Reader Request: How to Work Well with Salespeople

Lovely reader Cat left this request in a comment:

I’d love to hear your take on shopping and sales-people … more specifically, how to deal/interact with them. How to not feel guilty or beholden and buy stuff you don’t need because you don’t want the sales person who helped you to feel bad, how to make good use of their talents and services, how to say “no,” how to say “later,” etc., etc.

Do you ever feel these pressures? With your mad shopping skills, I thought you might have some insight/tips.

I’ve had many great experiences working with sales associates and feel that they’re a terrific and often underutilized resource. Many people who work in clothing, shoe, and accessory stores do so because they actually LIKE fashion, which means they can offer opinions, insight, and styling suggestions.

But when you’ve worked with an SA for 40 minutes and still haven’t found anything you want to buy, that can feel … awkward. Especially if you know your SA is on commission or a quota. Here’s my philosophy:

Ask for help if you need help

Sounds so simple but can feel so daunting, am I right? If you ask a question, you may open yourself up to a little mini-relationship with an SA, even if you just wanted one small answer. Despite that risk, make yourself ask. If you can’t find what you need, want an opinion about fit or quality, or have some problem that only a store employee can properly solve, just ask. In my experience, most SAs want to help, they’ve got the knowledge you need, and they’re sometimes bored and biding time. If your question is answered and the SA seems to want to keep helping, just say something like, “I so appreciate your help! I’m just going to keep browsing on my own now and I’ll yell if I have more questions, OK?” Firm, clear, boundary-setting.

Never guilt buy

You’re not made of money. No, really, you’re not. I checked. And the fact is that the act of shopping is emotionally charged to begin with, so why add another potential layer of guilt, shame, and confusion to the mix by buying things out of obligation? Yes, you may feel like you’ve “used” a sales associate if you consult but don’t buy. But if you buy something that doesn’t work, you’ll resent it, be poorer, and have to deal with the rigamarole of returning it. Don’t buy stuff you don’t need, like, or want just because an SA picked it out for you.

Be gracious

Regardless of buying, I always try to heap on the praise and thanks when I’ve interacted with an SA. I’ve worked retail and it can be deeply unpleasant, so I always want to show my gratitude for any and all help. If someone has been especially attentive and I haven’t found anything I want to purchase, I’ll say, “I so appreciate your help today and I’m really bummed that nothing worked out this time. When I come back, I’ll ask for you. You’ve been so great.” If you can’t offer sales figures or commissions, at least offer kindness and appreciation. (Genuine, of course. If an SA has been surly or rude that’s another story, though I assume that feelings of obligation to purchase diminish under those circumstances.)

Don’t worry about it

It is highly possible that, when you turn to leave, your SA will curse you for leaving without buying. It is also possible that the same SA would think you were incredibly sweet and easy to work with. Or that the same SA would never give you another thought. Ever. You cannot control the emotions of others, especially strangers, so try to let it go.

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  • This is a great post! I particularly liked your advice how to proceed when the SA truly did an outstanding job, but you just didn’t find anything purchase worthy.

  • I’ve worked on the retail side, so I feel like I can see it both as a customer and as an associate. Some associates are under a lot of pressure from their stores to make big-ticket sales or open credit cards. So as a customer, if you feel like you are not going to buy anything to begin with or are just looking, please say so upfront. It’s the worst as an associate when you’ve helped a customer for an hour and then the customer just walks away, and you wonder what you might have done wrong.

    • Sal

      Good point, Joann!

  • Eliza

    Reminds me of the time when I was a teenager and went shopping with my mother and grandmother. I really needed clothes, but couldn’t find anything. My grandmother, with the best of intentions, asked a saleswoman for help when I wasn’t around. It was awkward, because the woman pulled a lot of stuff without really knowing what I was looking for, and it didn’t help that the store stock for teenagers was extremely trendy during a year when I hated the major trends. At the same time, I was still figuring out my look, so I couldn’t explain my preferences very well. I ended up stuck in the dressing room for quite a while, trying on things I knew wouldn’t work at the urging of my grandmother and the SA. If something similar happened again, I’d be able to sum up what I wanted much better, which I think would help the situation. But I still wonder how that disastrous eppisode could have been avoided altogether.

    • Anonymouse

      I’m pretty sure my grandma would be no help to me in a clothing store!

