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Why Department Stores Must Sell Service First

Department stores invoke memories of a simpler time.

I think back to the history of some of the most storied American brands such as JC Penney, Nordstrom, and Macys.  These are iconic brands – a part of our social fabric and the precursor to the modern super stores.  But for many, like me, there is something romantic about shopping for clothes in a store that still has folks onsite to help you match a tie or take measurements.

For me, my fondest memory was my mom taking me to JC Penney to shop for my high school graduation suit.  I remember picking out the shirt and tie and the whole “process” of selecting that charcoal grey suit and being fitted for measurements.  I can’t stop by a clothier for a suit without thinking back to that experience at some point during the visit.

And that is what sticks – not the suit style or width of the tie – but the service.  I remember how important the sales associate made me feel while he was helping figure out if  I wanted cuffs or no cuffs (cuffs, by the way).  I think that might have been one of the first “grown up” experiences I had.

It is key for department stores of all kinds to understand the personal connection that many folks can form with their business.  It is easy for them to be associated with special events like holidays and celebrations.

Let’s take a walk through the clothing and home wares aisles and see what we can all learn about delivering excellence in this arena.  Remember there is something we can learn from every organization about excellence.


THE MISSION: Everyone needs something – whether it be new plates, a fresh suit, or that special gift for Christmas.  Remember that you are not just filling up someone’s shopping cart with “stuff.”  You are helping parents find that gift that will make children light up with delight on Christmas morning.  You are selling the final touches for an important dinner party  celebrating the big promotion.  You are helping a high school senior pick out a suit that he’ll wear with pride across the stage to get his diploma.  So that’s the tip that always pays the biggest dividends – embrace that bigger mission and watch as your Guests come to depend on your for all the special events in their lives.

THE GUEST PERSPECTIVE: There is something very personal for all of us about shopping for the clothes we wear or the items that use to decorate our homes.  For some it is an escape to head out for a day of shopping and trying on new clothes (and for others a total chore).  Guests are looking for folks who can help them make the process easier, no matter whether they are shopping for fun or out of necessity.  Make sure that you have your aisles clearly marked, that you keep like items together, and that your team is ready to assist.  Many folks love the idea of having a “personal shopper” and appreciate it when sales Associates go the extra mile to understand their sense of style to help them find the perfect shoes or place setting.  Customers are always looking to use brick-and-mortar stores to window shop for things they ultimately buy online, so be sure you know what the online retailers are pricing their items at so you can complete.

Also borrow some of the most valued portions of the online shopping experience – the quick check out.  Just because department stores don’t live online doesn’t mean they can’t embrace the technology.  Find ways to integrate self service, cashless payment methods, and digital checkouts – even in physical spaces.

THE PITFALLS: It is easy to take for granted that Customers will always need brick and mortar institutions, but the technological advances from online merchants continues to amp up the competition.  Web based retailers are using multiple points of view, quick shipping, and discounted pricing to lure in Customers.  In fact, they challenge traditional retailers even right down to the level of service and follow up provided.

The biggest pitfall can come when street front department stores either take their Guests for granted or fail to embrace technology to improve the Guest experience.

HOW TO WIN: Customer service is, as always, the great point of differentiation.

When it comes to the Department Store industry, there is a premium placed upon service by those who shop there.  That means embracing several of the most important tenants – none more important than attentive, intuitive service.

Keep an eye out for those who look like they need a hand.  This is a fantastic way to make folks feel welcome and to ensure they have what they need.  Most often, folks will search and suffer in silence, but if Associates take the time to inquire with those who have “that lost look,” they’ll find that Guests are more apt to ask questions.

This is the dichotomy of the department store business.  Guests will want you to be quick on the draw to welcome and engage them, then take your time providing a deep level of individual service, then know when to close the interaction and leave them to move on.  Finally, a speedy check out and minimal hassles (short on credit card offers or lackluster incentive programs) is a great note on which to end.

Keep in mind that the basics absolutely cash the check here:  Sincere welcomes, great thank yous, engaging body language, and positive phrases win the day every time.

So this is week 5 in our 10 week series – in case you missed any of the past articles, you can click to them right here:

Next week we bring clarity to success in the airline business.  This will definitely be one that you don’t want to miss as we are cleared for take off with this competitive, and often criticized, industry.

Until then, remember to treat every Guest like a cherished friend and have a powerful Customer service week.


Tony Johnson is a Customer Experience Expert, Keynote Speaker, and Author with a wide background including decades in retail and restaurants.  He regularly speaks and coaches organizations to IGNITE THEIR SERVICE PASSION using his common sense approach to Customer engagement.  Tony has spoken to government agencies and Fortune 500 companies to unlock their amazing capacity for excellence.

Check out Tony’s FREE Resources and Training Tools: Web: YouTube: Twitter:

Check out Tony’s book: RECIPE FOR SERVICE Now Available on

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