Calmer Store, Higher Christmas Profits

Phillip Perry Square Headshot
photo of an ornament on a Christmas tree

It’s the busiest season of the year for retailers — and the most stressful. If the time between Black Friday and Christmas can make or break a store, success to a large extent depends on effective customer engagement by a motivated staff. 

Too often, alas, frustrated and distracted employees deal poorly with the public. That can affect revenues. Customers are less likely to buy when the staff is clearly not having a good time, and profits can soften further when frazzled employees call in sick, leaving a skeletal staff to deal with shoppers frustrated by reduced service levels.

What causes holiday stress? For starters, employees are under pressure to keep up with the season’s requisite parties and shopping trips—events that need to be shoehorned into schedules already stretched by extended work hours. At the same time, a greater number of customers are clamoring for attention. And those customers, feeling pressure from their own holiday activities, tend to be less forgiving about employee errors and omissions. 

The result: Plenty of angst. “Everything comes together to create a high level of stress in the store,” says Doug Fleener, president of Dynamic Experiences Group, a consultancy in Lexington, Mass. 

Calm your team

You can take steps to reduce the level of stress in your own store. Start by seeking advice from the people on the front lines — they’re the people who have the best sense of the bad things that can happen during the holiday season. “Ask employees for recommendations on ways to reduce stress,” suggests Anne Obarski, director of Merchandise Concepts, a retail consulting firm in Dublin, OH. 

A few ideas you might hear:

  • Try to accommodate the employees’ packed routines. Ask,“What schedule works for you? We will try to work around that.” 
  • Offer shopping time. Your staff needs to do its own shopping. But when? Finding the hours can be particularly difficult for those dedicated personnel who want to give your store their best efforts. Why not give each employee two hours of “paid leave” which they can use to get their own shopping done? And encourage them to shop early so they are not stressed out the last week before Christmas. 
  • Decompress. Encourage employees to take their scheduled breaks and lunch hours. “Consider having lunch catered the last couple of weekends before Christmas,” says Fleener. “That way, employees don’t have to leave the store. They can go to a quiet back room and relax with a TV or music playing.” 
  • Create a mentor system. New and temporary employees can be bewildered as they try to learn new routines on a bustling sales floor. Select mentors from your strongest and longest serving employees.  Reward each mentor with a bonus. 
  • Staff up. Make sure there are enough people on board at peak hours. Train everyone on techniques for dealing with more than one customer at the same time. 
  • Schedule “on duty” managers. Make sure someone is responsible for running the sales floor at all times. “If you are not careful, your store can become a runaway train,” Fleener says. “Always have a designated engineer who spots and resolves problems.” Example: When seeing a stressed customer in the checkout line, the manager might pull the individual aside and ring up the sale with a handheld device. 
  • Create a relaxed environment. Explore ideas such as providing soft drinks and cookies, playing soothing holiday background music. 
  • Have fun. Customers will shop at a store where they have fun. And customers won’t have fun unless employees are having fun. So why not plan for it? 

Creating a fun store environment means more than holding a store party. Make it an ongoing effort. Maybe you award a weekly “worst customer” pin to the employee who deals with the most difficult shopper. Or each week people wear an item of clothing of a designated color, or eye-catching party hats. Maintain interest by changing the activity in some way each week. 

Practice makes perfect

Rehearse routines for dealing effectively with frazzled customers, says Obarski. Start by asking your employees to recall the most frustrating sales situations from last year’s holiday season. Perhaps a customer demanded an exception to your store’s return policy. Or another exploded in anger about a stock out, and then demanded to see the manager. And how about that fellow who threatened to post an online review slamming your store? 

“For each scenario discuss an appropriate employee response,” suggests Obarski. Then rehearse it. “Have one employee pretend to be the difficult customer and let another employee walk through the suggested sequence.” This kind of advance preparation can smooth the way for customer engagements, defusing tensions and facilitating more sales.

Time-pressed customers often become angry at delays that result when store personnel need to consult with upper management before answering a question or granting a request. Make sure experienced sales associates are empowered to make decisions so they don’t have to disappoint customers with responses such as: “I don’t know. I have to ask the managers and they aren’t here today.” 

Why not come up with a list of the top 10 most commonly asked questions during the holidays? Some candidates might be these: “Why is this item ten dollars cheaper at the store down the street?” “Why don’t you open up another sales register to handle this line?” Or: “Can the recipient of this gift return it to the store without a receipt?” Add these questions—along with appropriate responses—to your employee training sessions.

Once the season is underway, follow through on your great preparations by reminding people of what they have learned. “Get together each morning before the store opens,” suggests Tom Shay, a retail consultant in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Discuss what is going to happen and remind everyone that customers will be stressed.”

Bonus tip: Once the season is over, hold a follow-up meeting to discuss everyone’s experience. What new customer encounters should be added to next year’s response routines? 

Top down

Success starts at the top. You can’t expect your employees to be stress-free if you are a nervous wreck. Take steps now to get yourself in a positive mindset.

How to? “First and foremost, try to eliminate distractions before the holidays begin,” says Fleener. “Get the back room in good shape and get your office cleaned up so by Black Friday you are in a position to focus on your customers and your employees.”

Be an early bird. “Try getting to work a half hour earlier to knock out any work that needs to be done before the store opens,” suggests Fleener. “When you plan for a good successful day you are much more likely to have one. So outline your day in detail. Who will run registers? Who will stand at the door? Who will restock shelves? A couple extra minutes in planning can make all the difference.

Reduce your own stress by assigning some tasks to others. Delegation is critically important during the holiday season, says Obarski. “Consider areas of inventory control and merchandising, for example. Start training your best people early. Keep asking them ‘How can I help you get better at this?’”

Don’t neglect your personal life. “Maintain your outside schedule and keep doing whatever it is that keeps you grounded,” says Fleener. “Maybe it’s going to the gym or to church. Maybe it’s taking walks. Don’t let yourself get so busy that you are not doing those things, because they help you deal with stress.”

All of the tips in this article revolve around a central theme: Reducing holiday stress can improve profits by creating positive dynamics among managers, employees and shoppers. “Customers do not come to your store just to buy stuff,” says Shay. “They want the experience of engaging with employees in fun and rewarding ways.” Creating a stress-free retail environment helps them do just that.

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