  • Meredith

    I work at a women’s clothing store. One of my favorite parts of the job is helping a client find just the right thing. Sometimes, it is frustrating when I’ve spent a lot of time with someone and then they leave without buying anything. But I try to remember that as long as I have done my best, I’ve done my job. I also try to be very sensitive to how much help a client seems to want. If you tell me that you are just looking and will ask if you have questions or make it clear that you don’t really want assistance, I will leave you alone and communicate that with the rest of my associates. It’s most important that you haves good shopping experience because that is what gets you back into the store, so if you communicate your wants, any decent sales associate should respect that.

  • Mostly I don’t pay them any mind. I tend to say politely that I’m just looking until I need a dressing room. Sometimes I ask for another size or if they have and idea for say a top to go with this skirt but that’s about it. Sadly I avoid the Lands End section at my local Sears though I love Lands End because the daytime sales lady there drives me crazy and doesn’t get that I don’t really want to hang out and model everything including swim wear.

    • Liz

      Totally agree about the Land’s End sales lady at my local Sears being far, far too eager to interact and help with every little thing. Makes me wonder if they get special training or if they’re particularly assigned to that area?

      • Becky

        Perhaps a polite phone call to the manager about that would be helpful. If the manager knew that the overly-eager salesperson in that department was scaring off the customers, perhaps something would be done about it.

  • Sonja

    Here in Barcelona, where I live, service is oh so bad and salespeople, the same as waiters in restaurants and bars, usually treat you like sh*t.
    So I usually don’t ask for help if it isn’t absolutely necessary, but if I find somebody who’s nice and helpful, I thank them from the heart, because it’s just not normal.
    Something that some people might find strange: I don’t usually go to small boutiques where the saleswoman is probably the owner and where you can’t browse around by yourself, because in that case I would really feel very bad if I don’t buy something.
    But I wonder if the whole subject might be seen differently for people from Europe and from the States, because I’ve heard that you can usually expect a lot of attention and good service everywhere in the US.
    Once I was looking around in a small yarn-shop where I sometimes buy some wool and have participated in some courses they offer. When I had arrived, an American family had already been there, and the owner had been talking to them. Before they left, he asked them if they wanted to buy some wool and the man said no. Once they had gone, the owner told me that he was quite irritated, because those people had been there for half an hour, he had shown them the shop, had explained where the wool comes from, even shown them how to spin wool with a spinning wheel, because they had asked for it. And in the end they left without buying nothing. He did not find that okay and said to me that this was a shop, not a museum, but maybe for them he had just been offering a normal service. I would like to know what readers from the USA think about that.

    • Jenn

      That is interesting. I am in the U.S. and might have done exactly what they did. Although my standard response when a sales associate asks if they can help me is, “thank you, I’m just browsing.” So the proprietor might have known that I wasn’t planning on buying, and adjusted his time sent accordingly. I have a number of years experience in retail sales, although not clothing. But my position on sales is that you give the best service you can to every customer, whether they purchase or not. Your reputation is enhanced and your overall sales will benefit because they will tell others and/or they will come back to you when they need something. If I went to that man’s shop, here in the US, I would not have felt obligated to purchase something regardless of the time he spent. He chose to spend that time, and making a customer purchase something out of guilt is never good sales.

    • Michelle

      They definitely should have bought something. Whether they had a use for it or not was not relevant (though perhaps a friend or relative would have enjoyed some wool yarn from Barcelona as a gift!).

      I live in the USA and I agree with the shopkeeper: He’s running a shop, not a museum.

      • Rebecca

        I have to respectfully disagree with you, Michelle. I have also browsed and asked questions without buying many times. In fact, in my area (midwest US) that seems to be encouraged by the small, local, quality merchants. The only obligation shoppers have is to make their intentions clear. But maybe the origin of the wool was one of their shopping criteria, they didn’t like what they heard, and that’s why they didn’t buy! You can’t assume they were just wasting the owner’s time. The owner was responsible for deciding how much time and effort he put in to helping them. And like Jenn said, those people most likely went away with a great impression of the store and the owner and will talk it up. Though, if I were Sonja, I’d now have a pretty bad impression of that owner! He needs to vent to somebody besides other customers!

    • Courtney

      It seems like getting angry because you sunk a lot of effort in and didn’t get everything you wanted, is fruitless. But yeah, in America, browsing is just a thing. We have malls that people go to not to buy things sometimes, but just to hang out or have somewhere to walk. Salespeople are expected to be personable and friendly, even if you clearly are not going to benefit them. We are expected to have good service; this is one reason why we tip. (I hear some places in Europe don’t.) You reward someone for good service and remove that reward or bad service.

