Schooled By a Shoe Salesman

Tim Wackel


My wife and I are the proud parents of two great kids – a teen-age son and daughter. Our daughter is getting ready to start college next week, and our son is like almost every other 15-year-old, living life large with a lot of attention on comfort and few worries about appearance.

Last week I promised my son, Nicholas, that I would take him to the mall to buy new shoes. He loves to wear athletic shoes (or is still OK to call them sneakers?) and prefers to wear them until they fall apart at the seams.

This shopping trip was going to be different because Nicholas decided he would expand his closet and buy a pair of Top-Siders. (It seems these are making a bit of a comeback on high school campuses.) I figured we could find these at almost any department store, but was surprised to find only one store in the mall that carried a variety of sizes and styles that he was interested in.

I find myself standing in Nordstrom’s shoe department surrounded by hundreds of pairs of shoes and a few well-dressed, professional looking salesmen. One of the younger men working in the department approached us and asked, “What brings you into the store today?” What happened next was one of the better (and least expected) lessons in selling that I’ve experienced in quite some time.

I confess that I’ve never thought of retail as being much of a selling environment. Point customers in the right direction, answer a few questions about sizes and availability, ring up the order and you’re done. So what valuable lessons did I learn in Nordstrom that day? Here are the four principles that everyone will recognize, but few consistently apply.

1. Open questions close more business

The question that you are asked most often when you walk into a retail store is, “Can I help you?” This is a bad question, plain and simple. It’s closed and requires no thinking on your part. Most shoppers will simply blurt out “no” hoping to avoid premature pressure to buy something.

Let’s go back and look at what the Nordstrom shoes salesman asked: ”What brings you into the store today?” Not exactly rocket science but this question encouraged me to share that Nicholas was interested in divesting his collection of athletic shoes and wanted to look at some Top-Siders. A conversation was born. What style, size and color? When did he plan to wear them? Looking for something dressy or just something to kick around in?

Ask questions that are thought-provoking, not mind-numbing.

2.  Make it easy for customers to decide

Nicholas had pretty much lasered in on one particular style of shoe, but when the shoe salesman returned from the stockroom he had several boxes in tow.

Nick immediately tried on his favorite style and began walking the floor to check out the fit. I could tell by his expression that he felt the shoe looked better on the shelf than it did on his foot. The salesman also picked up on this and suggested that Nicholas try on one or two of the other styles that he had taken the liberty to bring out of stock. After all, they were right there and it wouldn’t take but a minute to check them out.

The second pair generated a more favorable response but the third pair was a home run. Give your customer painless choices. What looks good in the window doesn’t always look good on your foot. Think ahead and develop contingencies. You’ll be glad you did.

3. Look for unidentified needs 

Nick had picked out the right shoe, and we had the right size. We were ready to leave when the salesman asked permission to show us what he had in the remaining boxes he brought out of the stock room. He politely mentioned that he couldn’t help but notice how much “good use” Nick had gotten out of the shoes he was currently wearing. He then asked if my son would be interested in seeing some brand new athletic shoes in the latest back-to-school styles — need I say more?

Want to be more successful at up-selling? Read (and re-read) #3 above.

4. Would you like some fries with that?

Nick and I had our purchases picked out, and we were ready to leave when the young man pulled something out of his back pocket. As we walked to the register, he showed me (the economic buyer) a shoe tree and shared facts about how these beautiful cedar appliances will extend the life of Nick’s new shoes (assuming I can get him to use them!). I hadn’t expressed any interest in shoe trees but this sales professional picked up on my frustration with how fast Nick could destroy a pair of shoes. He had the courage and the smarts to offer something we both knew had value. What was the worst thing that could happen?

I left the store that day with a lighter wallet but I got a real "deal" on some great sales training. These four simple (but powerful) lessons have been around for a long time, but very few reps consistently apply them.

Are you looking for ideas on how to take your craft to the next level? If not, you should be. You'll be surprised by what you can learn and amazed at where these lessons can take place.

Tim Wackel is the founder and president of The Wackel Group, a training and consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations find, win and keep customers for life. You can find out more about his workshops at