What I Learned From Selling To Over 50,000 Shoppers

Ask any retailer. There is nothing better than getting onto the shop floor and talking to shoppers.

During my time on the front line of retail, I would estimate that I have interacted with over 50,000 shoppers. While working in hospitality, I probably interacted with more. All of these interactions have provided some key learnings that Shopper Research often falls short of finding. It enabled me to develop approaches to improve conversion, transaction values and hit my targets.

While working on the shop floor at DSGI, I developed a unique but highly effective mnemonic (S.P.A.C.E.) to sell any PC to anyone with a vague interest in buying one. It didn’t matter who that shopper was, where they came from or their financial position. The system worked.

A PC was the highest ticket item in the store and I had an approach that consistently delivered. It become so effective at converting shoppers into buyers that others began to adopt the system and they too began to have the same results.

Whilst I am not about to share that Mnemonic in this post, I will share the very essence of what the system did. The letters had a very specific role and if I used all 5 in the right sequence, I had the greatest chance of converting them into buyers.

Of the letters that make up the S.P.A.C.E. mnemonic:

  • 1 removedthe barriers to purchasing
  • 2 dispelled the fears of purchasing
  • 2 covered the most important features for PC buyers

How did this method arise? By listening to shoppers, spotting consistencies and identifying patterns. Shopper research would not have uncovered this approach because what shoppers tell you in research and how they actually behave during the sale process are often very different.

So what has selling to over 50,000 shoppers taught me?

1 – You Must Remove The Fear – Give Them Permission To Buy

Shoppers often have a fear of buying. I know this sounds crazy because they are probably in the store looking at products. Fear of buying is a hurdle that people often have to overcome. Think about the last time you made a significant purchase – did you end up weighing up the decision? Or put off the decision until a later time?

Overcoming this fear grants the shopper permission to buy.

Looking at online retail, the hesitancy is there too. Expedia’s study showed that on average, people visit 38 sites before making a purchase. Another study suggests that shoppers will visit a retailer’s website 9 times before making a purchase. Why do people not take instant action when browsing the website? Because there is an underlying fear.

Personal selling within a store will often short-circuit that fear. Getting a shopper from “just looking” to walking out of the door with the product in one visit is a common occurrence. To do this, you need to break down the fear that prevents them from purchasing.

Whatever the value of the purchase, the shopper wants to know that they are spending well.

To break down the fear, you need to tap into the 1 biggest reason for not shopping for that category. Price is not that reason.

For computers, the biggest fear was the fear of complexity. Overcome complexity when selling PC’s and you remove that first barrier and they become open to the idea of making a purchase.

2 – Give them confidence and certainty

So, now you have the shopper open to the idea of buying a product. What next?

Well, they now need to be given confidence that if they buy, they will be choosing the RIGHT product. They need to feel certain that this product is the right thing for them. It would be easy to assume that it is just a case of matching the product features to their need. More often than not, that is not the case.

With PC’s it meant tapping into answering the things that the shopper must know to be confident and certain. In this scenario it was all about aftercare – service (reassurance), upgradeability (future proofing) or something like the Dyson vacuum cleaner, validation from other shoppers (confirmation).

The ultimate confidence builder is validation by others or word of mouth recommendation.

I remember selling Dyson vacuum cleaners. I would be explain the benefits and the shopper would be trying to make the final decision. The Dyson was often more than double the value they had come into spend. So many times another shopper would walk past and say “I bought one of those… they are amazing”. The person I was trying to sell to would turn around to me and say “yes, I will buy it”. It was such a frequent phenomenon, I decided to do my marketing degree dissertation on it.

Want further proof that validation is a factor? Notice that customer reviews are important on sites like Amazon? Or Tripadvisor? People read those reviews because they want to feel sure that what they buy will be the right thing.

Something that proved to be interesting was that the older the shopper, the more important certainty becomes. Older shoppers have been there, done that and made a lot of purchasing mistakes over the years. Older shoppers will therefore take their time on making their final decision and will require more convincing.

3 – Confirm their requirements

For shoppers to become buyers, they will want to know that the product has the key features they require. There are usually 2 key reasons for purchasing. Certainly for PC’s there are 2 key reasons why shoppers were buying. Cover those reasons, along with points 1 and 2 and you, as they say, have done the hard yards.

Find the 2 most common reasons for buying the product, create and practice compelling stories around them and you will find that might just be enough to convert the shopper. 

So to summarise:

Remove the fear

  • Find the one barrier to purchase for your category
  • Overcome the barrier
  • Enable the permission to buy

Create a feeling of confidence and a sense of certainty

  • Think beyond features and benefits
  • Valiedate their decision to purchase the product
  • Older shoppers can often be more skeptical

Confirm their requirements

  • Acknowledge their “why” for buying the product
  • Focus on 2 key reasons
  • Show them how 2 key features confirm their requirements

So How Does This All Apply to Travel Retail?

