Career Testing
Career Testing
Career Testing
INTERVIEWS / JUN. 20, 2014
version 2, draft 2

How to Talk About Service in a Fashion Retail Interview

To get a job in retail, it is essential that you are passionate about service in all its guises. In fashion retail, a love for the product comes a close second in the qualities most employers seek, and without these at a genuine, heartfelt level, no amount of interview coaching is going to help. If you're looking for a fashion retail management position, either at a graduate level, or as an established manager making the move from a different area, be prepared to articulate both your love for fashion, and your understanding of how to close sales through offering excellent service to your many and varied customers. If the passion for fashion runs in your veins and you just need a little nudge on how to knowledgeably talk about service in an interview, this guide is for you.

Know your customer

Customers shopping fashion retailers fall into a number of different categories, depending on their purpose. Some may be on a mission, with a specific purchase in mind, and perhaps with time limits to work to - popping in on a lunch break to pick up an outfit for a night out, for example. Others may simply want to browse. Some may be very keen to chat to store staff - some may see conversations as unnecessary, and even an intrusion into their quiet leisure time. Store colleagues have to navigate both ends of the spectrum, identifying their customers' wordlessly articulated needs, and reacting - and as a manager you will need to coach them on delivering this feat of telepathy.

Customer behaviour is key to interpreting needs - a harried dip into a store looks different to a slow paced mooch about, and colleagues need to be skilled at identifying this at twenty paces. Most importantly, understanding and responding to buying signals will open doors to conversations and potential sales. If a customer picks up an item to check for size, feels the material, compares colours available, for example, they are inviting a quick comment from a sales assistant - if only to show you approve of their potential purchase. The most solid buying signal (at least, in my personal experience) is checking the washing label. If you see a customer that up front and personal with your stock, then get chatting!

It's good to talk

Store assistants, historically, have been employed more for their efficiency, flexibility and previous experience, than their sunny dispositions. However, with customers more demanding than ever, your role as a manager will be to get all your staff confident and competent to talk to customers on a regular basis. Having some planned conversation starters to hand helps - simply commenting on an item a customer is looking at (nothing more complicated that, "that's a great colour, isn't it?"), can help more timid colleagues overcome their fears.

For the more confident, or especially at more fashion forward retailers, knowing the catwalk link to the products you stock is essential. Savvy customers will expect, and be delighted by, colleagues explaining the catwalk roots of the items they're considering, and a happy customer buys more. It is important to be clear with your team, though, that their role is primarily about service, not a hard sell - and telling a customer they look great in a completely unsuitable and poorly fitted product will not help earn trust in the long run. The answer to the question "does my bum look big in this?", sadly, is not always, "no".

Sell, sell, sell

There is a fine balance in fashion retail - it is not a hard sell environment by any means, but an ability to use a great customer experience to convert a sale is key to a successful store manager. Think about times when you've been undecided on an item - maybe you had got so far as to try it on but were unsure - have you ever had the unnerving experience of a casual conversation with a staff member about your choice, ending up resulting in you buying not only the dress, but the tights, scarf and shoes as well? And what's more, you leave delighted at your purchases, and how clever you have been for finding the entire outfit right there.

This is a classic example of link selling, or up selling, in which customers are offered appropriately linked items to match the one they were considering, or alternatively are converted to a new (higher price point) purchase by virtue of a staff intervening. The skill, as a manager, is in not only doing this well yourself, but in coaching and inspiring your team to do it in a way that does not feel like selling at all.

In many fashion retailers (as opposed to the higher volume supermarket sector), service is seen as a job or task in itself. Colleagues may be 'zoned' - given a specific area of the shop floor to watch over, and tasked to greet and serve any customers coming that way. High footfall areas are key to this, which is why you will often find colleagues handing out baskets near the door, or close to mannequin groups - by being central and visible, customers know where to find a colleague should they need one, and they have the best opportunity to talk to a large number of customers passing through.

Understand why it matters

You will be expected to articulate the business case for service, in many fashion retail interviews - excellent customer service is not just about brand building, but about a hard return on the investments made. Fashion retail benefits from relatively high margin rates, particularly in stores selling own brand products rather than managing concessions or franchise brands. However, the conversion rates are relatively low - very few people browse a supermarket, but only a fraction of those looking round a clothes store will actually purchase.

Converting one additional customer through excellent service makes a relatively large proportion difference to profit due to the higher margin rates, and impressing even a transient customer who does not buy that day, will help bring them back on another occasion. The basic principle is that great visual merchandising and window dressing will get customers over the threshold once, but only the in-store experience will turn them into loyal customers who value your brand - and as a manager, you will be responsible for making your team understand, live and breathe this idea.

The final point to understand, and if possible, discuss at interview, is the link between service and managing and reducing shrinkage (stock loss where the reason for the loss is unknown - usually theft or damages). Staff are often sparse on fashion retail shop floors, and having colleagues looking out to spot and talk with genuine customers, also means you have staff being vigilant against potential shop lifters. Putting in place other service habits which support stock protection - such as checking boxed packs of underwear at the till to check there are no other items secreted in the boxes, and properly managing the customer returns process - is also part of the manager's role, ensuring the business is as profitable as possible.

The most successful retail managers in fashion and other areas of the sector, are retail 'geeks' who spot what their competitors do well (and poorly), and are constantly educating themselves about their trade. Start with the ideas here, and keep your eyes peeled next time you're on the high street, to make sure you're fully prepped for your fashion retail interview.

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