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The Power of a Good Sales Associate

In a challenging climate, top-notch salespeople can give retailers an edge.

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Barbara Schneider-Levy

Photo By D. Horii

As the battle for consumers’ dollars escalates, it’s the soldiers on the selling floor who can help lead to victory. And utilizing key sales tactics — from simply accepting a return with a smile to making a home delivery — can give stores an edge on the competition.

I was recently the recipient of some top-notch customer service. Last February, I stopped by a neighborhood store to buy a credit-card holder. With none in stock, the sales associate offered to take my number and contact me when it arrived. Many months later, I was surprised when the store actually did call to say the product was finally in. I told the associate I couldn’t believe she had phoned after all this time for an item that cost only $1.75. She was quick to respond that the store never forgets its customers.

Retailers, likewise, should never forget standout sales associates. They make their business tick. So when I asked comfort retailers to weigh in on their most powerful sales associates, Rick Ravel, owner of Karavel Shoes Comfort Center in Austin, Texas, was eager to champion Vivian Johnson, manager and buyer of his women’s department.

According to Ravel, few people know the power of the personal touch better than Johnson. Her selling strategies have made her the store’s top salesperson, routinely racking up between $500,000 and $600,000 in annual sales.

“She’s a selling machine,” said Ravel. “She loves the one-on-one contact. She’s brought a professionalism to the store, and she owns her customers.”

Johnson has been at the fitting stool for more than 40 years. She and her husband, Lonny Johnson, owned Johnson Shoes in Nebraska, two family stores started in 1930 by his father. When the couple found it increasingly difficult to run a profitable independent store in the area, they closed shop and moved to California, where they continued their retail careers.

“We met Rick [Ravel] through the [footwear] market,” recalled Vivian Johnson. In 2001, Ravel eventually convinced the couple to move to Texas and join his team. Since then, their daughter, Heather Johnson, has followed in their footsteps. Today, she works as a buyer at Karavel for the women’s category. Together, they oversee a business that accounts for 65 percent of sales.

Johnson recently took time from the selling floor to share her insights on everything from the importance of giving customers that perfect fit to the risks of buying shoes on the Internet.

On competition:
“The most important thing is developing a relationship with a customer. That’s what I have a conviction about. The consumer can go anywhere to [shop] — online, down the street, Nordstrom. I have a large customer base. I’m constantly calling these folks. You have to remind them you’re here. But more important, share with them that you care.”

On juggling many roles:
“I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to do both [sales and buying]. It gives me the ability to make the right [buying] decisions by exposing me to what [shoppers] are looking for. I keep these customers in mind when buying. We’re seeing lots of people struggling with plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, you name it. So when customers walk in the door, it’s not as simple as just buying a pair of shoes. They actually want to know what the shoe is going to do for them. [They say], tell me about the bells and whistles in this product.”

On fitting skills:
“I’m called ‘Miss Scaffold’ because I’m constantly building up arches. Anybody can sell shoes — you can go to Payless and sell shoes. But I want to take that selling opportunity to the next level. I want to meet needs. I would say with 95 percent of the customer base I work with, I make changes [to their shoes]. I build arches, put in metatarsal pads. I always take my customers to the next level.”

On buying shoes online:
“I feel it’s impossible. When buying shoes from the Internet, it’s [hit or miss], unless it’s the same particular silhouette you happened to purchase [at a store before]. Even then, that’s not guaranteed either because no two shoes are created equal. I believe in that one-on-one [experience]. Sitting at the fitting stool and making sure that width, girth and arch are all taken into consideration, there’s no way a customer can possibly get that on the Internet and do their foot justice.”

On the comfort community:
“When we go to market, it’s like a big reunion. All the retailers bump into one another. That’s when we share thoughts — what’s happening, where it’s happening, what we’ve seen.”

On customer relations:
“Develop a rapport with the customer. They’re buying a relationship with you. That’s where you build the trust with the customer, and from that point on, meet their needs and don’t just sell them shoes.”

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