Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor: “Make your crew’s day and they’ll make your customers’”

Make your crew’s day and they’ll make your customers’ I was at a Walmart and witnessed a cashier who couldn’t get a container of blueberries to scan. She called for help. The manager came over and said, “Hi Susan, what can I help you with?” She replied, “I’ve tried to scan it several times and […]

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Make your crew’s day and they’ll make your customers’

I was at a Walmart and witnessed a cashier who couldn’t get a container of blueberries to scan. She called for help. The manager came over and said, “Hi Susan, what can I help you with?” She replied, “I’ve tried to scan it several times and enter in the code by hand, but it isn’t scanning. Can you help?” “Sure,” said the manager, May I take a look?” She nodded and he examined the label then said, “I think another number is stuck in the wrinkle. Let’s add a 9 and see what happens.” It worked. He then told Susan and the customer goodbye. It wasn’t fake or condescending; it was one human being helping another. Susan had an amazing manager who valued her and treated her well. Every retailer should treat their employees as well.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Phibbs, a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), customer service expert, and founder of SalesRX retail sales training firm specializing in working with retailers and brands who want to sell their merchandise more profitably. Phibbs has worked with over a thousand retail executives and entrepreneurs to grow margins, improve customer service, and train employees. His clientele has included many of the Fortune 500, Aramark, Bernina, Hunter Douglas, Land O’Lakes, Lego, MasterCard, Omega, Paul Mitchell, T-Mobile, Trek, and American Express. He hosts Tell Me Something Good About Retail, the #1 podcast for retailers who want to grow their business. Learn more at

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I had worked for 10 years to build a retailer in California from five locations to 55 when the boss asked a question, “What is a company’s most important asset?” I responded, “It’s employees.” “Wrong,” said the owner. He continued, “It’s customers.” After the meeting I told him, “Customers can go anywhere. We built the brand over the past 10 years only through the training and passion of the employees. I can’t work for a company like what this has become. I’m out in two weeks.” The day I left as Kathy Mattea’s Walking Away A Winner blared on the store’s sound system I decided if I could build one retailer to that level, I can do it for any retailer.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A guy was waiting outside a store I managed the week before Christmas. He was wearing what I could tell was a new goatskin blazer. Once I opened the gates, I said, “Good morning, feel free to look around and I’ll be right back.” He thanked me. After I turned on all the lights and using the sales system I developed, I asked if his blazer was a gift or he had purchased for himself. When he said he purchased it for himself, I told him it was always nice to celebrate yourself. I then told him I had just purchased the new Scully calfskin blazer I still had on that I purchased for exceeding sales goals for 10 years. I asked him what he was celebrating. He told me, “Well the book that I wrote just got opted for a movie. Have you ever heard of The Hunt For Red October? I’m Tom Clancy.” He paid cash. Do you think I ever would have known that if I had just asked, “Can I help you?” I guarantee not and instead of buying the 100 dollars boots he originally was looking at he got a pair of thousand-dollar ostrich boots. And he came back to me several more times with subsequent movie deals because he felt something when shopping with me. It was friendly but more than that. We bonded. You want to create an exceptional experience for customers? You have to train a process.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

I was being presented by a Fortune 100 company to deliver in-person sales training events for their elite dealers. I arrived early one day to a retailer in New Jersey and was met by an older gentleman who simply said, “Walk with me.” He opened the door to his showroom, and we walked through the store, through the offices, out into the warehouse and stopped at the loading dock door. I was thinking, this is where Tony Soprano would whack somebody.” Then he asked, “Do you remember me?” I answered, “Well I meet a lot of people in my travels, sorry I don’t.” “Let me remind you,” he started. “I was at the event two years ago at the corporate headquarters in Colorado. I came up to you and asked you at the break, “How much would it cost to bring you to my stores?” I suddenly remembered. There were a lot of people around. The client who had hired me was right next to me and I didn’t want to quote a price that might be lower. “I had laughingly said, ‘Probably more than you can afford.’” He replied, “That’s right. How the hell did you know how much I could afford? And now you’re here in my store paid for by someone else.” I told him what a great lesson he gave me and how wrong it was on every level. I don’t know that it was funny but nearly 20 years later, I still remember how small I felt. But I never said that again.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

We have literally doubled the number of stores on my online retail sales training platform, SalesRX, in the past two months and so we are adding additional lessons, doing weekly calls with our customers, and hiring staff. One thing I’m researching more and more is how we learn and what it takes to make learning stick. You can have all the systems in place, but the key is to hold up a beacon and say, look what you can be and encourage people to leave behind who they were and step up to who they have to become. That’s a tall order because it goes beyond motivating people, it is getting them to realize they are not their thoughts, that they are the reason they are not more successful and give them tools to claw back customers to their brick- and-mortar stores from their unprofitable online competition.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