When we consider the above and look at Travel Retail, straight away there some obvious issues. The points below are observations based on our travels and in-store interactions.

  • Lack of information

Quite often, there is little in the way of on shelf information. Product is lined up on shelves and the packaging has to do the talking. If the shopper cannot make an informed decision, there will be uncertainty and a barrier to purchasing.

I have been in stores where a $1,000 Whisky has been sat next to a $100 Whisky. What makes one better than the other? If you are new to the category, how would you know?

  • Lack of staff

In some situations there are no staff available. When staff have been available, they often do not have the ability to actively sell. If the sales person lacks confidence to sell the product, it will create a barrier to shopping.

  • Lack of questions

In most situations, the member of staff doesn’t ask any questions about the needs and wants of the shopper. If you do not uncover the key requirements you are not going to satisfy 3 elements of the method I used. This will lead to the shopper walking away.

  • Lack of product knowledge

This is a big one. Product knowledge is key to making a sale in physical retail. If you do not have the knowledge or the confidence to talk about the product, the shopper will turn to the internet for answers. Does this mean you need to be an expert? No. Does it mean you need to ‘sharpen the saw’ and keep learning? Indeed it does.

In travel retail, the shopper has a limited amount of time to discuss the product. This means that the sales person isn’t likely to need to get into the technicalities of top, middle and bottom notes of a specific fragrance. An understanding of how fragrances work might be sufficient.

Within Travel Retail, the product knowledge varies of course. This will be dependent on whether the staff are the retailer’s, the brands or agency.

  • Lack of co-ordination

Almost every shop floor in Travel Retail has a key role missing (or if they are there, they are not visible). The SFM or the Sales Floor Manager. The SFM acts like the conductor of an orchestra. A highly experienced retailer can see very quickly whether the shop floor is on-point. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all the shelves are clean. It means that staff are finely tuned, operating well and not stood in huddles chatting.

  • Going straight for the deal regardless of what the shopper wants

I have stood in store and watched this so many times. A member of staff will be approached by a shopper and is asked a question. The member of staff instantly points the shopper to the latest offer or deal, regardless of the needs of the shopper. This usually means that shoppers are traded down leading to lost revenue. Money is being left on the table.

  • No hunger, drive or focus

Very often there is a visible lack of hunger or drive within the staff on the shop floor. They get paide regardless of whether they talk to shoppers or not. When sales people cannot influence their own pay, they will end up chatting with each other to pass the time instead of the customers.

A good recruiting policy, a strong SFM and an incentive driven sales team will ensure that there is desire and hunger for the sale.

Why I Believe Online Has Gained A Foothold

In this post, we have established that there are 3 key elements to achieve a sale in a physical store. The salesperson needs to:

  • Remove the fear of purchasing
  • Create the feeling of confidence
  • Confirm that they are buying the right product

When these 3 things are not completed, the shopper will:

  • Visit lots of websites to research the products for themselves
  • More visits will over time create a sense of justification
  • Seek validation through reviews gives the shopper the sense of confidence
  • Purchase what they need

The in-store retail experience has left a gap that online is filling. It might be doing that inefficiently (if Expedia’s study is anything to go by) but it works for most people. With smartphones, you can find anything you need eventually.

In an in-store environment, if the sales process is done correctly, the shopper can:

  • Be short circuited to make a decisions there and then
  • Influenced to have a feeling of confidence to buy and be validated
  • traded up to a more suitable product

What Should Travel Retail Do?

 To overcome these challenges, Travel Retail should:

  • Rethink the merchandising strategy to help educate shoppers in the absence of staff
  • Ask yourself, does this display explain the category? brand? segment?
  • Train sales people with an adaptable formula to sell any product to anyone (we have a retail one that has a proven track record)
  • Keep staff informed about product category developments
  • Share new developments
  • Use revision updates to refresh understanding
  • Incentivise staff to create a sense of drive, focus and hunger
  • Create the SFM role to drive the front line teams

I want to share one final thought. When you have spent time talking to thousands of people in store, you get a feel for the market. Our team have front-line experience in travel retail over many many years and talking to thousands of travellers over the years. I can’t help feeling like shopper research in our industry has been asking the wrong questions. 

In the past I have talked about how Travel Retail is entering a new era. Maybe it is time for Shopper Research in our channel to do so too. It is a question we have raised with brands and retailers and we have been met with a surprising level of agreement. It is clear that a different approach is needed. Do we hope for change? Or do we lead by example? Time will tell.

As ever, thank you for reading and sharing . If you have any thoughts and ideas on this topic, please feel free to contact me.


Have a great week.


Founder & Managing Director
One Red Kite Limited

Author of “Travel Retail : The Insider’s Guide”
Click here to buy a signed copy
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Image Credit : Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

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