      • Sonja

        Thanks for all your comments.
        I see that people from the US also have different opinions about that, but generally seem to understand the American family. Actually, I remember now that the father of the family was kind of awkwardly surprised when asked if he wanted to purchase something.
        Maybe the fact that they were tourists was an additional factor, maybe the owner felt that he had been used as just another touristy attraction, or maybe to know that they would never come back made his effort especially futile in his eyes.
        The funny thing is that this guy’s wife, the co-owner, is from the USA. It would have been interesting to have her input on that as well. 😉 Maybe talking about it with her in the evening her husband has changed his mind about the situation.
        And I didn’t see it that way until know, but actually Rebecca is right in saying that it is not very professional to vent in front of me about what had happened with other customers, although he knew me from former visits.

      • EFL

        Where I live (Europe, Mediterranean country), there are no tip, because service, as well as taxes, is included in the prices. And I know a fair number of salespersons, none of them earning any ommission per item sold, though they may earn global bonuses (I’m not talking about owners, of course)

        The good thing is that SA’s wages are fixed and stable, no matter what.
        The drawback is of course that they will be paid exactly the same whether they are polite or not. Hence not-so-stellar service.
        Around here, it sometimes seems that you don’t do the stores a favour by buying their stuff. THEY do you a favour by allowing you to buy it 🙂

        The most annoying SA are the ones that try to fool you. By telling you that you look awesome in this color when you look like a corpse, by telling you that, yes, wide-leg pants actually are meant to be worn mid-calf (they aren’t), or by assuring you that this badly sewn sequin-covered hot pink assymetrical cropped sheer t-shirt is all the rage in Paris/London/New York/whatever.
        I can deal with rude salespersons, but I have a hard time dealing politely with this kind of hypocritical people.

    • Becky

      I am often hesitant to enter small, cute stores that are likely run by the people who own them for this very reason. If I know I am not likely to buy something, I feel bad for getting their hopes up, so to speak, so I will often try to window shop or only spend a minute inside. I did hear a store owner in a tourist-y town on the radio say that he had a sale from one half of the people who came into his store, which he thought was pretty good.

  • Elin

    I’ve had some good experiences with SAs where I have let them pick stuff out for me that I never would have tried on and then found that I love it. So, the ‘risk’ of putting yourself out there can be worth it. And you make a good point, Sal. Most of the folks who work retail do enjoy fashion and are surrounded by these clothes on a daily basis. In all likelihood they see people of various shapes, styles, and personal fasions trying on the clothes that you are looking at. That alone makes them a great resource.

    Great post!

  • I generally tell salesfolks that I’m fine, don’t need help and I’ll holler if I do. But a few years ago I transitioned from working at home to going into a more professional office. A lovely women at Dillards spent hours with me (it was slow Tuesday afternoon) and helped me build a whole wardrobe within my budget. It wasn’t even just the finding pieces I might not have found, but she really helped me find things that fit and flattered as opposed to just buying a bunch of midrange dress pants etc.

  • Tanya

    As an SA, I consider myself a facilitator – I like to bring cool people together with cool shoes. I’d rather provide options for choices, and if those options aren’t chosen, I know that it’s not about me but about my customers’ tastes and budget. And, if they don’t buy anything, it’s not time wasted – many people are on “reconnaissance missions,” as I call them, so they may not buy anything that day, but when they’re ready, they’ll come back. In my opinion, it’s about building relationships with folk and our retail environment encourages return/regular customers. We’re grateful they visit us, and strive to provide a positive experience, regardless of whether they slap down their credit card for one, several or no pairs of shoes. As a shopper, if I’m met with a pushy/rude SA, I’m outta there – there’s nothing I want badly enough that warrants making the experience all about them. Facilitation, in this retail/sartorial sense, I think = insight, intuition, interpretation, support and joy.

  • Oy, the guilt buying. I once bought some foot cream I really didn’t particularly want or need at LUSH just because I felt so bad that the salespeople had spent 20 minutes demonstrating products on my friend when I knew she had no intention of purchasing anything.