First realize everyone everywhere has felt the same way at some point. Exhaustion, a lengthy period of focus with no clear end, and inertia can lead to associating those feelings with being burnt out. What I find is when I feel that way, I have to change things up, schedule time in my calendar to go look at a bird for an hour in the woods, try new food, eat at a different time, etc. But the one thing that brings me back is speaking with our customers. They keep me going so if you’re wondering if you’re burnt out, just call up your customers and hear their stories. They’ll be able to get you over the temporary feeling and remind you how much you help others.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

So, 27 years ago after I quit my full-time job knowing there was something better out there for me I went to see Tony Robbins at Universal Amphitheater to reset my compass to the future. He did not disappoint. His events were shorter in those days but one thing I took away was his admonition, “You better come up with a brand nobody can do better. The next day I submitted the trademark for the Retail Doctor.

Fast forward to 2020. In the midst of unprecedented change in retail and fear in the world and with so many people looking to me to help them navigate retail during a pandemic, I joined Tony again for two events. None of us are as good alone as we are together. Success leaves clues.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I moved from Los Angeles to the mid-Hudson Valley in 2008 as the world imploded and many of my Fortune 500 company customers cut budgets. While I had to rebuild my own business, I looked around and realized this once thriving agrarian culture had been left behind as young people left as soon as they could for opportunities in New York City two hours south. What if there was a way to teach kids how business works? Could we develop an entrepreneur mindset? That’s when I discovered Lemonade Day out of Houston. While there are now many charities that use lemonade stands to raise funds for a variety of good causes, this is the only one I found that taught entrepreneurship.

The students receive a book with lessons on how to develop product, how to figure cost of goods and profit, how to market their stand, how to find investors to help them come up with seed money for supplies, how to pick a location and more. I went to every elementary, middle, and high school with students to build enthusiasm and signups. The students put on their own skit and did videos as well. The week before we had a tasting event where we invited participants to setup their stands at a local business for judges to decide the best recipe and best booth. We had so many entries — even on a rainy March day — we had to move them into the parking lot. On May 1 we had over 500 lemonade stands open throughout Greene County where participants were encouraged to spend a 1/3 on themselves, save 1/3, and give 1/3 to charity. We really made a difference in those kids lives- even if they only realize prices don’t come out of thin air and what it takes to make profit.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

Well, I think it is common knowledge that everyone had to offer click and collect if they wanted to survive. I really like how creative brands like Lululemon realized they didn’t want their customers who came to their brick-and-mortar stores to have to wait up to 30 minutes in long lines, so they initiated a text when ready system. Not earthshaking but customer focused. Hammit handbags began selling DTC with virtual tools to engage their loyal customers. And they didn’t panic with 70% off sales like other handbags, they maintain pricing because they know their customer and price isn’t why she carries a Hammitt. They kept their South Coast Plaza store open and are planning a new store in Manhattan Beach shortly.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

I delivered a great virtual keynote a few months ago. The host was exuberant about my message of hope for brick-and-mortar retailers. After about 15 minutes of q+a she wrapped up my segment and then looked at her card as she read aloud, “Is the pandemic the nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar retailers?” I couldn’t believe it and clearly neither could she. Look, in spite of Coresight Research playing Chicken Little last spring saying 25,000 stores were going to close by year end and picked up by every newswire do you know the truth? The reality? 8721 stores actually closed. Do you know how many closed in 2019? 9800. Yes there were less store closures in 2020 with a raging pandemic than there was a year prior when everything was open. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, “Rumors of my demise are highly greatly exaggerated?” But scaring people is great business to get them to click and follow- especially when the subject is the perennial fall guy retail stores and their close cousin department stores.

Those who know their customers and truly give a damn at making customers feel something more than “I got this on sale” will be fine. Those who are wed to price and promotion are going to have a really hard time because we are on the cusp of a new hedonism. You go online to buy; you go to a store to shop. Here’s the difference, if I’m looking for a new baby seat that fits in my Chrysler Pacifica and I go online and while scrolling the hundreds of choices on a site I see a grey sport coat, I would be thrown. But if I go to the store for the carrier and see the sport coat, I just might buy it. Returned purchases in a brick-and-mortar store run 6–8% versus their online competition which can run as high as 40–50%. With free shipping both ways, is it any wonder online simply isn’t profitable. The brick-and-mortar store is the hub, everything good comes from it. Curbside, click and collect, ship to store all are profit takers. Merchandising and Training are all profit makers. Until and unless retailers execute on the last two, they’ll continue to see themselves struggle. Make no mistake, retail isn’t about being friendly or getting likes or having digital tools — it is only about did the shopper make a purchase. Miss that and you’ll end up in BK.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

