Respect and appreciate people who work for or with you. A simple thank you for a great job done goes a long way in keeping your employee long term. Customers like that they can rely on that person anytime they come in to help them because the employee knows their needs and wants.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Megan O’Hara, the author of “Life Within a Big Box: The Perspective of a 25-Year Retail Associate.” She writes under the pen name Megan O’Hara to protect her identity as well as the integrity of her co-workers and the locations of the stores that she worked at. She currently works as a sales associate with Walmart and has worked in 15 stores in five states for more than 25 years with experience as a department manager, support manager and customer service manager. These experiences have provided her with a broad base for behind-the-scenes knowledge and company insight as well as a good understanding of management, co-workers and customers.
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?
At the time I was hired it was just supposed to be a temporary job until something better could be found. Most of my work experience was in the industrial sector doing receiving or inventory work. The pay at the time was about the same. What hooked me with Walmart was the teamwork, doing something different and the feeling like I was part of something that was going to be big and I wanted to grow with them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In store number 3 of my book, the store manager asked me about a report I needed to look at. I had been with the company for five years and a department manager for two of those years and had never heard of this particular report. After she showed me the report, she decided to have our weekly department manager meetings include how to use all the reports available to us to help manage our departments better. Within three months we were number two in sales out of nine stores. From that point on, I utilized all this information to maximize my sales, and took it with me when I started my own business. The second year of this business I broke even. I don’t think I could have done that without the lessons learned from this particular manager.
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?
The funniest mistake was not on my end when I first started. In Store number 2 of my book there was a decision made by the home office, which was looking to save money on hiring extra Christmas help, changed the overnight receiving people who worked from 10pm to 7am (that included me), to 5am through 2pm shift. We on the night shift just looked at each other and shook our heads at how this wouldn’t work. It was a fiasco with freight piled up everywhere and even outside. They changed us back after two months. At the time it wasn’t so funny but looking back I find it hilarious. The lesson learned by the home office was to test a change in several stores before implementing it throughout the company.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
I am working on another book on the customers of retail. I have not chosen a title yet. This book will show people how we, in the retail industry, view the customers we serve. I believe this book will be both serious and hilarious as the person who reads it will find themselves somewhere in this book. They will then question themselves “Oh, have I ever done that? How embarrassing!”
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- Take everything in stride. For instance, an angry customer.
- Never be afraid to ask questions when you don’t understand something. It is the most frustrating thing not to understand and no question is stupid. You will never learn if you don’t ask.
- If you make a mistake own up to it and learn from it.
- Be sure to give credit where credit is due, especially if a colleague helped you out.
- Delegate your workload to others around you. Knowing their strengths and where your weakness is can get a job done faster and better.
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?
The person who comes to mind would be manager Carlie (not her real name) in store number 3. She always took time to help us out when we were struggling with a particular job and made sure we understood how everything worked.
The year that comes to mind and the most successful for me was right after we learned how to utilize our reports. My sales soared and inventory flowed in and out at an almost perfect rate. I received an award for department manager of the month in my store, made VPI (value priced item) twice and one of those went market wide. Then at the end of the year she awarded me with department manager of the year.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The best thing I can do to bring goodness to the world, is to put a smile on my customer’s face along with my own. Anytime I can help a customer understand how things work by writing this book is an achievement.
Life in a retail environment is more like survival, it’s measured one customer at a time. A customer can make or break you by how they are received. If you can get through your day, without feeling like walking out, because of a screaming child or a disgruntled customer you can never please, or a manager who has it in for you, you have succeeded. Now if you helped stop the screaming child or found what your disgruntled customer wanted and did something right for your upset manager, you also succeeded. This is “Life Within A Big Box!”
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?
Walmart in particular has three different ways in which people can shop. They can go online and have products shipped to their home or shop on-line at their local Walmart and pick up outside to their car, and there is coming into the store to shop.
