4 Retail Sales Tips to Bolster Your Bottom Line Backed by Science (and Bob the Builder)

Retail sales tips | Shopify Retail blog

As a retailer, you likely use a wealth of resources getting people to walk through your doors. While foot traffic is crucial, what do you do once they cross your threshold? 

Sometimes products meet a need so well that they sell themselves — but that's rarely the case. 

Rather than leaving your retail sales to chance or talent, you can alternatively rely on a science that you can teach to your staff or apply directly yourself. 

Here, we'll look at four key areas of focus, including several retail sales tips and expert insights, to help you sell more and build greater customer loyalty. 

1. You Don't Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

How do you start off on the right foot when engaging a customer who just walked into your store? 

You might have heard that it takes one-tenth of a second to form a first impression of someone, but let's look at what's actually taking place inside a person's mind when they make that judgment. 

Social scientist Amy Cuddy explains that when we first form a first impression, we actually form two. First, we're determining how warm and trustworthy the person is. Secondly, we're trying to answer the questions: "What are this person's intentions toward me?" and "how strong and competent is this person?"

According to Cuddy, these two dimensions make up 80-90% of an overall first impression — and this holds true across cultures. 

We've all walked into stores and been approached by a sales associates who made us feel suspicious, uncomfortable, and on our guard. And we've had the opposite experience of feeling helped, comforted, and relaxed.

So, what accounts for the difference?

Cuddy has some suggestions that could help retailers make customers feel more at ease. Some of the advice that's particularly applicable as retail sales tips include: 

  • Let the other person speak first. You can do this by simply asking a question. Typical questions to engage a customer include: "Are you looking for anything in particular today?"
    Our first instinct is to take charge of the conversation and control the dialogue, but that doesn't pan out so well when trying to understand your customer's needs and how your products can fulfill them. Listen before offering advice or recommendations.
  • Collect information about the other person's interests. Getting the other person to talk about themselves, or what we like to call "making small talk," goes a long way in building a rapport with customers. Research proves that just five minutes of "small talk" before a negotiation increases the amount of value created in the negotiation. Engaging in idle conversation also starts your dialogue in neutral territory — which can help you gain a customer's trust and more easily glean insights on how you can help them solve a problem with your product.

Next, let's look at a study that attempted to increase room service tips for waiters in hotels. Researchers discovered that there was a quick and simple way to increase their tips: Just start the interaction with a positive comment.

The researchers discovered that as hotel guests opened the door, waiters simply said "good morning" and gave a positive weather forecast. Just a single positive comment increased tips by 27%.

So, what does this mean for you? Don't start your interaction by talking about how bad the weather, traffic, or your working conditions are. Begin with a positive comment about the weather, weekend plans, a favorite sports team. 

2. Think Before You Speak

One of my all-time favorite quotes is the following from Epictetus: "Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak." 

When it comes to sales, some of us have the tendency to associate a good sales associate as a talkative extrovert that exudes charisma and charm. 

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School wanted to thwart this myth and discovered after carrying out five different studies across 3,806 salespeople, that the correlation between extroversion and sales was essentially nonexistent.

In fact, when looked at across the spectrum of introversion or extroversion, it wasn't the extreme cases that fared the best: ambiverts, those in the middle, brought in the most business year over year. Dan Pink does a fantastic job of documenting the study in his book, "To Sell is Human."

Another key thing to be mindful of is talking down a competitor. It might be hard to keep your mouth closed when a customer brings up a competing product, but just know that speaking negatively has the opposite effect from what you intend. Speaking poorly about a similar product or brand is often a turn off for customers (remember how positive comments increased sales?).

Social scientists call this the Spontaneous Trait Transference. Essentially, anytime you say bad things about someone else, people associate those same traits with you. So, when you say a competitor is low-quality or unreliable, your prospective customer is actually linking those with you. 

Instead of badmouthing competitors or their products, acknowledge the customer's question or comment and use the interaction as an opportunity to educate them about your products. Discuss how your product is great for solving a specific problem, and actively listen to what your customer needs.

Another retail sales tip to keep in mind: Be aware of how you word your answers to customer queries. Sometimes the way you communicate an idea is more important than the idea itself.

To illustrate what I mean, here is a helpful list of alternatives to the common elements of a conversation in a retail setting from the blog of Retailer Training Services

  • “I don't know” vs. “That's a great question. Let me find out for you.”
  • “All sales are final” vs. “Let us know if you're not satisfied and we'll make it right.”
  • “Calm down” vs. “I apologize.”
  • “We're closed” vs. “We close at __ o'clock and reopen at _ o'clock. Is there something I can quickly help you with now?”
  • “Will that be all?” vs. “Let me show you…” or “Have you tried __?”
  • “It's over there” vs. “Follow me, I'll show you right where it is.”
  • “I can't do that” vs. “I think the best solution is…”
  • “That's not my department” vs. “Let’s go find the right person to help you!”
  • “We're out of that item” vs. “That item is currently out of stock, we have a great alternative, or I can give you a ring when it is back in stock, OK?”
  • “That is against our policy” vs. “Typically our policy is __ but I want to make this right for you. This is what I can do…”
  • “I'm new here” vs. “Please bear with me and I'll get you the help you need.”
  • “Hold on” vs. “Are you able to hold for a moment?”
  • “I'm busy right now” vs. “I'd be happy to help you.”
  • “You're wrong” vs. “I think there has been a misunderstanding.”
  • “If you didn't see one, then we must not have it” vs. “Let’s see if we can find one for you!”