    My weirdest, most uncomfortable recent sales experience was at a White House, Black Market. I often browse that store because their clothes are very cute, but I never try things on or buy as I think their prices are ridiculous for what they are. This summer, however, I decided to try on some jeans that were on the sale rack. The saleswomen got me a fitting room, which was a curtained booth, and basically stood outside it asking how I was doing. THEN she whipped open the curtain so she could tell me how great the jeans looked (not) and that I should get them. I was so shocked that she would actually open the curtain on me that I was unable to verbalize “WTH do you think you’re doing??!??” And now I’m afraid to step foot in one of those stores again. (I guess this story has really nothing to do with the topic of this post, but I felt the need to share. LOL)

  • Dee

    I have worked retail (boutique chain store) as well so have been on both sides. We worked for bonuses and there was a lot of pressure to make big and mutliple item sales. I love fashion and did a great job making outfits, and being a helpful SA, but really had a problem with trying to get customers to buy more and spend more than they were really comfortable with spending. I dont work retail anymore but am certainly more conscious of what pressures SA may be under. The first few years after I left retail if I ever went into a store where I knew the SA had quotas,etc. I pretty much bought several items just becasue I felt bad otherwise! I will admit I don’t do that anymore, in other words, if I just don’t find something I love and need, I don’t buy. But I also try not to waste the SA time either and always say thank you for your help. Its really a tough business: the SA don’t make much money and the down economy has made it worse. I am glad I am out of that field…but I sitll love fashion and to shop!

  • I own a women’s boutique and we offer a free service to all our customers. We actually pick out options for our customers based on their bra and pant size, so once in the fitting room our items fit better. We give honest opinions and continue to make recommendations to our customers based on their body shape and lifestyle needs. If the customer does not find what they are looking for, no problem! We hope we made the dreaded swimsuit shopping experience fun for them, and that they will try our stores service again next month when new product rolls in. Most sales associates know that some amount of people will not buy, even if you spend 2 hours with the customer. I really think it comes down to honesty. Be polite about it! “I like it, it is just not a 100% LOVE it relationship, and that is what I am looking for. I’ll try back in a few weeks and see what new stuff you have. Thanks SA for your time today!” A simple thank you for the time the sales associate spends with you goes along way, and no good sales associate will ever think you wasted their time.

  • Fantastic post. We are not responsible for the emotions of strangers, but we are responsible to be gracious — that about sums it up! I still do feel a twinge when I don’t buy from an especially wonderful SA, but you’re right — I’m not MOM (made o’ money) : >

  • Diane

    A thoughtful post, Sal. I can relate to Eliza’s experience because something similar happened to me, without the grandmother. I was in Chico’s looking specifically for a work jacket. The sales assistant took the opportunity to try to style me by bringing all sorts of bright but wrong colors and patterns to the dressing room. This probably happened because I dress in dark colors, and she saw me as a palette waiting to happen. When I finally extricated myself, I bought a gray jacket on sale that she hadn’t picked out. She was visibly angry. I never went back to that store and have rethought the brand, anyway, as I’ve moved away from the style. But it ranks as an awful experience that kept me away from the store.

  • I’m weird in that I like to shop alone. I don’t even usually want to shop with a friend — although it can be fun once in a while, I like to move at my own pace and leave when I decide I’m done. So uber-helpful salesladies are not usually on my agenda. I usually just say “no, just looking right now” when they ask if I need any help. Once in a while I’ll need them to bring me a different size or what have you. I think I’m fairly set in my ways stylistically so maybe it would be good for me to have someone help point me to new things, but I’d probably rather it be someone who was taking the time to really look at me and think about what would work, than someone who is just hunting for commissions.

  • Courtney

    I see two kinds of sales associates — the pushy kind and the observant kind. The pushy kind will go up to you and be like “Oh, you should have these shoes to go with that thing, and here, try this on, you might like it, and what about this other thing?”. This basically makes them seem like money-grubbing jerks, and I don’t like talking to them. While I know they have to make sales, they are actively pushing away buyers by forcing things upon them. I feel like they’re the kind who will be angry if I decide to browse around and then leave, because they invested all this effort (that I didn’t want) in getting me to buy something (that I wasn’t going to buy anyway). I don’t really mind bothering these people by not buying.

    The observant kind, who are awesome, will notice whether the customer looks confused and comes over; if someone is idly browsing, they’ll ask if they can help and if the answer is no, they’ll take themselves off. They won’t push, but they’ll take note when a person seems amenable to their help. There’s nothing more awesome than being horribly confused and then having someone walk up and be like “Oh, you’re looking for that! That’s over here, what size do you need?” It’s awesome. Even if I don’t buy something, I’ll certainly put the store on my “to go back to” list, because the people were nice and helpful.

