A Guide for the Lowly Shop Assistant

When you first waltz into a shop your initial impression will be your lasting one, in which case, the person guarding the counter ought to have a few skills under their belt to impress you: an encyclopaedic knowledge of the product, a contagious smile and a confident, positive attitude. This initial interface becomes even more critical if you find yourself working in a niche retail industry and you sell retro products that have long ago peaked in their popularity.

Retail Battle Stations

When I was 14 I wanted a job badly, but the expression “beggars can’t be choosers” hadn’t clicked with me yet, and the sheer thought of debasing myself to the grease-traps of Mickey Dee’s sent me into panic stations. Where I needed to work resided in my local Westfield – a place only a handful of hermit regulars frequented and kept the dusty place alive: the local second-hand bookshop. I was already in love with books, having barely gotten over my unyielding crush on Mr. Rochester, and I felt my OCD would slot into the organised system of the store quite nicely.

Cut to nine years later and I was running the shop and had become the overarching expert on authors, novels, Man-Booker nominations, and how to establish strong relationships with customers whilst also being a retail sensation. At the time, the bookshop industry was on the decline: people were trading in their book collections for a loveless Kindle and novels were slowly being abandoned to be pushed to the side along with floppy disks and VHS.

Through the drawback of working in an industry that was debatably dying I learned how to truly push sales, how to keep my customers returning and how to happily serve the public.

Smile ‘Till it Hurts

After I finished high school I started working at the bookshop full-time, earning more than enough to continue refunding the shop with my book addiction. The only problem I had with working every day was I felt like I was living at work: the customers I served were my family, and the book shelves that structured the shop were becoming some kind of abstract metaphor for the alphabet nightmare that was my life.

Looking back I realise it was easy to get bogged down in this way of thinking, especially considering I was so used to my job I was able to predict customers’ queries before they even opened their mouths. However, regardless of how I internally felt about a question, each customer was treated with equal friendliness, a bright smile and a keen interest in them. So if someone asked “Do you have Don Kwicks-oate?” or “Do you stock that book by the bloke?” they were answered by a calm, understanding individual.

Customer Control

You may be thinking, “How do people like this even exist?” but you need to keep in mind that you are this customer. How many times have you curiously walked into a quirky shop and had no idea what you were looking for? Or asked a retail assistant for help while exhaling a giant verbal faux pas? We all do it – and at the end of the day, just because I was asked if we stock “Fifty Shades of Grey”, literally 50 times in a day, didn’t mean that the customer in question deserved a bad-tempered or snarky response.

Unless your name is Hugh Grant, you really have zero excuse for any fumbling, bumbling or vocal slipups when it comes to conversing with your customer. There’s nothing less endearing or disappointing then going into a shop, only to have the person over the counter acting as clueless as you are. How much confidence do you put into the “Ums” and “I don’t knows” of this world? Not a lot I imagine. Remaining strong and confident in your stance will permeate throughout the rest of the interaction – I found that even my feigned enthusiasm and coolness was always met with the sound of the cash register dinging to life: so faking it really does work.

The Regs

One of the best things about working at the bookshop for so many years, was I ended up having awesome regular customers that I’d established great relationships with. I would often keep books aside for them and they would continue to return for that kind of service. Once I had clued onto what books they liked, I found it easier to keep my eye out for any titles that might spark their interest – a service that never went unnoticed.

Another reason why customers kept coming back was the way I was with them – an aspect that changed from person to person. Customers tend to like servers who have a bit of personality or who can have a laugh – there’s no need to become best friends, but rather you need to seize any opportunity you see to build a rapport. Some of my regs became the kind of people who gave me chocolates at Christmas or who would watch the shop while I popped to the bathroom.

Creating strong connections with your customers doesn’t always have to be a case of making a sale; you can end up establishing worthwhile relationships that make your working day better as well. And if you’re caught in an interaction that’s becoming sharp or isn’t going anywhere, the best thing to come from that customer will be the amount of appreciation you have for the next one who walks along and smiles back at you.

– Cassie