Paying attention to how you address your customers can drastically increase the chances of someone making a purchase. 

FURTHER READING: Want to learn more modern customer service tactics? Read about 7 retailers embracing new ways to serve their customers.

3. Don't Forget About Body Language

When you consider that roughly 90% of communication is nonverbal, it seems almost crazy how little we consider our own body language and other nonverbal cues. 

This is particularly important in retail sales when your job depends on successful interactions with customers. So, what do you need to pay attention to increase your chances of making a sale?

There are a few basic nonverbal cues you can keep in mind next time you're on the sales floor.

Open Your Arms

Across contexts and cultures, crossing your arms is often seen as a defensive stance. When your arms are crossed, you appear closed off and uninterested to the person engaged in a conversation with you. 

In order to be fully engaged with a prospective customer, avoid crossing your arms. In fact, not only will you appear more approachable, you'll actually retain more information about what they're telling you. 

Body language researchers Allan and Barbara Pease discovered that when a group of volunteers who attended a lecture were asked to sit with unfolded arms and legs, they remembered 38% more than a similar group who attended the same lecture but were asked to sit with folded arms and legs. 

To Instantly Connect, Shake Hands

When it comes to the most deep-seated and powerful nonverbal cue, touch is by far the king. In fact, touching someone on the arm, hand, or shoulder for as little as 1/40 of a second creates a human bond, according to researchers. 

In most sales settings, physical touch and that human connection are communicated via a handshake — a tactile contact experience that can make for a positive and lasting impression. 

One study on handshakes revealed that people are twice as likely to remember you if you shake hands with them. They also discovered that people are more open and friendly with those they shake hands. 

Use your best discretion, but if the opportunity permits, opening a conversation with a handshake can establish trust with your customer —trust that can lead directly to sales. 

Boost Your Confidence With a Power Pose

Let's face it: Sometimes we just don't have the confidence to engage with customers with the energy we need to close a sale.

To help combat that dip in confidence, you can heed the advice of researchers at Harvard and Columbia Business School. They showed that by simply holding your body in expansive, "high-power" poses (ex. standing with legs and arms stretched wide open) for as little as two minutes, you can stimulate higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked with power and dominance) and lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone).

Not only will this work when you want to appear more confident (like in a sales setting), but they also discovered that people are often more influenced by how they feel about you than by what you're saying.

In other words, you could have the best sales pitch, but if you don't look and feel the part, your efforts could fall short.

For a demonstration of power poses and how they can boost confidence, we recommend watching Amy Cuddy's TED Talk on the subject.

4. Less is More

What if I were to tell you that shoppers are more likely to buy jam from a seller offering a selection six or fewer variations? Especially when stacked up against a seller offering upwards of 30 choices?

Sounds counterintuitive right? Some retailers feel like it's important to give consumers more and more options. 

That's exactly the assumption professors Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper sought to disprove, and they did so in their famous study titled, "Why Choice is Demotivating."

In the case of product variations for shoppers, they discovered less is actually more. The modern world demands the average person make more choices on a daily basis, and many of us end up suffering from decision fatigue.

So, rather than offering dozens of product variations, carefully curate a smaller selection.

Communication expert Carmine Gallo also suggests retailers pay attention to the "Rule of Three," which is a powerful weapon in retail sales. The average person's short-term memory can only retain roughly three "chunks" of information at a time. With too many choices, you run the risk of making consumers frustrated. 

He also cites an example from a retailer with over 800 stores that invited him to do a keynote. During his time there, he discovered that that retailer specifically trains employees to offer a second option only if it has the features the customer said was important.

In fact, they cap the number of options suggested by retail staff at two or three, having found that presenting customers with more than three options at one time actually overwhelms customers rather than making them more likely to buy.

Bonus Retail Sales Tip: Invoke Your Inner Bob the Builder

When you're in sales, you're bound to encounter rejection — a lot of rejection. 

So, how do you pump yourself to go at it again and again? 

Most sales gurus might suggest hyping yourself up with positive self-talk. But researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi recommend something practiced by a popular children's cartoon character, also known as Bob the Builder, every time he asks the audience, "Can we build it?" 

Known as interrogative self-talk, researchers conducted a series of studies and found that in every instance, participants who started the various tasks with a questioning self-talk approach outperformed those who psyched themselves up (called declarative self-talk).

So, the next time a customer walks in your doors and you're not sure if you'll make a sale or not, ask yourself, "Can I do it?" to get your brain into problem-solving mode. Follow up with "How can I do it?" and "What can I do better?" 

Moving Forward With These Retail Sales Tips

Now that you have a grasp on some science-backed sales strategies, you can confidently own the sales floor.

Do you have any retail sales tips? Share your advice in the comments below.