    • I love the distinction you made between pushy and observant salespeople, Courtney.

      I’ve never worked in fashion retail, but I did used to work in an infant and toddler toy store. I would greet every customer who came in the door and just watch a bit as they were browsing. If someone looked like they were searching for something intently, I’d say “You look a little lost. Is there anything I can help you with?” Or if they keep looking at an item, I might offer more information about where it’s made, how the item is used, etc. Being pushy was totally not my thing; I saw myself as a person who could provide prospective customers the info they needed to make a decision. Evidently that approach worked well because I exceeded targets consistently. 🙂

    • That’s an interesting observation that you make about pushy salespeople. It’s funny because when I worked in retail (corporate department store), the store was doing a big overhaul of sales tactics for all associates, and it basically meant doing everything you described as pushy … times 10. It’s interesting how store managers/associates may think they’re being overly helpful, but customers see it as the other way. I kind of wish my store did more research on customer relations before implementing that plan …

  • Mel

    In the past, I’ve always said that I was “just looking”, NEVER asked the SA for ANYTHING, and generally viewed them as an impediment to my shopping time.

    Only recently have I discovered what a gold mine they are! They’ll pull things that I wouldn’t have looked twice at, and voila! here I am looking great in something that the SA pulled.

    And they’re really good about not bringing in other stuff unless I ask them to. But, gosh, once you ask, they go to town. They really have a good eye for what is going to to look good on my body shape, and what else they have in the store that goes well with my item. Once I’ve been in a few times, they get a good feel for my style also, and don’t bring in clothes that aren’t me.

    I do have to say that I don’t ask the SA for help unless I honestly plan to purchase something at that store. If I’m truly just looking to see what there is, or just browsing the clearance rack, I don’t ask the SA for help.

    Or I might say to them that I’m just browsing the clearance rack….if it’s a slow day they’ll happily pull things for me. It gives them something to do, and often enough they’ll choose something that I wouldn’t even have tried on, and here we are again, looking great in something that I would have passed right by.

  • Elizabeth Ann

    I spent a year as a sales associate at a women’s retail clothing store. Before working there I always felt so awkward around sales people and was frequently afraid of bothering them or feeling pressured to buy. I think that affected the way I would interact with clients as a sales associate. I was on a tight budget then (and still am) so I sympathized entirely with clients who didn’t want to spend too much. One of my favorite days on the job I spent working with a recent college grad who needed an outfit for an interview. I could tell she was cringing at the price tags on the pants so I hunted all over the store for a flattering pair in her size on deep discount. She was so grateful and I was just glad that she left the store feeling more confident about the interview.

    On a related note, it’s part of the job to push specials, expensive merchandise, store credit cards, etc., but that doesn’t mean that the sales associates care whether you go for them or not. I frequently (especially with the store credit cards) mentioned offers because I had too and was then relieved when clients passed on them. If you work in the same store long enough you start to realize what’s really a bargain and what’s just dressed to look that way. I never resented customers who picked up on the fact that something wasn’t a great deal. I might have felt differently about this if I had been working on commission, but unless you frequently shop high end most of the sales associates aren’t. [In my store, for example, the regular associates had no quotas and received no commission. However, there were frequently sales contests where the person who sold the most or sold specific items could win cash or prizes. Managers who worked the floor had sales quotas they were required to meet but earned no commission. The store as a whole had various sales goals handed down by corporate, but failure to meet them rarely if ever resulted in any negative repercussions for sales associates]

  • Becky

    I rarely have money to spend, and if I do, I generally know exactly what I am looking for. I’m also introverted, and have trouble thinking and making decisions in the presence of another person. Especially another person who is talking with me, making suggestions, or bringing me new things to look at.

    It took me about 20 years to develop the confidence and communication skills I needed to work with SAs in a way that neither involved avoiding them nor involved wasting their time and making me exhausted and cranky and indecisive.

    So now that I can have a friendly and mutually successful interaction that does *not* involve them helping me until I’m ready to try on/ring up, my next step is to avail myself of their expertise! Wow, so much to learn.

  • Christine

    I try to follow the pointers here but I must still be doing something wrong. One store here is just horrid…even when I’ve said “thanks, just looking” they follow me around and bring out items they think I would like. I say no thank you, not quite what I’m looking for” — I know these sales assistants are on commission.

    I don’t know what to do with sales assistants who phone and/or email me. I once returned a necklace — it just didn’t work out — and the saleswoman who sold it to me sent me an email asking why and then explaining that she had been depending on that comission! How do you handle that?

