Product Knowledge in Retail: Importance, Types, Training, and Improvements

The job of a retail sales employee is to help customers find the right product and ensure a sale goes through. Retail sales employees greet customers, explain products, answer all questions, and, finally, close the sale. They might also try to upsell a similar, but higher-priced item or cross-sell a complementary product to increase the total purchase amount. 

Since customers seem to expect retail sales reps to be the Wikipedia of the products they sell, reps must learn all about the product—sizes, benefits, differences from competitors’ products, pricing, and more. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at product knowledge—its importance, types, and how your sales team can be more effective with it.

What is product knowledge?

Product knowledge is the information needed to clearly explain a product to a customer.

Product knowledge is a highly relevant skill for customer-facing retail employees, like sales reps. Besides being able to clearly communicate details about the product, the sales rep must be able to explain product benefits, offer alternatives, and even upsell or cross-sell other products. 

Importance of product knowledge

If they were not given a clear explanation of a product and its associated benefits, customers would leave your store for a competitor. Product knowledge ensures that won’t happen by arming your retail staff with all the necessary information they need to serve customers well. 

Increased sales

From handling objections to clearly explaining complicated products, product knowledge ensures that your sales reps know how to sell. 

Apple store employees are experts. They explain complex things like RAM and SSD drives in layman’s terms that are understood by everyone. Without the explanation, Apple might lose a sale. So, yeah, product knowledge is critical to selling.

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Enhanced customer experience

Let’s say you manage an Outdoor Voices store. A customer walks in to purchase a pair of leggings and they ask about SuperForm fabric (fabric for high-sweat, high-impact exercise). Your retail staff explains in detail why this fabric is ideal for extensive workouts where the customer is likely to sweat a lot. Being satisfied with the benefits, the customer purchases the leggings. 

This is overall a good customer experience and helps Outdoor Voices stand out from stores where employees either know little about the products they sell, or don’t bother to explain the details. 

Improved employee experience

Employees are put at a disadvantage by not being able to answer a customer’s questions. Being updated on all products helps give them the confidence they need to handle the questions that come their way. 

Armed with extensive knowledge about your products, your staff is better equipped to handle complaints and objections. They know what they are talking about, i.e., they know the products you sell like the backs of their hands. 

Types of product knowledge

  1. Customer
  2. Brand
  3. Customer journey
  4. Competition and industry
  5. Product features and functionality
  6. Complementary products
  7. Customizations
  8. Common questions

Product knowledge is not a manual on how your products work. It’s a myriad of things, from competitors to “Why don’t the shirts come in blue?” 

1. Customer

In the words of author and marketing expert Seth Godin, “Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers.” This is especially true when you’re on the floor selling to customers walking in. 

As a store owner, you need to ensure that your staff knows their customer—what they’re looking for, their motivations to be at the store, their price point, and so on. Your staff can then quickly analyze their customers’ needs and pick out the products that would be right for them. 

💡 PRO TIP: Sending digital receipts via email is a great way to organically collect customer contact information at checkout and build an email list to fuel your retention marketing. Just make sure they’ve opted in to hearing from you before sending them anything.

2. Brand

A company’s brand is comprised of positioning, mission statement, and vision of the future. Once your employees are acclimated to the brand, they can carry it forward in their daily interactions with customers.

For instance, Allbirds’ employees know the brand’s focus on sustainability. The company is known for educating customers on making better choices for the Earth while also selling them shoes and activewear. 

3. Customer journey

While the product details remain the same, questions from customers will vary depending on what stage of the buying process they are in. 

If they’re aware of a problem–for example, back pain from sitting for long hours, they might come into the store looking for comfortable office chairs. In this case, they will want to know which of the chair’s features helps reduce back pain. But if they’re already aware they need to buy a new office chair, they may ask more brand-specific questions. 

Either way, your staff should be ready. To prepare your team to handle questions at all stages of the customer’s journey, it’s a good idea to share a list of FAQ answers with them. 