This past holiday season Target reported 95% of their business was done through their stores. When a customer is willing to drive to the location to pick up or return it is a tremendous cost saving. Making sure that experience is quick, safe, and easy to execute are key. I know a buddy of mine who waited for 40 minutes at his local Home Depot for them to find his order and bring it to him. He’ll never use that service again. Kroger and others have tied their loyalty program to online ordering, rewarding those who give them their data to receive something others have to pay for. Make no mistake, Amazon is a data company connected to warehouses. The retail future will belong to those who can mine their data and connect dots to narrow their buying and marketing to people most likely to buy from them. The days of shooting in the air with mailers and circulars and hoping someone comes in as a result are over. Data delivers a laser target customer in ways never foreseen even two years ago.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

If all you’ve spent your time doing is finding ways to cut prices as your unique reason for being, you have to realize you need to find enough customers willing to pay full-price for your merchandise. With resale like Poshmark and others growing in numbers, you have to be able to deliver more than a low price or a delivery in an hour if you want to be around. The big idea is that people who feel they matter will buy more from you. Get that right and you’ll be fine. If you’re the kind of retailer who believes anyone who works in a store is a loser, don’t give them training, feel like they are disposable like my original boss, then you’ll continue to devolve into a click and collect mentality in-store.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Make your crew’s day and they’ll make your customers’

I was at a Walmart and witnessed a cashier who couldn’t get a container of blueberries to scan. She called for help. The manager came over and said, “Hi Susan, what can I help you with?” She replied, “I’ve tried to scan it several times and enter in the code by hand, but it isn’t scanning. Can you help?” “Sure,” said the manager, May I take a look?” She nodded and he examined the label then said, “I think another number is stuck in the wrinkle. Let’s add a 9 and see what happens.” It worked. He then told Susan and the customer goodbye. It wasn’t fake or condescending; it was one human being helping another. Susan had an amazing manager who valued her and treated her well. Every retailer should treat their employees as well.

2. Training is something you do, not something you did.

I received a Twitter notification that I had been tagged in a post. When I clicked it was a group of women under the Eiffel Tower with the words, “Thanks Retail Doctor.” Turns out the owner had set a yearly goal for her crew that if they hit it, she would take one to the Paris lingerie show. They trained every week, came up with their own learning aides, quizzed each other in the slow times and exceeded the high goal by an additional 23% so the owner closed the shop and took her entire crew to Paris. Consistency is what makes an exceptional experience. That means a person who knows nothing about your store gets as good or probably better than your loyal customers who know you already. That takes constant training as a part of your culture, not just a checkbox to say, “Done.”

3. Hire and reward only employees who embrace training.

We had one of our earliest SalesRX users quit after two years and come back to us six months later saying she had replaced four managers until she got one who backed training 100%. Her sales have consistently risen 20% YOY even with a pandemic raging. That doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by commitment and then rewarding the team when they do exceed the goals you’ve set.

4. Create a branded shopping experience.

Online retailers tout how much attention they spend on getting people to navigate a site and stick around. Yet many retailers feel once someone gets through the door, they’ll find their way. Maybe so but even putting a greeter at the door to ask if they need help misses the potential gain to a retailer by guiding the path to purchase. And I don’t mean with beacons to a cellphone. Take for example buying running shoes. What if, when someone comes into your running shoe department of your sporting goods store you said, “How can we help you get a better running experience?” The associate listens and then says, “I can help you with that. First, I’ll ask a few more questions to understand what you have now and where you want to take your running, we’ll select a couple from the largest selection in the city, we’ll watch your gait while running in them, and together we’ll find the perfect pair for you to take home. How does that sound?” That can’t happen without a clear focus on educating the customer, being invitational, and setting the expectation to buy a pair and take them home today. Just being nice doesn’t pay the bills.

5. Roleplay

Most people have avoided roleplay but exposed their team to ideas and when the crew doesn’t do what they saw, the owners decide, “Training doesn’t work.” It’s the difference between you watching Serena Williams play tennis at Wimbledon, and saying to me, ‘Oh, I could be at Wimbledon.’ No. You understand the game. That doesn’t mean you are trained, by any means. Until you actually practice the backhand and the serve 100,000 times and it’s second nature in your body, you’re not trained. Retailers have got to think each time they open their doors they are entering the Olympics. Only with the best trained employees to know how to build rapport with all kinds of people and demonstrate it before they wait on a customer will they be able to get the gold medal — the thoroughly satisfied customer.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think I have started a movement with my mantra: We can change the world with the people who work and shop in retail. I have nearly half-a million followers who that resonates with. But it will take a laser focus on making someone else’s day first. That’s important because our empathy skills are going down as smartphone usage goes up.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can go to to discover nearly 1000 articles on growing your business, marketing, merchandising and yes, selling. You can go to to learn how my online retail sales training program can give you the tools needed to succeed as shoppers return to stores. You can follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn and find my Facebook page for the Retail Doctor where every Sunday morning at 9am EST I answer followers’ questions. Oh, and don’t forget my podcast, Tell Me Something Good About Retail available on Apple, Android and over 50 podcast platforms.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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