    It’s sad because I won’t even go in that store unless someone absolutely needs someone there — any suggestions would be helpful!

    • Sonja

      Wow, that’s incredible! I’ve never heard of something like that before, I think a situation like that would be absolutely impossible here in Europe. My advice: Delete the email, ignore it and forget it, and don’t feel guilty about it. You are responsible for your own life, not hers.
      Not easy, I know, especially if you want to shop there again. But I think that’s the only way to go.

  • Harriet

    If I ever ventured into a store and found that they carried a good selection of styles I liked in my size and helpful salespeople, after I got up from my dead faint I would probably buy something. But this hasn’t happened to me yet. More often than not, the salespeople seem to size me up (literally and figuratively) and think, “We’ve got nothing for HER,” and ignore me, even when my credit card was burning a hole in my pocket and I was ready to spend a bunch. The little boutiques are the worst. Only the big chain stores seem to have anything for me. This is why I do most of my shopping at Target these days and have started sewing my own clothes.

  • Cat

    Thanks for the post, Sal!
    I especially appreciated the last point. Also, am loving the comments. Thanks everyone.

  • T.

    If a sales person has been helping me and I don’t buy anything I usually say “I have to think it over.” or something like that, it souds nicer than “I don’t like it.” But I wouldn’t feel guilty for not buying anything.
    What I find very annoying are sales people who ask you if they can help you as soon as you enter the shop. I want to be able to look around in peace, if I have a question I’ll ask. But the other extreme, namely the sales people at H+M who always seem to be in a bad mood and never seem to have the time to answer a question, can be annoying too.

  • Like Mel, I don’t specificially ask for help unless I’m almost committed to buying something. It’s probably helpful to do a lap of the store and make sure the cheapest dress isn’t $700. OTOH, I have gone to nice boutiques and said, “I need a dress for a wedding, and I need help,” and the SA’s have been wonderful and in those situations, I’ve always bought something.

    At one very nice boutique in my city, I had already picked out some items to try on and the SA casually put a couple other items he’d picked out for me into the fitting room. It seemed he had put some thought into an outfit he thought would look good on me, and the items were fairly consistent with my usual style. I was also impressed that he knew my size without asking. I didn’t buy the items, but I thanked him for making the effort.

  • I’ve definitely bought things before just to keep the sales people from feeling bad. It’s not worth it! I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with it. This post was super helpful!

  • Such great advice, Sal! Having worked retail in the past (at a toy store, not a clothing store), I can tell you that, as you said, being gracious and kind even if you don’t intend to buy anything is very much appreciated. I used to get into conversations with lovely families for 20 minutes at a time and at the end they might leave without buying anything, but I always had a lovely impression of them.

  • Angela

    I am always honest, to a fault. Some days I am just browsing, other times I need something. I don’t recall ever having a really rude SA, ever, in any of the cities I have lived in..but I don’t waste their time either. I don’t try on $300 pants when I only want to spend $50-$75.

    But we canadians are freakishly polite lol

    My cousins were here this summer from london England and were shocked how pleasant the SAs were.
    I can think of some really great service too, in mid price stores when I have been specific in my needs, I think it boils down to honesty and being polite

    And if the salesperson is really a bi$&@, it’s not your best friend, you never have to see them again

  • Carly

    A nice way to thank a helpful and friendly sales associate without guilt buying is to mention their great service to one of the floor managers, especially in a larger department store. Often times these stores have incentive programs for employees who go above and beyond when serving customers that are not necessarily directly related to meeting quotas or sales goals. For example, I worked at Macy’s for about a year and while I didn’t often make my goal for store credit (I absolutely HATED pushing those cards) I often received positive feedback from shoppers for being attentive and helpful but not pushy. Once, I spent over half an hour helping a woman select a Christmas gift for her granddaughter (on Black Friday, no less). I showed her many different options and she chose two moderately priced items. Seeing how appreciative she was definitely made up for the time I spent with her and being approached by my manager after she left who told me what nice things the customer had to say was really a great experience. Although I didn’t come anywhere near making a dent in my sales goal with that interaction, getting positive feedback from the manager as well as $5 in “Macy’s Money” was a really nice gesture.
    Also–if you DON’T want help, don’t be afraid to tell the SA, “No thanks, just looking” but if you DO, ask! Good SAs will go out of their way to help you find what you’re looking for, it’s the most fun part of the job!