4. Competition and industry

What happens when a customer asks a Nike store employee how their jogging shoes are better than Skechers? Unless the employee has studied the competition, they won’t be able to explain the differences between the two and the reasons why the customer should choose a Nike.

Employees, in addition to details about the merchandise they sell themselves, should be aware of industry trends and general news, so that they can speak the same language as their customers.

This also comes in handy when interacting with customers. At a Lululemon store, for instance, a customer might ask about the latest low-impact workouts top trainers suggest. Lululemon’s employees should know what workouts are in vogue, so they can better converse with the customer. 

5. Product features and functionality

Without knowing the product features, you’re shooting in the dark. This is especially true for products like a car. 

If a customer is shopping for a Model 3 in Tesla’s showroom, for example, the store employee is expected to be able to explain features like cruise control, autopilot, and one-pedal driving. Knowledge of product features is instrumental to closing a sale. 

6. Complementary products

Smaller and generally lower-priced products that support a bigger, more expensive product are considered to be complementary products. Think of how a case complements a mobile phone, a high-quality webcam complements a laptop, or a pair of socks complements a pair of boots. 

Sales reps need to know about complementary products to explain their benefits and increase the customer’s total order size

💡 PRO TIP: Try using apps to upsell and cross-sell more effectively. Apps like Marsello and Frequently Bought Together integrate with Shopify POS and recommend products to store staff based on what they’ve added to a customer’s cart, making it easier than ever to suggest relevant products, increase basket sizes and order value.

7. Customizations

There are times when companies offer customizations on their existing products.

Levi’s, for example, offers to customize its jeans—the clothing brand can embroider jeans, and even add woven patches and pins. Employees should be aware of the possibility of customization and prepared to discuss it with customers.

8. Common questions

At a clothing store, questions about what materials are used in a given product, and whether it should be dry cleaned or if it is machine washable, are common. 

Usually, it’s a good idea to prepare a list of common questions and answers so employees can be ready when encountering them. 

Types of product knowledge training

  1. Customer interaction simulation
  2. Shadowing tenured employees
  3. Product quiz
  4. Video training courses
  5. Incentive program
  6. Supplier demos

Product knowledge is critical to the success of a retail store. To turn your retail employees into product experts, you need to conduct product knowledge training. 

1. Customer interaction simulation

Commonly known as “roleplay,” a customer interaction simulation is when employees act out various customer interaction scenarios under the guidance of a trainer or senior employee. This helps build employees’ confidence by preparing them for real-life situations.

As part of your training program, have other team members act as difficult customers. These could be shoppers who:

  • Insist on returning a product beyond the “return by” date 
  • Ask for a discount when none is available
  • Comment on the supposedly “bad” quality of a product
  • Ask to speak with a manager who is unavailable
  • Haggle price
  • Ask excessive questions because of indecision

Pro Tip: Keep a running list of common and difficult customer interactions and schedule a roleplay training at the end of every month with the new set of difficult interactions.

2. Shadowing tenured employees

Job shadowing is on-the-job training that allows an employee to follow and closely observe another employee with more experience. This is generally designed for new hires but even tenured employees can benefit from it if they need to upskill.

As Rekon Retail founder Rebekah Kondrat puts it,

“You learn different tactics by watching an expert in action. You can then begin to emulate these tactics but don’t be scared to modify them if it gets the job done.”

3. Product quiz

Product quizzes are a great way to jog memories and keep store employees updated on products, promotions, and new releases. These can be conducted online by sending out a Google Form, or even on the floor if the store manager gathers the employees for a pop quiz. 

Pro Tip: Host weekly quizzes on Mondays before every shift. This way your employees will start each week with up-to-date knowledge that will help them seamlessly interact with customers.

4. Video training courses

If you want your retail staff to continue their training and development outside work hours, consider video training courses. You can upload these courses to a learning platform like Podia or Teachable so your employees can take them when time allows. 

