often buy two or three pairs of shoes, whereas many shoe stores would have sold just one, if any.

World-renowned author Paco Underhill shared his tips for selling shoes based on his 30 years of research:

How to sell shoes in a retail store

1. Get the customer to sit down

As we age, one of our subconscious decisions is based on seating height. We recommend that a shoe department or store have three heights so that short, medium, and tall customers have natural choices.

2. Ups systems in selling don't work

An ups system is a pecking order of who waits on the next customer. The last one to interact with a customer is "up" for the next person who enters the door. But the next salesperson doesn’t work to juice sales.

Sales staff needs training, direction, and strategy - who is the best person to serve the customer that just sat down? Also, note that wealthy Muslim women don’t like their feet being touched by a strange man. Give them a female sales associate.

3 Provide good full-length mirrors

Shoes, particularly women’s shoes, are bought to complement an outfit. Higher-end shoe stores should consider a changing room.

4. Make it obvious between women's and men's shoes

In athletic shoes, there is a clear, unambiguous separation between men’s and women’s. Girls are not threatened by their gender. Guys can be - except when they're not. 

5. Provide different flooring surfaces

If you are selling athletic or hiking shoes, consider a test track. The longer “the look,” the more likely the sale will be.

Here are five tips for selling shoes that made my store successful:

  1. A unified focus on what the #1 job was: Sell shoes.
  2. Not assuming, confirming what size they thought they were.
  3. Getting ahead of returns.
  4. Keeping options open.
  5. Arousing curiosity.

Selling shoes can teach you a lot about selling everything else

I know many people who made money selling in the retail industry - particularly in shoes. The whole experience was one of pampering and catering to the customer.

Compare that to the selling process now—you have to try on your own shoes after requesting your size and then figure out if they fit right. No wonder so many shoe store owners are nervous about online shoe retailers!

Because here's the thing: if all your clerk can do is run and fetch products from a stockroom - aided by an iPad or not - they add no value to the transaction.

That part-time job selling shoes is where I first learned much of what I still teach today about persuasion, presentation skills, energy, sales techniques in retail, teamwork, and success.

Nowadays, I study and question what seems so simple and try to explain what is so hard for so many.

That's because...

Customers don't realize that when they have an exceptional experience, it is not by chance but by the training given to the sales team.

Retailers of all sizes need to get back to basics and look at who they hire for the sales floor, how they are onboarded, and how retail sales training can benefit all.