    • Sigi

      Yep, I’ve done this – called up a store afterwards and asked to speak to the manager of the SA who helped me. I told her she should give that boy a pay rise because he did a great job and I was really happy with the outcome. She was thrilled to hear it, and made it clear that she really appreciated that I’d made the effort to give positive feedback.

  • I normally like to shop on my own, but I’ve recently had some spectacularly great experiences with SAs. I came in to Nordstrom for a bra fitting (the first in a very long time) and had someone help me who was friendly, compassionate, kind, and professional. She brought about fifty styles (not all at once!) and was forthright about what fit and flattered and what didn’t. After I left the store, I called the manager to tell him how great she was.

    The second experience was at a plus-size boutique. I was buying my first belt (I know, right?) and wasn’t having an easy time finding something I thought was flattering. The SA walked over and said that with my figure I should wear it higher, above my natural waist — which transformed the look — and I bought three. 🙂

  • Lizzy

    The hardest thing for me, after having blown off all the SAs with a “just looking”, is selecting one to ring me up. They all think I’m “theirs”. I wish they had self-checkouts like at the supermarket! But that’s a hard-to-fit, frugal introvert for you.

  • I’ve worked in a variety of retail styles now and am currently working in kitchenware. I’m not really interested in cooking but I now know enough that I can usually gauge the needs of the customers. Our company policy is to great people within 30 seconds of entering the store. Uh, no freaking way! That’s unnerving. I look up and smile at the person, if they don’t smile back, I leave them alone. If they do smile and look like they might need some assistance, I’ll go over (but not straight away!) and say “Was there anything I could help you with or are you just browsing?” I never hassle people. I never stalk customers. We sell knives, why agitate people unnecessarily! People do come into our store to get all the info and then go elsewhere to buy the products as we tend to be more expensive than other stores. I’m ok with that. It happens. I never expect people to buy if they don’t want to. We’re also told to offer the most expensive product first, I usually ask what the customer wants to spend if they haven’t specified.

    My colleagues get annoyed if they spend time with a customer who doesn’t purchase. How do you know they won’t come back another day when they’ve been paid and buy the thing they were looking at? The best compliment I ever get from customers is “you’re a terrible upseller, but a wonderful assistant, I will come back and buy from you again”.

    I like to build up relationships with customers, make them comfortable. Make sure they have what they want, whether it’s a product or information or just to browse in silence. Occasionally customers seem to feel guilty when they tell me they are just browsing so I say “it’s a great browsing store!”. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I hate being hassled in shops.

    I’m in Australia, apparently we’re super friendly in retail here, which honestly surprises me considering how I get treated in some stores!

  • Megan

    I’ve worked in retail for the last five years, and I really think everyone should/needs to work at least a week in retail to really get the full picture of how to deal with sales associates. We’re people, too, and the majority of us don’t like being pushy or forcing you to buy things you don’t need. Conversely, we’re here to help and we want you to know where the good deals are in the store, so if any of us come up to you in a store and begin to tell you about something, please, just listen politely and either say “Thank you, but I’ll just browse for a while” or let us know what you’re looking for. Simple as that. It’s very rare for a sales associate (or even a manager) to work on commission (especially in a mall), so we’re not solely after your $$$. And like Sal said, many days we’re just watching the clock with nothing to do! It’s fun picking out outfits for folks and seeing people try things on!

    It’s true that higher-ups of retail businesses really push for us to be pushy sales associates. Because all their studies show it works, people buy stuff when SAs are pushy. Many of us don’t like being that and obviously many customers don’t like it. I say, don’t feel obligated to purchase from an SA if you’re feeling pressured. Maybe things will change and the pushy SA will no longer be the successful example and we’ll all have calmer, more enjoyable shopping experiences!

  • rb

    I took my 8 year old son to a specialty shoe store this afternoon. The salesperson measured his foot and brought out the style we liked in the size she measured. My son said it hurt his foot and he couldn’t walk in it. She said, oh the shoe is supposed to fit like that, he just needs to wear it a while. I said, I’m sorry, I can’t spend $65 on a pair of shoes he’ll never wear. I asked for the next size up, but she insisted the shoe was supposed to fit like that and it wouldn’t hurt his foot for long.

    Finally, when we were about to give up and leave the store, she agreed to bring out the shoe in a larger size, but by that point my son was uncomfortable and ready to leave. Honestly, I was too.

