I earned my retail chops (literally) working as a butcher’s assistant during my college summers in a small grocery in my hometown of Maplewood, NJ. For four years, four months a year (plus holiday breaks), often seven days a week, eight hours a day, and time-and-a-half on Sundays, I endured a baptism by hungry customers, bloody smocks, cold freezers, steamy dumpsters, crazy coworkers, cuts and nicks, and union rules. My tenure provided a crash course in learning how to “work,” from punching a clock to being the low man on the totem pole (hosing out smelly fat cans in 90-degree heat), following orders, and taking the high road—even when the customer wasn’t right.
The butcher shop is where I learned what I now consider the Golden Rules of retail. They’ve come in handy during my 27 years managing a retail trade magazine because, if the past three decades have taught me anything, it’s that retail is retail, be it a butcher shop or a shoe store. Aside from the blood and sawdust on the floor, the demands, challenges, needs, and physicality of those jobs are surprisingly similar. While I’d never call my rules gospel, I’m confident that anyone who’s ever worked a customer-facing job can relate and commiserate.
Rule 1. Retail is Hard Work. Our customers often came in waves, especially on weekend nights when commuters, returning from
New York, poured off trains and dashed into the store to get something they could throw on the grill. Daytime weekends were no picnic either. Customers swarmed our glass counter like locusts, waiting for their ticket numbers to be called. They fired a barrage of orders for ground beef, patties, porterhouses, sirloins, flanks, ribeyes, filet mignon, chops, roasts, chickens (usually cut in eighths), kabobs, briskets, cutlets, handmade sausage links, tripe (yuck), smelt (worse), calves’ brains (why?), schools of fish, shellfish, etc. You had to know your cuts and move fast. You were on your feet for hours, with just two mandatory 15-minute breaks and a lunch hour. By the end of a shift, you were cooked.
Rule 2. Retail is Show Business. Running a retail operation is like staging a performance every day. Each morning, before our doors opened, we prepped for what would be an 11-hour show. Our audience could be demanding, but we strived to send them to the checkout aisles satisfied. That required trimming cuts just so and packaging orders neatly in butcher wrap. Our shop was all about the personal touch. Many customers were on a first-name basis with our butchers—a few would wait until their favorite was free to help them. The shopping experience was a sharp contrast to the larger supermarkets nearby, where it was a self-service, cellophane-packaged exchange. That might have been a few bucks cheaper, but it was dull and impersonal.
Rule 3. Be Respectful. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned during my butcher shop days was to have empathy for anyone working in retail. While clerks are there to serve customers’ needs, they are not servants. These hard-working individuals should be treated with respect and decency. I don’t abide by the notorious “customer is always right” maxim. If someone has a bad day, it doesn’t give them license to take their frustration out on a retail employee. By the way, this rule works both ways: Retail employees must show respect and decency to customers, too.
Rule 4. There is No I in Team. I first heard this preached by coaches when I was a kid, but it applies to retail, too. A retail operation requires teamwork and following the chain of command. The staff must work in concert, each performing their roles, for a business to succeed. It only takes one bad smelt to stink up the whole operation. Of course, a good leader who communicates and treats employees well can prevent much potential trouble from happening. Three corollaries: Recognize, reward, and retain good employees whenever possible.
Rule 5. Retail is Essential. It took a pandemic to shine a light on how critical retail is to daily life. As soon as stores went into lockdown, society realized what it had taken for granted. And while online retailing helped fill the void and continues to serve a purpose, millions of consumers have returned to shopping in stores. It’s evidence that retail is much more than a transaction. It’s entertaining, informative, and helpful. It’s also experiential, supports local economies, is more eco-friendly than online sales, and, perhaps most important, enables much-needed human interaction.
You’ll find many more Golden Rules of retail in this issue, which celebrates the winners of the 24th annual Plus Awards. Featured
are Lifetime Achievement award recipient Prasad Reddy, CEO of Twisted X Global Brands, whose shoe industry career spans 50-plus years (p. 12); Lori Andre, owner of Lori’s Shoes and winner of the
Boutique category (p. 22), who is celebrating her chain’s 40th anniversary this year; the 102-year-old Chiappetta Shoes, winners of the Comfort Specialty category (p. 26); and many other industry standouts. The collective retail wisdom our winners have to offer is astounding. You might even say it rules.