Pro Tip: Consider courses that don’t require hands-on training like product details, buyer psychology, and customer experience best practices. Use Shopify Compass to learn the basics. 

5. Incentive program

A great way to keep your retail staff updated on product details is by adding an incentive. Incentive programs aren’t uncommon, but it’s rare to see them specifically tied to product knowledge training. 

For instance, every time an employee completes a full course (consisting of x hours), they get a gift card. Alternatively, a friendly competition among retail associates to see who sells the most of a new product can implicitly test knowledge while enhancing the employee experience. 

Pro Tip: Incentives tied to money are way more enticing than free lunch or an “employee of the week” badge of honor.

6. Supplier demos

This is where a product supplier comes to your store and demonstrates their product. This happens a lot in the beauty space, where new products are launched every other week. Supplier demos will help your staff sell the supplier’s products to your customers. 

According to Rebekah Kondrat,

“When suppliers do a demo, the staff can test this product, put it on their hands, and see how it feels. And then when the associate is in front of the customer, they can say, you know, I've tried this. It feels like X, Y, and Z on my skin. I liked it.”

Tips to improve product knowledge training

  • Use Shopify’s product meta fields
  • Let employees demo products
  • Team huddles about new products
  • Build a product knowledge repository
  • Share customer feedback with staff

While everyone at your store is somewhat knowledgeable about the products you sell, improving their product knowledge will only be advantageous for the business. You can expect to see increased sales, a better customer experience, and happier employees. 

Use Shopify’s product meta fields

Customers expect store staff to have product expertise above and beyond what they can find online. While learning about products used to be done through supplier training sessions, meetings, or between staff, you can also use Shopify’s product metafields.

Product metafields are a fully customizable way to share product information like care instructions, restock dates, warranty details, or complementary products with staff across each store location through Shopify POS

Shopify POS product metafields
See a product's metafield information by selecting the product in Shopify POS.

Metafields in Shopify POS help you equip store staff with the information they need to serve customers with confidence. You have complete control on what to include in metafields, which makes them a flexible tool for sharing detailed product information and helping staff resolve questions quickly, while reducing dependency on managers and more tenured staff. 

Let employees demo products

A hands-on experience is always the best way to learn more about products. Have your staff give product demos to each other first, so they can practice what they will say to customers. Then, when they demo products to customers, assign a senior employee to gauge their performance and share feedback on how they can improve.

Team huddles about new products

Team huddles are a great way to announce new products to your team. This is best done five to seven days before launching a product. Steps include:

  • Prepare an agenda, set talking points, and create a doc that talks about the product
  • Set a date and gather everyone on the floor
  • Explain the product’s features/details, demo it, and share common uses
  • Open the floor for Q&A
  • Do a short quiz after the huddle to see if everyone understands the product and can sell it

Build a product knowledge repository 

Repositories are a great way to share knowledge about your products and keep your employees updated at all times. You can simply create one in Google Drive or a Notion dashboard. A typical product knowledge repository consists of:

  • Product origins: How/where the products are made, along with materials/ingredients used
  • How the product is to be used (and how not to use it)
  • Who the target audience is for the product
  • Common questions
  • Common objections and how to handle them

These repositories are living documents, meaning you should continue adding relevant information that will help your staff sell your products seamlessly. 

Share customer feedback with staff

Customers may be your best resource to improve your product knowledge. If you, as the store manager/owner, are receiving feedback from customers that’s pertinent to a product you’re selling, pass it on to your team. 

Their feedback could come in the form of a new product use case, a specific feature they like (and why they like it), or how the product improved their life. Your staff can then use this feedback during sales conversations with other customers. 

Empower your retail staff with product knowledge

If you want your retail staff to perform as well as they can, you need to arm them with end-to-end product knowledge. Help them find the best products for your customers, guide sales conversations with ease, have intellectual discussions with customers regarding the industry and related topics, and, most importantly, always feel confident on the job.

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