Unlike many kids who work a retail job during their teenage years, I did not have my first experience in a store until my mid-to-late 30s. It was an eye-opening experience that showed me both the best and worst of humanity.
In my two years running New England's largest toy and hobby store, I spent a lot of time interacting with customers and employees. I saw people of all ages experience the delight of discovery, and the type of joy that's usually reserved for little kids. I also witnessed just how petty, awful, and unaware of their fellow humans a few people can be.
The customer is everything
The old retail mantra, "the customer is always right," doesn't quite cover it. In practice, the real trick is how you handle things when the customer is wrong.
For example, we sold radio-controlled cars that were pretty easy to break. Once they left the store, any repairs became the customer's responsibility, and if the damage was a manufacturer's defect, the customer was supposed to call the manufacturer.
That's a sensible policy, but in practice, many people spent hundreds of dollars to buy something that their child then quickly broke. It's easy to point to policy (it was posted everywhere and discussed before a sale was made), but in reality, our repair department made many repairs for free. In addition, while it wasn't a revenue source, we also devoted countless hours to show kids (and sometimes adults) how to make simple repairs, and how not to break their cars in the first place.
Treat everyone well
The vast majority of our customers were delightful. A few, however, forgot that store employees are actually people who deserve respect. We had one older gentleman whose hobby was building miniature wooden radios. That, as you might imagine, is not a popular hobby and our supply of wood (which was extensive) never quite met his needs.
Instead of sitting down with the department head, or asking to see me, he regularly called whoever waited on him "stupid" for not having what he needed. His treatment brought at least one employee to tears and led to me taking him aside and telling him that if he could not be respectful, he would have to shop elsewhere.
It worked, sort of. The customer proceeded to tell me how stupid I was and how many other hobby shops (of which there were none in the area) would be eager for his business. He left, promising to never be back, but returned a few weeks later, shopping quietly without insulting anyone.
Serve your customer
As I watch chains go out of business during the so-called retail apocalypse, I see one common trait among many of them. They don't go to extremes for their customers.
In my two-year retail journey, I was lucky to serve a very devoted customer base. People loved our store and we made every effort to love them back.
That's not as easy it sounds since it requires a level of constant vigilance. For example, when a regular did not come in, it took some sleuthing to learn that he or she was sick, or had experienced some misfortune. Once we knew, however, we could send a care package, or even just a card expressing our best wishes.
Being attuned to customer needs also required sacrifice. I opened the store alone on more than one Easter in order to service the part of our customer base that had nothing else to do on what can be a lonely day. We also tried to stay open to the last moment possible before storms and leading up to holidays. That often meant sacrificing time with our own families (or getting stuck in the store due to bad weather) but those sacrifices bought loyalty from our customers.
All work is valuable
Running a single-location business, even a large one, puts a manager in close contact with his or her employees. That shows you exactly how important and difficult every job is. It also gives you the opportunity to roll up your sleeves and pitch in.
For much of the year, I spent a decent part of my day managing. I ordered inventory, scheduled staff, and generally served as the boss. On weekends, however, when we got busy, I worked the floor, manned the register, stocked shelves, and directed traffic in our parking lot.
During the holiday season, my managing work was done late at night or early in the morning. When the store was open (and we extended our hours dramatically) it was all hands on deck where any job was fair game for any person.
More business leaders should leave their offices and do the work their employees do every day. You will learn things that you will never figure out sitting in an office. For example, I learned that when we were busy, employees did not have enough time to organize food orders for their lunch breaks. That was solved with pizza paid for by the company, or other takeout orders put together by me.
Little things matter and happy employees equals happy customers. As a boss, getting your hands dirty increases your appreciation for your staff, while also showing you little ways you can make their lives better.
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