    (And by the way, I’ve been buying my son shoes for eight years, and he has NEVER had to buy a pair that hurts at first. I do not know what this saleslady was smoking!)

    Yet, even with this weird and unprofessional sales “assistance” I felt guilty not buying anything!

  • blackdogramona

    When I am shopping for something specific, I will know it when I see it. When I am casually shopping for something to catch my fancy, it is MY eye scanning and rarely would an SA read my mind. So I usually am a “just looking” type but REALLY appreciate it if I have a question and someone is there and is nice and is is helpful. If I end up not buying at that moment I would still like to give credit to that SA and there is not always a way to do this!

  • JI

    In Anthro, a year or so ago..the SA included items for me to try that I did not select, stuff I passed over.I discovered them in the dressing room, and I was confused, initially…did I select these schmatas (rags)? What happened to my good taste?
    I am very selective, and I don’t like trying on clothing. And yellow tops? Red sweaters? WTF????
    Now, when I go to Anthro (two hours each way), I cannot even find an SA.
    This is Scottsdale, Arizona!!
    Suffice to say I shop local now, know the salespeople, they know me, and if I find what I am looking for, or if it finds me, I buy it, I don’t hassle, quibble, I know if it is right for me immediately. One of the perks of being old, I guess…
    Great article. Sal, often I don’t know if we are on the same planet…and that is what I love about you!

  • As a SA myself, the thing I cannot stand the most is rude and inconsiderate shoppers. I don’t care if you’re not purchasing anything after I’ve spent some time with you, I understand that, but when someone comes in with an attitude or leaves a mess behind in the dressing room for me to clean, it grinds my gears.

    Please be considerate of your sales people, at least hang things back up or bring them out of the room for us, it makes us happier and our jobs easier. I love helping people who are open minded to things and will leave you alone if you don’t want help but will ask to make sure you’re still doing alright.

  • Val C-MN

    I agree with Carly’s post of giving the manager of the store feedback on your positive experience with the SA even if you didn’t buy anything (as well as the times you do buy something). That praise goes on reviews and even if the person doesn’t get the high sales for the store, the positive feedback makes the SA feel good about their work and it helps their annual review.

    Having worked in retail almost 11 years for a mall store owned by a cable-shopping channel, I luckily didn’t work on commission so there was no fighting over customers. The store mostly sold jewelry and beauty products as well as some clothes, purses, kitchen, and houseware items. I would always greet everyone with saying “Welcome! If you need any help, please let us know, but feel free to browse.” If I received an “okay” or an “I’m just looking”, then I went on my way organizing a spot, filling bags, etc., until I was needed. Most customers wanted to just browse and would approach you when they needed something.

    However, since I worked for a very popular cable-shopping network, there were those customers who would come in and say “I have shopped your channel/website for years and I love this host and I buy this/that from you.” For those customers, you wanted to do the extra effort and explain the store, how it related to the network, show what new products that we had that were recently “on-air”, tell what host or vendor visited the store, etc. If I saw the customer had on an item we sold on the network/website, I always remarked on it and would tell them if we had any items from that vendor in our store or I would inform them when that favored vendor would be on a future show on the shopping channel. (Those customers wanted the SA to be just as informative as the hosts they would see on the cable channel.)

    So, you just gauged everyone – one customer at a time – with initial welcome/inquiry and let the customer determine at what level they needed your help.

  • A.

    i worked book retail for several years and i was asked for book recommendations or explanations only a few dozen times. i have been a voracious reader since early childhood and could even BS out a recommendation for a genre i didn’t care about just because i was an experienced seller. most of the recommendations i gave were during summer reading season, when parents would look at the books their kids were assigned to read and need help figuring out which book they’d actually be able to get their kid to read.

    i have only guilt-purchased one item before, and it was a pair of jeans from american eagle that didn’t fit me properly and were therefore never worn. but the sales guy was so excited and peppy and had even stayed past his scheduled shift to help me out, ohmygod! yeah, i have never made that mistake again. i was in a lucky brand outlet store last year and had a sales associate help me with sizing and cut, but ended up not buying anything because i hated the butt pockets (i’m picky, what can i say?). i felt bad for not buying anything after he helped me out, but i was clear with him for why i wasn’t buying anything that day and thanked him for his time. he may have cussed me out to his coworkers when i left, but i didn’t end up with another pair of unwearable or disliked jeans. i had a very limited budget during that time and couldn’t spend money on something i didn’t like, and that helped to keep me from buying jeans out of guilt.