Have retail store associates fallen into a hypnotic state?

Dec 07, 2018

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail Doctor’s blog.

Like long, boring drives, the monotony of tasks can lead to hypnosis for store associates.

Basically, the more familiar a store becomes, the less information your brain has to process. Your brain essentially shuts off much like when you’re driving home after a long day. It knows exactly how it will handle the traffic, where the off ramps are, etc.

The reason so many employees say the same things over and over again is because their minds aren’t really engaged.

On the converse, it is always fun to open a new store because there is so much to learn. New procedures. New people. New merchandise. At 90 days, it’s a job.

While it might be easy to say they are just bored, what I’m talking about is the lack of opportunity to learn something new to engage them each day, to make new connections between one concept and another, or to be surprised by something another person says.

Every day they have to make new connections. They have to be trained that collecting stories of shoppers is more important than just asking if you’ve been helped.

Here are six ways to cure retail hypnosis:

  1. Have a morning huddle and set the expectation of learning one new thing from each shopper. Have different associates share stories they learned about their clients the next morning.
  2. Cross-train associates between departments. Assign them different sections of your sales floor on different days.
  3. When the store is empty, creatively role-play. Have one employee select three random items. Another has to create a story that connects those three random items with an imagined customer scenario.
  4. Focus on comparing and contrasting merchandise groups, both similar types of socks — say wool and cotton — and dissimilar — a scuba mask and a pair of sunglasses. Remind associates such pairings can lead to add-on sales.
  5. Move your store around. Nothing engages a mind more than discovering something in a new place.
  6. Teach them to avoid repeating the hackneyed phrases that turn off their minds: “Can I help you?” “Looking for something special?” “Do you have a budget?”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What common practices on selling floors lead associates towards hypnotic-like states? What suggestions would you add for keeping the job fresh for store associates?

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"Using many of the tips in the article will certainly help avoid boredom, especially cross-training and role playing in the store."

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22 Comments on "Have retail store associates fallen into a hypnotic state?"

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Zel Bianco
I would engage store associates to learn about aspects of retail they may not even be aware of. Things like the supply chain — where does the product come from, how is it produced, etc.? Teach aspects of retail that they may not be thinking about, may not even have an interest in immediately, but may be glad they learned about as they move on to other jobs, even outside of retail. Those that happen to be more ambitious may want to learn about the assortment and how headquarters arrives at those decisions through category management analytics, assortment, pricing and so on. Yes, I realize that many associates couldn’t care less, but wouldn’t it be worth it is some of them start to love what they are learning and become leaders in retail someday, especially as the industry is changing so much? The focus has to be on how best to engage with the shopper, but expanding their understanding beyond the store floor might be a way to get them to be all around better… Read more »
Sid K. Hasan

Brilliant steps.

In the tech world we moved to an Agile (iterative) paradigm.

  1. Daily stand-up;
  2. Cross functional teams;
  3. No managers – everyone is equal;
  4. Afternoon celebrations;
  5. Faster go-live turnaround.

I think a data-driven approach could help. Imagine if consumer data was presented in step 1 and every person on the sales floor knew what’s hot, what’s not and who may be coming in — in the next five to seven days.

Tech is here to stay – Retail needs to embrace this and equip associates with off/online data-driven tools.

Joanna Rutter
3 years 6 months ago

Couldn’t agree more! Retail’s issue is the insane amount of data (sales! foot traffic! staff schedules! weather!) that are captured in-store and have to be stored, analyzed and distributed to and from those stores. Retail’s pivot to the cloud is slow and clunky, which I’d say is the main reason this isn’t already happening.

Sid K. Hasan

In God we trust; all others must bring data.

CMOs are need to run/operate retail — not FINANCE-minded folks.

Georganne Bender

You will notice that Bob’s list does not include data. Here’s the retail, knee deep in the trenches reality: What data? Very little of the data collected and analyzed at corporate level finds its way onto the sales floor.

Bob Phibbs

More data doesn’t solve everything. Brick and mortar needs to make an emotional connection which takes training — not more tables to sink into a virtual world.

Kai Clarke

Continued repetition of tasks promote hypnotic-like states. Using many of the tips in the article will certainly help avoid boredom, especially cross-training and role playing in the store. Using an early morning huddle to share experiences and set expectations. Keeping associates on their toes and challenging them in different ways are keys to avoiding a hypnotic state.

Neil Saunders

Giving people a sense of ownership and responsibility often helps prevent boredom.

I used to work at the U.K.’s John Lewis Partnership which is, essentially, an employee-owned cooperative. Because staff owned the business they took a great interest in things that were beyond the immediate scope of their role. Staff magazines, meetings and information sessions underlined this by keeping everyone informed about all aspects of the business. Everyone understood how their own job fitted into the wider whole. It made work much more satisfying!

Jasmine Glasheen

You hit the nail on the head, Neil. Associates need to be included in greater business conversations, treated like equals, and to be able to see how their work fits into the bigger picture to remain invested in the customer-facing aspect of their jobs. When associates are treated as an unpleasant side effect of running a brick and mortar, they will inevitably pass that ambivalence along to the customer.

