Top Ten Tips for Retail Elves

Cynthia Compton -- December 12th, 2018

We’re in the home stretch, fellow Santa staff and holiday helpers, and I’m proud to know each and every one of you. With just two weeks to go (plus or minus your store’s Christmas Eve special hours, or Christmas Day service — I’m looking at you, airport and resort stores) we will be putting the last few boxes on the sleigh very, very soon, and settling down for our own long winter’s nap. I wanted to use my post this week (which you won’t have time to read, but you can forward it to one of your elf-interns) to cover a few key reminders for success in this tinsel-covered marathon.

  1. Eat something. As our friend Josie Leavitt reminded us yesterday in Snacks at the Store, calories are important. If you can’t pack a lunch, order one in. It will be cold by the time you get to eat it, but just knowing that’s there’s food nearby sometimes helps. Do not skip breakfast, and rethink your prejudices about what constitutes “morning food” and “dinner.” Leftover pizza is great before 8 a.m., and there is nothing wrong with oatmeal before bed.
  2. You haven’t had enough water. Between the dry air created by the heating systems in our stores, the all day book-talking, and the increase in wine consumption after hours (okay, that last part might just be me), you are dehydrated and need another glass of water. Also, not to be indelicate, but more hydration makes it necessary to visit the restroom… and that might be the only time alone you get right now.
  3. Don’t look at the numbers every day. All right, don’t look at them every hour. This is a tough one, but this time of year, we have a tendency to treat our POS system totals like a giant box score. Just like baseball, however, we have to play all nine innings, and the home runs in the first and third may not be the game winners, but that RBI in the 9th might be just the path to the playoffs. (Fellow football fans, I would like some high-fives for all those baseball metaphors, because you know that I really wanted to write something about the game going four quarters, and the final drive, and not to overlook the special teams play at the after hours events…. but I didn’t. Prudence and self control are two other keys to success in the 4th quarter.) Seriously, the daily sales numbers will change from year to year because of weather, local events and general mood of the public. December 12th of 2018 might have NOTHING TO DO with December 12th of last year — but if I let myself get all caught up in “besting” a single day’s numbers, I might let that failure spill over into tomorrow, and the day after that. So instead, let’s look at the average transaction amount. Of the customers that you did see, did they buy more or less? And is there a trend in that amount? Is that trend something you can use to train your staff to improve? How many of those sales netted an email address for the newsletter list, a pre-order for a later release, or a membership in your preferred customer program?
  4. Do all the jobs, a little bit. Between taking all the “important” phone calls, and putting out all the fires with publishers, vendors, events, and the press….it’s quite possible for store owners to pull themselves completely off the sales floor during the holidays. Get yourself on the schedule, and be disciplined about it, even if it’s less time than you would normally spend. There’s a few reasons for this advice, but mostly, it’s to remind ourselves of why we love this work. Knowing “just the book” for a customer, or spending 10 minutes finding a title in an area that you don’t know anything about, or hearing their story of why they want to read a certain thing… that’s the smile that will carry you through the day and into the dark. Those are the stories that you will think about when you finally get to go to sleep, and those are the moments that “bookselling” becomes both a verb and a calling.
  5. Don’t do everything. You have trained and groomed employees all year, and this is the time to let them shine and step into their skills. Can you delegate some of your standard re-orders? Can you let your part-timers re-merchandise a section that got hit hard on the weekend? Can you let frontline staff run the staff meeting, and you sit in back? Are there stacks on your desk? Give your most super organized person an hour or two off the floor to file everything. Let them do their best stuff, and then you can face the “to do” stack with fresh eyes.
  6. Decide about music and wrapping paper ahead of time, and stick to your choices. I select our store gift wrap in September, but I only order it several counter rolls at a time… just enough to net free shipping. I pick enough to have two different kinds enter the rotation each 8-10 days, which keeps everyone happily picking out coordinating ribbon colors. Similarly, I put together the store music collections prior to the season, and pull out new CDs each week to add to the box under the player. For me, the key is to have holiday-ish music that is all instrumental, which sounds good at any volume. Other stores do Spotify playlists, or only play music that they sell in the store. By the way, you need new scissors, and that’s not enough tape in the supply closet.
  7. Staff schedules will change, and you will probably need more help at times that you don’t expect. If there are former employees, family members, or very very good friends that you can call and bring in for an evening to “learn the ropes”… do so. Missing your family annual trip to The Nutcracker or your kids holiday concert to cover the register for two hours is a bitter bargain, indeed.
  8. You will not make everyone happy about everything this season, or frankly, ever. You will also not “ruin the holiday” for anyone. You will do your best, and it will be better than any online algorithm, big box planogram, or impersonal box-of-the-month program. Your personal knowledge, your kindness, and your dedication to literacy are the best gift that any of your customers will receive.
  9. Take notes. Whether it’s a couple of scribbled lines on the daily cash register closing report (“it snowed today, get more shovels and salt next year) or a notebook that you keep by the register for your entire staff to jot things down (“Emily REALLY LIKES the peppermint white chocolate kisses, and we need more AAA batteries if we’re going to keep those candle things in the windows at night) or just red circles around Inventory Sold reports (MORE ADVENT CALENDARS. MORE!), let each year’s wisdom build.
  10. Most of the time, we love what we do. We love it so much that we sacrifice our evenings, our weekends, and our feet (note: shoes are important, too) to bookselling. We guard our independence fiercely, we welcome our customers and community with open hearts, and we invest our dollars and our energy into our stores. We love them. This holiday season, let your store love you back. Make your salary, your bonus, your time off after the 4th quarter real and tangible. If finances don’t allow for all of those, commit to a financial plan that makes it so. Make your holiday merry, this year and next, and let’s create generations of bookselling elves together.
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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, the walker of 5 dogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She is a current board member of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

One thought on “Top Ten Tips for Retail Elves

  1. Kenny Brechner

    Great stuff Cynthia. A quick addendum.
    2a: (Not that this is coming from personal experience or anything) but if you are dehydrated from indoor heating, book talking, and nocturnal wine consumption apart from drinking more water you might want to put on some lip balm now and again.

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