When you come to the store, we limit how many people are allowed at any given time. We wear masks and ask that our customers also wear one and I’m sure you have seen the registers in all stores have what is called a sneeze barrier. This is to help protect the customer and the associate when they are in close contact with each other. The fitting rooms are closed in most retail stores because of the difficulty in keeping the rooms clean, so clothing cannot be tried on, but is returnable if something doesn’t fit. You will notice every once in a while, a store will close for a few days so they can do some very deep cleaning. Sanitizer is supplied at the entrances and associates cannot start work until they go through a covid-19 and temperature check list. This is just a few of the things we do for our customers.
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 believe retail stores will continue to exist for the simple reason that not all customers like to shop on-line, and people do like to get out and about. I am one who likes to see, touch, and compare what a store has to offer. That is almost impossible on-line because colors and size are not always what they seem. Older people don’t trust on-line shopping and after speaking to quite a few, some don’t even have a computer! Malls have their place too. It can be a one stop shop for a lot of people, but I have to say, they need to bring down the rent cost for small shops to exist in that environment otherwise I see them closing up and the large retailers going back to stand alone buildings.
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?
If you want to be profitable as a small retailer, sell what large retailers don’t. Specialize in a product they don’t carry. An example would be nuts and bolts in a hardware store. A large retailer might not carry all the different kinds of this type of product but you as a small retailer could specialize in the odd sizes or types of bolts. Walmart has done this with customers. “We don’t have it, but Henry’s does.” Sending them somewhere else never hurts it only helps. They will be back because you were helpful in their time of need.
Give good customer service and if you don’t have something they want, find it or order it for them. This goes a long way in repeat customers. Example I had a customer when I owned my small business that needed a size 54 waist uniform pant. I checked with my supplier to see if it was available and was pleased to see they did. I then asked the customer what color, style and how many they wanted. It came in a week later. Happy customer? You bet! He always came back when he needed more.
Greet them and thank them. Just saying good morning to a customer can make their day. Asking if they need help in finding a product and then taking them to it can save them time, and money.
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?
Advertise the difference between ordering from China direct and you. Point out the difficulty of returning a product or the cost. Also ask your customer if you really want China to have all your personal information on their records.
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.
To work in the retail industry there are a few traits you need to possess, and all of them have to do with knowing how to merchandise your products.
- Know your product to the season. What to put where that makes sense.
So, my story is on receiving our first shipment of swimwear, do we put it out even though we still have fleece and jackets that go in the same seasonal area, or keep it in the back? Your racks are low or empty, you can’t sell air, so you have to put them out. Someone puts them on two front racks and hangs the jackets on a side wall. This is just the opposite of what should have been done. The winter wear is a liability you don’t want to reduce the price so these need to be in front to sell now. The swimwear goes on the side wall to fill in space and you still might get first sales on them by just having them out.
2. Pay attention to detail! How do you create an end of aisle display that attracts the customers attention? Do you ribbon it or stripe it?
Say it’s 5 different candle scents in 3 sizes, how do you display it? Each scent should be on its own shelf from smallest to largest. Why? The customer can see the choices that help them to either color coordinate or choose the size to fit their needs without having to search for them. This is called a ribbon effect.
On the other hand, let’s say you have 5 colors of plastic glasses. Do you just place them all over the shelves haphazardly? Not good! It is better to take one color two across and five down and repeat with the other 4 colors. It is better still if you go from lightest to darkest, too. This is called striping.
3. Hire people who fit the job or store. An example would be your retail store is specializing in electronics. Having a person who is a computer geek would increase your customer base because they can answer a computer illiterates’ question and help them to become experts themselves.
4. Respect and appreciate people who work for or with you. A simple thank you for a great job done goes a long way in keeping your employee long term. Customers like that they can rely on that person anytime they come in to help them because the employee knows their needs and wants.
5. Training. Keeping your employees up to date on what is new. Make sure they have the knowledge to help them communicate with the customers on a level they will appreciate.
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. 🙂
My idea would have to start in the company I work for, Walmart. This would help the associates and the customers and in the long term that would help millions who visit us. The company is aware that they have stores that are struggling to meet standards. I believe they could gather a small group of people like me, who can see the deficiency, sometimes from the moment they walk into a store, then work with the upper management team to help turn it around. An efficiently run store makes a happy customer and associate. Higher productivity makes profit.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can email me at [email protected] if they have any questions or comments. As I am still working, it might take me up to 2 hours to respond.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!