Cynthia Holcomb

Retail selling floors are a funny place. It seems everyone is there for a different reason working for hourly pay and with few or no benefits. “Fresh” comes from the top. Associates in a hypnotic state reflect all the levels of store leadership that touch the floor. Store managers must not come off as drill sergeants. Given human nature, the retail selling floor can be rampant with hierarchy, posturing and a few hourly workers just doing their time. Delivery of a cure (or cures) must be perceived by associates as management’s genuine high regard for them, inspiring the associate from within to elevate him/herself. The flip side is fodder for negative feelings/conversations towards management.

Dick Seesel

All of Bob’s suggestions (and those offered by fellow panelists) are good ones. It’s about convincing entry-level associates that retail is a potential career — not just a job with a set of robotic tasks to be accomplished. Their heightened level of engagement will be apparent to shoppers, too, making that retailer a destination — not just a store.

Gene Detroyer

Bob’s suggestions are great. But there is one thing that his suggestions and those of my colleagues assume. That is that the associates want to be there and embrace their jobs.

Bob suggests after 90 days of a new store opening, “it’s just a job” starts to sink in. I believe for most people working at retail “it’s just a job” is where they start on day one.

Ralph Jacobson

I’m not certain this issue is anything new. In a slow-traffic store, how about selecting items of the day to push and create a short script to make the cross-sell or upsell more compelling? If there are customers in the store — HELP THEM! Like, really help them. Even if they say they don’t need help. Go away from them for a moment and bring an item back to them, and say, “Look what I found for you!” Just to get a sense of what they are looking for. Yes, being creative with time management also includes managing time when there is a ton of it on your staff’s hands.

Rich Kizer

Store owners and managers need daily interaction with associates on the sales floor before the store opens, and during store hours, to talk with associates about what is happening in the store that day. If the associates are in a daze, it’s because they are not being engaged. Isolation creates dysfunction; interaction creates involvement and triggers the brain into activity. Never forget: Those who look into the customer’s eyes every day will know a lot about how the store is perceived. That information is critical.

Shep Hyken

Anytime you do something over and over, it can become stale, if not even boring. Varying tasks and responsibilities is one way to break up the monotony. Social engagement between employees and between customers is helpful. By social engagement, I mean any relevant conversations or interactions. Some companies have music to help set a mood. All of the ways mentioned in the article can go a long way to cure “retail hypnosis.”

Doug Garnett

Great identification of a serious problem. But the solutions are too paternal. As an active and engaged mind, nothing would have led me to leave retail faster than managers using role play to fill dead time.

What’s not on the list, for example, is encouraging employees to use initiative to learn things related to your products. Perhaps learn to use them, learn to tie bow ties, learn to use the Cricut machine in Joann Fabric, learn …

The biggest boredom factor comes when people are not responsible for using their time wisely — but are led to expect that managers will demand they do mundane things.

My suggestion? Retailers should look for ways to make it clear to employees that initiative is expected and respected.

Bob Phibbs

Then I would suggest, if role-play turns you off that much you should never work in retail. How does a tennis star get great at tennis? They role play real situations over and over again till they can’t do it wrong. Sales associates have to do the same thing or they would default to, “can I help you find something?” That is the death of retail.

Doug Garnett

I don’t think I’ll be working on the floor of the store from here. That said, I’ve spent a lot of years selling and have never found role playing to be that useful. While simulations were brilliantly used with the early years of space to train mission control, there was a seriousness in that situation where they would make sense. Trying to help someone learn to sell more socks is a condition where role play seems silly to the average retail rep.

But my main point is about respecting employees. The paternal nature of all these recommended acts is sad to see — yet are an accurate reflection of the disrespect that has made the retail floor so dysfunctional.

My point: Respect employees. Encourage and reward them for taking initiative to learn things or explore applicable things during the dead time on the floor. But don’t put them through silliness. And, for me, role plays are silliness.

Bob Phibbs

Which begs the question how you could’ve understood what sales truly takes to begin with. Talk about sad to see

Ananda Chakravarty
Let me put a wrench into Bob’s assumption that retail associates are in some kind of zombie mode. I would think the exact opposite — especially right now during this hectic holiday season with 4 percent+ growth and an enormous number of new innovations coming to the stores. With all the new types of selling going on, and the general creativity of retail associates — there’s always new ways to sell, experiment with store layouts, put up new displays, and during the holidays a constant barrage of more than just customer stuff to do in the store. Add omnichannel, delivery, and pick and packs, plus receiving and backroom stocking and of course, cashiering at the cash wrap, there’s plenty of variety in what needs to be done. Good store reps know the discounts that are out there. They even know their competitor’s prices. When I was in retail, we didn’t have time to sit around twiddling our thumbs. There was always something to complete, something to do, and once in a while something to take… Read more »
Mel Kleiman

The article did a great job of defining what is causing retail hypnosis and even has some great suggestions. The ones that I would add are:

  1. Look for ways to have fun at work;
  2. Develop contests and competition between teams on a regular basis;
  3. Let your employees do the talking and run the morning huddle.
Mike Osorio

This is such an important discussion. The main message is to “mix it up.” Even using the Retail Doctor’s prescriptions, or any of the panelists’, becomes stale if used exclusively. The focus for retailers should be on developing front line supervisors and their direct line managers in creative leadership development. Front line leaders must have the capability and desire to constantly develop new ways to excite and energize the staff, using methods that are relevant for the diversity of today’s workforce. This is about culture and focus on in-store customer experience. It can be done, but take intentional effort on an ongoing basis.

"Using many of the tips in the article will certainly help avoid boredom, especially cross-training and role playing in the store."

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