man looking at vintage records

Getting Past “Just Looking”

The most thought-provoking comment I’ve heard lately came just last week from the mouth of a four-year-old boy.

I was browsing through the men’s department of a mall store when the four-year-old appeared, holding his mother’s hand. A clerk asked the mother: “Can I help you?” and without dropping a beat the young boy replied: “Just looking.” Then the clerk turned and left.

I don’t know which stunned me more, the response of the child or the response of the clerk. Clearly, the boy thought that “just looking” was the proper response to give to a retail clerk; he had probably heard his mother offer the same response dozens of times. The clerk, upon hearing the words turned away, giving no thought to the fact that the words were said to him by a child.

The “can I help you – just looking” scenario is repeated thousands of times per day in retail stores all over the country. No one benefits from such an exchange: the clerk doesn’t make a sale and customer goes away frustrated, with their needs unmet. “Can I help you – just looking” traps both the seller and the buyer in an unproductive relationship.

Sales gurus have claimed for decades that the “just looking” response is a defense mechanism used against what consumers view as “pushy sales persons”. So, the gurus say, sales clerks should not open with the “can I help you” gambit, because it almost certainly assures the “just looking” response. I’m not so sure that this is true.

I’ve never entirely agreed with the gurus take on the “can I help you” opening. There are times when “can I help you” is a perfectly legitimate opening. Consider the following examples; in each, the needs of both customer and clerk are satisfied:

In a hardware store:
Clerk: Can I help you?
Customer: Yes, I need a half-inch PVC elbow.
Clerk: Yes sir; they’re right over here.

In a restaurant:
Clerk: Can I help you?
Customer: Cheeseburger and a cup of coffee, please.
Clerk: Of course. Would you like fries with that?

Consider, though, circumstances in which the “can I help you – just looking” scenario is a complete failure for both parties, and never gets beyond the opening “touch”:

In an antique shop:
Clerk: Can I help you?
Customer: Just looking.
Clerk goes back to his duties while the customer browses.

The difference between the above scenarios is easy to spot: In the first two, the customers knew what they wanted. In the third, the customer did not (or if they did, they didn’t let on). In our business, shoppers are often browsers. They’ve come in to see what we’ve got and whether anything interests them. They rarely have a particular purchase in mind when they come through our door. So, “can I help you” will almost always get the “just looking” response, and we will end up watching them wander around the shop and then leave without buying anything. Sometimes, not another word will be spoken between clerk and shopper for the duration of the visit.

“Just looking” actually means “I’m not entirely sure what I want.”
Some say that they would rather have customers who know what they want when they come through the door. I say I’d rather have most of my customers not know what they want. I’d like some customers who do know what they want, of course. But the way I see it, as long as I have what those customers want I’m going to sell them anyway. It’s the customers who don’t know what they want that offer me the opportunity to increase my sales.

A February 2014 survey by the customer relations firm TimeTrade indicates that when customers enter a store without a clear idea of what they want to buy, 85% will end up spending more money than they intended to spend, if they are helped by a knowledgeable sales clerk. If that’s true, then what is needed to capture those extra holiday sales is:

1. Knowledgeable sales clerks and
2. A system for engaging customers.

Usually, antique sales clerks are you & me, rather than hired help. It’s safe to assume that we are knowledgeable about the products we sell. If our stores are large enough or open often enough to require hired help, then regular and ongoing training for our employees is mandatory. Here are some guidelines to help your clerks avoid the “can I help you – just looking” trap:

Greet the customer pleasantly when they enter the store. Tell them to have a look around, and that you’ll be right with them. By so doing, you have acknowledged their presence (no one likes to be ignored) and encouraged them to “look around” (which is what they planned to tell you they were going to do anyway).

Let the customer “settle” on an item before you approach them, but don’t assume that they are looking at the item because they want to buy it, or that they can’t afford what they are looking at. Nothing is more off-putting than an antique dealer whose opening line is “that price is negotiable”.

Establish a person-to-person relationship before you get down to business. Introduce yourself, and ask if this is their first visit to your store, and what brought them in. If they don’t offer their name, don’t push for it. The purpose of this opening is to get the customer comfortable with you, not dig for their personal information.

Be conversational. You want to be seen as a person, not a selling machine. Get the customer talking about what they collect, and why they collect it. Dale Carnegie teaches that the best way to start a conversation is to ask someone about their interests. Remember, customers buy from people that they know, like and trust. Customers can sense when you’re being disingenuous. Be natural.

Ask questions. Are they buying for themselves, or are they buying a gift? What have they seen that they liked? Move from general questions to specific questions until you discover (together) what items the customer might like to add to their collection or give as a gift. If the customer doesn’t want to talk, leave them alone; just tell them that you are available if they have questions. You can’t help them if they won’t talk to you, though.

Of course, the whole purpose of this exercise is to break down the “wall” that exists between a salesperson and a customer. Customers come into your shop because they like antiques and collectibles (or maybe they just want to get in out of the rain). You have to engage them if you are going to help them make a selection. No engagement = no sale. Even if they don’t buy, they become comfortable with you and your store and will happily shop there again. After all, when was the last time they got gracious service at a Big Box store?

Once you acquire the habit of avoiding the “can I help you – just looking” trap, you will find yourself building relationships as you build sales. You may even become adept at baffling four-year-olds.

Previously published in Antique Trader Magazine


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