3 Ways to Better Educate Your Employees to Stay Competitive with Amazon in the Shoe Industry

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Two weeks ago, we discussed the “3 Ways to Stay Relevant During the Retail Armageddon”.  If you were unable to catch it, I highly recommend going back and taking a look.  In case you forgot, those three steps were; Having Accurate Inventory Visible Online, Training Your Staff to Better Educate Your Customers, and Create a Quick and Insightful Shopping Experience.  Today I’m going to discuss some of the ways (3 to be exact) my clients, have learned to create the best staff for this endeavor. 

Before we do though, I want to talk about why this is so important during this Retail Apocalypse.  In every in-depth business review, I have done with my clients, I make sure to ask, “What differentiates you from your competition, and why would they rather buy from you?” More than 93% have said product, customer service, or price.  Well for this article I want you to think about customer service and what that really means.  Within twenty seconds of Googling “buy shoes online,” I was on a website called “Amazon Fashion.”  From there, I can get a huge list of reviews, shoes that people also looked at, and even featured deals.  That is a level of information, and service that your reps could only provide your customers, if and/or when you decide you want it to be a priority.  One more scary thought before we go, just in case you were thinking you won’t need to evolve here.  According to Salesforce.com, 73% of customers say that extraordinary experience with one company raises their expectations of others.

Step 1: Train Your Staff to be A “Short Cut.”

I once read a fantastic book called “Be A Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success.”  The major premise of the book, for me, was that everyone in the world is always looking for shortcuts.  The better shortcut your business can provide, the more successful your business will become.  The author, Scott Halford, had enlightened me more than any other author.  It just seemed so simple.  He stated that we use shortcuts every day.  The dry cleaner, the IT person, the plumber, the roofer, these are all great examples of short cuts.  If you personally put your mind, time and money into it, you could most likely learn to do these things yourself.  We rely on merchants, or experts, for shortcuts allowing us to have our needs met in the most efficient manner.  So, if 20% of people that shop in your store, vs. online, do so because they want to touch and feel an item or get your expertise before they buy, it only makes sense that your staff should be up to the challenge. 

If we are going to survive this drastic time in the shoe industry, we need to either evolve or adapt.  To ensure your employees are a shortcut, you can ask them to provide additional information not readily available to most “non-professionals.” Get them to discuss emerging shoe trends or helpful anecdotes that assist your clients in making decisions.  For example, educate your customers by informing them of “the average time it takes to wear down a running shoe for an active runner,”. 

Also make sure while your employee is training, they are learning about your inventory, your customers, and your technology.  Most importantly, make sure that “Educating Customers” is a foundational principle of your business.  Make a sign and place it by the register.  Make a pop up for when they clock in to the system every morning.  Remember, if it’s not important to you, it’s not important to them. 

Step 2: Use Your POS as an Educational Tool

Many point of sale systems these days have the ability to include profile fields that allow you to enter relevant data for your items and customers.  This is very important to the success of taking new employees and turning them into shoe store professionals.  If your inventory is profiled correctly, this can become an enormous reason for typical online shoppers to shop with you, instead of Amazon.  For example, To better illustrate, let’s talk about my father-in-law.  My father-in-law is a great man and a truly inspiring person.  He is 65 years old and still runs several miles a day. If one day he went to your store while it wasn’t very busy, your employees should have entered his information into your system.  On his first visit, your staff could also have asked questions to help him find his first pair of shoes.  “What type of running do you do; road running or trail running?” Then you could have him labeled as a “frequent runner,’ and “roadrunner.”  By doing so, not only will you increase his satisfaction with every visit to your store, but you will also be able to use this data to directly market to him every six months when it’s c time to replace his shoes. 

This will enable your employees to provide educated recommendations on running shoes, shirts, shorts, etc.  This will also make your customers know that you care about them. Typically, shoe stores that provide this level of customer service, are very successful and have repeat customers who will not be buying from Amazon any time soon.

Step 3: Have Your Inventory and Customers Available on a Mobile Device

Have you ever been to a store where the employees use iPads? The ability for an employee to look up items, substitute-items, locations, customer history, and even their customer profiles on the go could literally be at your employees’ fingertips.   How long has it been since shoe stores regularly had all their shoes, of all sizes, on the floor?  Typically, the salesperson has to run in the back to see if they have it in stock. They really can’t be sure since it’s a popular shoe and size. Even though it’s only been 5 minutes, to a customer it can feel like forever.  Finally, after 10 minutes, the employee returns only to say they don’t have the item. How did that make you feel?  Look, I completely understand. This happens, and many customers are used to it. So should you just get over it? Or is this an opportunity to elevate your customer service experience?

Now I want you to picture the same scenario with just a minor change.  Picture yourself getting to the aisle and they don’t have the item you are looking for.  There is a clerk in the lane a few feet away.  You enlist their help again but, this time they have a mobile device that is connected to their POS.  Without leaving your side, they search for the item and see that it’s out of stock.  This time they are able to ask if you’d like them to order it and also recommend a substitute item that’s in stock and actually has better reviews. They ask if you would like to start a shopping cart, and maybe even check you out right then and there. How did this experience make you feel?  Which store are you most likely going to go to the next time you need something for your feet?

My Two Cents

So, if 93% of shoe stores say they can beat their competition in service, price, and product, how many of them are really considering Amazon as competition yet? Please, don’t ignore this mega-giant when they are starting to drive in your lane.  Evolve! 

I know that by doing just these 3 things you are on your way to empowering your employees to offer the best customer service by providing the best education.  Don’t be afraid to experiment or think outside of the box either.  Ask yourself what information you think your customers want readily available and make it so.  If you would like, feel free to share your ideas with me.  More than likely one of my clients have tried it before and you can learn from their mistakes. 


Mark Nelms is a Business Development Manager for Soft Intelligence.  He has conducted over 400 interviews with retailers from almost every vertical and size.  In prior roles, he’s assisted clients like Cumberland Packaging Corporation (Sweet N’ Low), The New England Patriots, and NCR (National Cash Register.)