retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Excellent piece in the new Fast Company by Alex Frankel, an excerpt from his new book about his experiences working in retail. By far, Frankel writes, the best experience he had was working at the Apple Store. Some excerpts:

• “You can only learn so much about frontline employees as a customer, or even as a reporter. I knew that to find out how the best companies train and indoctrinate employees, I'd have to become one myself. In what wound up as a two-year undercover project, I took a series of entry-level retail jobs, becoming that critical employee who represents the company's face. I did it to better understand the world of commerce and the corporate cultures that drive it. In the process, I learned that Apple Stores, with their aura of cool, were in fact living up to their mission to ‘reinvent retail’ and setting a high bar for other companies in the retail world.”

• “I knew I'd have competition when I applied at the Apple Store, but I also knew store managers hire from the ranks of the brand's fans. Apple is surely a rare bird—few companies have such a broad and committed following, let alone frontline employees who revere its CEO…”

• “Apple does a lot of other things well. Employees are taught how to work together because customers notice when employees don't get along. Apple floods its retail zone with staff because the bottom line suffers every minute customers wait for help … Apple requires staff to wear tasteful company-issued T-shirts and lanyards. Employees also hand out business cards as in high-end clothing stores, an act that calls them out as individuals in a way not typical of traditional retail.”

• “…in my Apple Store interview, I talked about all the Apple products in my life: from iPods to iMacs, AppleCare to Safari.

“Once on staff, I learned the difference between a gigahertz and a gigabyte, but more important, I saw that, like the iPod's user interface, training of Apple Store employees has been carefully designed. A series of podcasts I listened to and watched showed that selling was all about the approach. I shadowed other workers as they executed the company's three-step sales process. They explained to customers that they had some questions to understand their needs, got permission to fire away, and then kept digging to ascertain which products would be best. Position, permission, probe.

“All this sets the employee's on-the-job attitude. At an Apple Store, workers don't seem to be selling (or working) too hard, just hanging out and dispensing information. And that moves a ridiculous amount of goods: Apple employees help sell $4,000 worth of product per square foot per month. When employees become sharers of information, instead of sellers of products, customers respond.”
KC's View:
Read that sentence again:

“When employees become sharers of information, instead of sellers of products, customers respond.”

How many of your employees can answer any customer question, other than perhaps telling a shopper in which aisle a particular item may be located?

This Fast Company piece ought to be required reading for anyone in the retailing business.