Retail Advice for the Holidays & Beyond

By Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

“You never really know somebody until you work the holidays with them.”

That chestnut is courtesy of my mother, who ran our family’s gourmet grocery store. The holidays were crazy with customers flooding in to buy fixin’s for holiday meals and food and wine for gifts. Like many small retailers, my folks wrangled family members, friends and temps to guide customers as they shopped and keep checkout lines short. Working under these crazy conditions brought out the best in some and the worst in others, giving Mom an opportunity to vet prospective employees — and coin that phrase.

The holidays always get me thinking about my formative years in retail and the lessons retailers can learn from this hectic time to survive the onslaught and perform better year round. Check out these words of wisdom from fellow retail warriors.

Retail Tip #1: Prepare for Battle

Martha Jenkins, who cut her teeth working for my mother, will mark her 30th year as the owner of Kitchenworks in Chapel Hill, NC. “Mounting a Christmas season is like a large military campaign,” she says. “Everything takes magnificent coordination that is technically really hard and oh-so-stressful. Just getting in enough inventory — unloading all those trucks — and keeping the store restocked is challenge enough. That, and the incredibly long hours.” Jenkins plans it all out, including getting her own shopping done early. This ready-for-battle approach can help for any big sale, promotion or event you plan during the year.

Retail Tip #2: Manage Inventory

It seems obvious, but too many retailers don’t plan effectively for demand. “We’ve run out of some of our stock in the past, and this caused us to miss a sale and disappoint a customer,” says Alex Taylor, the “go-to dog” at Woofables Gourmet Dog Biscuit Bakery in Coralville, IA. “It’s a bit of a hassle, but extraordinarily helpful to keep good records on your sales and inventory levels. This can serve as a valuable benchmark for the following holiday season’s ordering, sales cycles and inventory management. If we have excess inventory after the holidays, we put it on sale for minimum marginal profit.” Additionally, make sure your staff is fully briefed on your product line, popular gift items at various price points and new products in your inventory.

Retail Tip #3: Don’t Scrimp on Staff

It’s tempting to increase revenue by keeping headcount to a minimum, but that’s a mistake, according to Marnie Carmichael, who worked at my parents’ store and now owns Bouligny Bakery and is the morning lead at Sucre in New Orleans. “Long or slow-moving lines lose customers — permanently,” she says. Understaffing can also cause your store to look unkempt. “After long lines, there’s nothing that turns off customers faster than a messy or unclean store. Recognize that in addition to the holiday season being far and away the busiest time of the year, it’s also the number-one opportunity to win over the greatest number of people to become post-holiday regulars.” Do what you can to present your store in the best way possible to get any new holiday foot traffic to come back.

Retail Tip #4: Meet Customers’ Needs

It’s not just about the merch — some customers have other needs, too. “I always have a vase of chocolate kisses on my counter from Thanksgiving to Christmas,” Jenkins says, offering the candy to soothe cranky shoppers. “They truly work. Chocolate cures!” Product samples offer the same magic.

It’s also important to match customers’ energy levels. “If they’re ebullient, I try to be personality-plus,” Carmichael says. “If they just want to get in and out, I try to be crisp and efficient.”

Retail Tip #5: Support Your Team

The holiday rush brings new demands and inexperienced employees to your enterprise, and it’s crucial to create a strong team by training them in key tasks, reviewing customer service standards and building a “we’re all in this together” mentality. Terri Ann Johnson is a 12-year retail veteran, eight of them with Borders Books & Music. “The holidays were long hours that were both physically and mentally challenging. One year on Christmas Eve our computer system crashed — leaving us with no registers and no computer for inventory searches.” As part of the management team, Johnson had to pull together a plan to instantly train staff to calculate sales, track inventory, locate products and keep the lines moving. “It was a chance for us to pull off a holiday miracle,” she says. And it worked because everyone felt prepared and cared for.

Following these tips — at the holidays and throughout the year — creates an environment for a thriving retail operation. “A dozen or a hundred otherwise ordinary transactions can be made extraordinary,” says Johnson, who’s now the social media and community manager for Seattle’s Bill the Butcher. “It’s the extraordinary shopping experience [customers] will talk about online and off in conjunction with your store name.”

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