In a sluggish economy, successful selling is an art form.
Sale associates, dealing with sometimes-reluctant consumers, have been forced to sharpen their skills — and invent some new ones — to read customers, gain their trust and close the sale.
To get a first-hand look at what’s working on the floor and what isn’t, Footwear News visited four New York-based boutiques in the athletic, comfort, women’s and men’s categories, to spend time with top salespeople and learn their tricks of the trade for today’s retail landscape.
What did we find out? For starters, never let a sale get away.
At Chuckie’s New York on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Chelsey Gates made sure a customer didn’t walk out of the store empty handed when the Viktor & Rolf black booties she wanted were out of stock. Instead, Gates pulled out a look book to help the client find other items that might work. “I can check our other store for you. Or I have a ton [of styles] like this to show you,” Gates said as she flipped through the images.
Later, at Brooklyn Circus, in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, it was clear that sometimes a sale takes time, and you never know what will keep customers interested. Brandon Nicolas spent more than 20 minutes with a shopper who finally decided on a pair of Pro-Keds, while other customers watched the ping-pong match being played against the store’s co-owner and art director, Gabe Garcia. “It creates a community, which is great,” Nicolas said of the shop’s game table.
For other retailers, it turns out that music matters. Roger DaCosta at West greeted a few regular customers when we visited, while hip-hop music blasted from the loudspeakers. “We have an eclectic amount of different products from various countries and in terms of music, it spans every genre,” he said. “We feel that on the Upper West Side we are a world of difference from any other store.”
And at Eneslow in midtown Manhattan, sometimes the doctor is, indeed, in. While FN visited the store, Abdoulaye Ndiaye worked with a customer for 45 minutes to help her decide on the right fit. Meanwhile, storeowner Bob Schwartz assisted another customer and even called her doctor to set up an appointment, after she complained of foot pain. “Let me tell you what’s wrong with a shoe like this for your issues,” Ndiaye said while suggesting alternate styles.
Here, the four sales associates dive even deeper and share their secrets to gaining consumer loyalty and making selling personal.
Sales associate & certified pedorthist, Eneslow (6 years)
His sales secrets: “Most of the time, I look at their own footwear and what they come in wearing. I like to listen. The more you tell me, the easier it is for me to help you.”
Developing customer loyalty: “Once you sit down and I show you what I can do with your feet, you’ll trust me. The first time [a customer comes in] it’s not about the money, it’s about what you’re going to get from me — the knowledge of the feet.”
How to read customers: “The one thing I learned is not to pre-judge. I also try not to impose, even if I do know something they don’t know. People don’t like to be told.”
What not to do: “When I was a salesman in high school, I’d grab as many [customers] as I could and it took me a little while to realize that wouldn’t work at Eneslow. People come in the store with [foot] problems and they want a solution. You can’t possibly have five different people in the store [and] listen to all of them at the same time.”
Best sellers: Finn Comfort and Kumfs. “For five years now, Kumfs has been in our No. 1 spot.”
On customer outreach: “The store does email blasts, they send out coupons and magazines and flyers. When you get to the counter, we always ask for your name and address.”
The economy’s influence: “Back in the day, [customers] would come in and get a walking shoe, a sandal and shoes for the house. Now, it’s all about what they need. [That means] you have to be enthused and be happy to sell. It actually makes it more lively on the floor than usual.”
Sales associate, Chuckie’s New York (1.5 years)
Her sales secrets: “I have a close relationship with a lot of customers, so they trust what I like. [And I’m honest.] We’re not going to send you out with a shoe that looks terrible on you.”
The store’s celebrity clientele: “Shania Twain was here and Renée Zellweger is a regular, and Jennifer Aniston and Pink.”
Best sellers: “Chuckie’s wedges, Castañer espadrilles, Lanvin flats and Jimmy Choo espadrilles.”
Her wildest sale: “We have lifelong clients who come in once or twice a year, around sale time, and buy 10 to 13 pairs of shoes. Or clients will text the owners and leave with thousands of dollars of merchandise.”
How to cater to top clients: “As soon as photos come in [for new styles], I’ll email photos out to customers and say, ‘These reminded me of you.’ It adds a more personal touch [to selling].”
On customer outreach: “We have our Facebook page, which we update regularly. We take photos of the product and put up albums. We have two awesome sales here for spring and summer, and then for fall and winter. It starts out as our private sale, so 200 people end up getting a card in the mail about it. For the loyal customers, we’ll do a reporting call [to notify them] on the first day of our sale.”
The economy’s influence: “We’re buying less, which means we’re selling [fewer] styles, but we’re still selling. We get a lot of people window shopping [who then come in] — people who had no desire to buy anything but they just want to try it on.”
Sales associate, Brooklyn Circus (1 year)
His sales secrets: “We like to give customers a little bit of background on the shoe. The customer has to know about the shoe and what they’re buying. And you have to be yourself and talk to the customer. Let them feel comfortable and create a cool environment.”
How to cater to top clients: “For the clients that come in often, we like to show them all our products we’ve just received and give them a first-hand look at the product before anybody else sees it.”
Helping the out-of-towners: “We have tourists from Japan who come to the store, and you have to work with them a lot because they’re not great at speaking English. If you use a lot of [hand] gestures, it’s easier.”
The toughest customer profile: “Definitely somebody who is really quiet because I’m a talkative person, so I like to engage with the customer. You have to be aggressive, but not too aggressive. If the person is quiet, I would say just let them be.”
On customer outreach: “We ask [customers] for their email or phone number, and when we have a new release or a new line, we’ll get on the phone and contact the customer. We do email blasts and [also] have a Twitter and Facebook page.”
Keeping track of purchases: “We keep sales in the system and we have a database to tell us what customers [purchase]. Having a database is good because we know what [product] to tell customers to stop by and check out.”
The store’s vibe: “We have couches, so we’ll ask customers to take a seat and we’ll ask them ‘how’s life?’ We also have a ping-pong table, and the ping-pong table is used for customers to come in and have a good time. We actually do events the last Friday of every month and invite customers, and order beers and appetizers.”
Manager, West (4 years)
His sales secrets: “It’s pretty much [about]giving the customer what they want and what they ask for. A lot of retailers kind of force themselves onto customers because they need to sell the shoes and make the quota. It’s more important to know the customer and make them feel comfortable and confident with their purchase.”
How to read customers: “It’s really body language. It’s how they are dressed; it’s the inflection in the [customer’s] voice.”
Wildest sale: “A woman came in and wanted to buy shoes in whatever sizes [we had]. I didn’t understand why, but I compiled a bunch of shoes. [It turned out] she was buying for a charity. It came to around $4,300.”
The store’s celebrity clientele: “Chris Rock has [visited the store] and he’s actually very friendly. The Coen brothers have come in, and Liam Neeson.”
On customer outreach: “We post sales on Facebook and Twitter. Through Facebook we post various events at the store, and if you go to our website and subscribe, we will send letters and emails.”
The economy’s influence: “Customers have gone to a very minimal approach. I noticed that, rather than buy a pair of flashy sneakers, they’ll go buy a pair of Vans or Converse. The economy allows us to have a bigger clientele because when clients come in, they are hesitant to spend money. But once they make the choice, they’ll come back and they’ll tell their friends because they feel reassured. We get a bigger client base.”
Best sellers: “Vans are selling pretty well right now. Nike as a brand is always superior, and Adidas is reinventing itself in various colorways and [its shoes] are [selling] strong as well.”