You, Under the Retail Microscope

Photographer: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Black Friday shopping at a Walmart Superstore in Rosemead, California. Close

Black Friday shopping at a Walmart Superstore in Rosemead, California.

Photographer: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Black Friday shopping at a Walmart Superstore in Rosemead, California.

It’s the classic holiday face-off. On one side, you have the wary shopper, who is often “just browsing" and more and more likely to purchase only online. On the other, there's the salesperson, who is bent on persuading customers to buy in-store and to buy today -- but doesn't want to scare them off by being too aggressive.

To give their side an edge, stores bring in retail psychologists. Salespeople learn to be consumer therapists, armed with the right attitude and phrases -- along with just the right dose of empathy -- to sell to you now, and sell you more. Here are a few strategies shoppers might encounter this holiday season.

Salespeople spend a lot of time rehearsing opening lines. "You can't close if you can't open," says Harry Friedman, founder of the Friedman Group, which he says is the largest of the retail training companies. When a salesperson does start a conversation, it should be about anything but business. For example: “What’s the weather like outside?” or “Is the parking lot completely jammed yet?” Probably not wise: “Were you naughty or nice?” -- even though Friedman thinks some salespeople could pull it off.

Always be opening

To the relief of many a shopper, a well-trained salesperson will not approach a customer right away, says Paco Underhill, founder of behavioral research company Envirosell. Unless a shopper is making the universal signal for “Where the heck is a salesperson when you need them?” -- the looking up, the craning of the neck -- he or she should be left alone, at least initially. Don’t attempt to make a sale “when a customer has resistance to you,” Friedman tells sales staff.

Once a potential customer has loosened up, Underhill advises asking her to describe whom she's shopping for. That leads shoppers on what he calls a psychological “journey:” Since we’re now thinking specifically of our loved ones, we might buy better, and more expensive, gifts.

Stores urge staff to customize their openers, but they're not above basic profiling. They'll sort customers based on age, appearance and other factors. A common holiday profile is the shopper who looks out of place -- a man in a lingerie shop, for example.

Robin Lent, of Paris consulting firm AC3, says luxury brands are on the lookout for holiday clientele “a little less sophisticated in their dress and manners.” Millionaires and billionaires don't always look the part. Without training, high-end salespeople might ignore gift-givers willing to drop thousands of dollars just because they’re wearing Crocs.

Sell different

Empathy is used with particular gusto and finesse in Apple stores, if the Genius Training Student Workbook, an Apple manual uncovered by website Gizmodo, is an indication. (Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.) An hour in the 14-day training program is devoted to exactly the right way to ask questions. Budding Geniuses are told which words to use -- "feel" is encouraged -- and which to avoid. Talking about a computer “crashing”  is a no-no (it "stopped responding"). And Geniuses "do not apologize for the business [or] the technology." Instead, they respond to the customer's emotion and say things like, "I'm sorry you're feeling frustrated."  

Genius trainees are put through extensive "empathy exercises" and taught how to read customer body language. The manual lists positive and negative “Emotions Portrayed Through Nonverbal Gestures.” If a customer starts rubbing a nose or eye, a Genius may read that as a sign of "suspicion or secretiveness." And while an unbuttoned coat may be just an unbuttoned coat to most of us, it's a potential sign of cooperation to an Apple Store Genius.

A potential problem with such training? If shoppers suspect they're being "handled," it might turn them off. Customers notice when their questions aren’t being answered quickly, truthfully and directly, says consumer psychologist Bruce Sanders. Then again, maybe shoppers need to employ a little empathy themselves. A salesperson’s got to make a living.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Suzanne Woolley at

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