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When I was in high school and then in university, I used to work holidays at a small-town, family-owned clothing store. On one side of the store was the men’s wear; the ladies section occupied slightly more territory on the other side.


Now, here is the fundamental difference between the clients of a clothing store. Some come to shop; others come in to buy. Shopping often leads to focussed buying, but the intention of buying often precludes shopping. That means, for business survival, shopping and buying can be only part of the story. Selling is the real trick.


The problem on both sides of the store is that the profit margin on the big item (suits, dresses, coats, and so on) was usually pretty narrow. You had to compare favourably with the catalogue prices offered by Eaton’s and Simpson’s. If you could, then you got a sale. The real money – the money that kept the store floating – was made selling accessories.


Hats, scarves, lingerie, stockings, paste brooches, and the like were the money-makers on the ladies’ side. Socks, ties, underwear, shirts, tie clips, and cufflinks made the dough on the men’s.


That’s where the selling come in: once a suit was chosen, fitted, and marked for alterations – the customer standing there with his wallet out – a good sales clerk had already laid the suit jacket on top of the counter, slid a fresh new French-cuffed shirt into it, dropped the perfect tie on top, tucked in a pocket square, plopped cuff links on top, and set a package of fresh underwear and beautiful socks alongside. Sometimes, you even sold a hat.


The same thing happened with a skirt, for example: blouse, hose, underwear, belt, scarf, and a hat or sunglasses. There was rarely a word spoken – it was just the building of an image around the articles that had already been bought.


The extra sales? All high margin goods.


Results? Tripled profit.


The two old brothers who ran the store (one on the men’s side, the other the ladies’) could do everything in that store. They strove to think ahead, to bring in the merchandise that would be on-trend six months from now, but not too trendy to end up on the sale rack six months after that.


They taught us sales clerks that to be a leader of a team, you don’t have to do everyone’s job, but you better know how. We saw from their example that there was nothing beneath their notice – from sweeping up to re-folding cardigans so you looked busy if anyone happened to come in. I learned to letter signs, and make change, and wrap every purchase like a wonderful present – but most of all, to take time to get to know my customers.


It was an MBA course in merchandising, customer experience, sales, and marketing. Sometime soon, I’ll tell you about the insanity of Christmas in the store.

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