“Would you like a bag with that?” What retail taught me about PR!

Retail is a mad environment, a mad environment that I’ve had the dubious pleasure of working in for nearly 5 years! Don’t get me wrong it’s fun but it’s also fast-paced and tough, standing on your feet for 8 hours hurts, running back and forward like a mad eejit to get items for customers will increase your fitbit steps considerably, as will dealing with difficult situations and moving fixtures to name but a few! If you have worked (or currently work) in retail you’ll be able to relate to this blog in some way, shape or form! If you don’t work in retail – no worries, I am hoping you’ll get a glimpse of life from behind the counter and what retail workers deal with daily!

Before starting university, I didn’t realise how much I’d learned in the world of retail nor how much it had prepared me for my future career in Public Relations. Who would have thought that retail makes you quite the PR professional…OK, maybe not a professional but you’ll definitely develop a bit of a flair for it. As I am a student, I will include some academic writing just to prove my point (and to sound highly intellectual).

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Trust me, it will all make sense!

Public relations is all about building, maintaining and managing good relationships though communication, according to the two academic legends Grunig and Hunt, who wrote this in 1984. Apply their analysis to a retail setting, or any setting where a customer/client relationship is involved, and you must deal with them appropriately, right? In retail you encounter a wide range of customers with some extremely unique characteristics. The ones who’ll quip “well I’m hardly going to carry that around now am I *insert laugh*” after you’ve offered them a bag; or my all-time favourite “if there’s no price on it that must mean its free!” I have heard that 6 times today… Bet you’re reading this, and you’ve said that yourself more than once! Haven’t you?

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Regardless of who or what you encounter, having good public relations skills will ensure you make their retail experience a pleasurable one which they will hopefully repeat regularly. Imagine you are a customer purchasing goods and the sales adviser is rude, arrogant and totally unpleasant – you would be outraged and leave feeling annoyed at the situation. You would have little or no inclination to shop there again and at worst, you would give the shop a poor social media review.  If you’re of a “certain age” you might prefer to phone and ask to speak to a member of staff. Imagine poor customer service in a PR agency?  You’d be out of business in no time.

In retail the customer is your priority and in a competitive market they expect the 5* treatment.  Ever heard the expression “kill them with kindness?” I’m pretty sure that was written for retail workers. To be successful you must always be polite and attentive, listening to their needs, communicating with them effectively and showing a genuine interest in them. Remember us Irish love retail therapy!  But BALANCE is key🔑 in all of this as an over-zealous approach can also be off-putting and have customers behind the mannequins in lingerie like an episode out of “Fr Ted”.

Similarly, in PR, when working closely with a client, it’s vital that you listen to their needs, concerns and ideas – showing that you care about them. By remembering customers’ names, their likes and dislikes, whether they want the receipt in the bag or in their hand your customer will hopefully feel they are appreciated. They must feel that your world revolves around them.

In retail you need to be able to multi-task to the best of your ability, including doing 10 different jobs at once!   Merchandising, deliveries, not to mention manning the tills whilst also bending over backward for your customer while a queue begins to form with impatient coughs beginning to resonate towards you.  Yes my friends, if you can do all this under tight deadlines and still keep that smile on your face, then you should be able to work in PR……

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Sometimes you might wonder “why do I bother?” but in the PR world you need to be highly motivated all the time – adapting to every situation that is thrown your way.  There really is no such thing as a typical day!

Often in retail you can find yourself in a situation you’d never have dreamt of, smiling as you deliver a suitable response to an unhappy customer in order to survive.  Time to shine a light on your problem-solving skills – this might be rhyming off your companies return policy to Susan who clearly bought the item in a different country and wore it 100 times, or how the bags cost 5p and it’s not your fault.  Let’s not forget the customer who will not believe that you genuinely have none of that item left!

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You guessed it! Us PR Wizz kids need to work with other managers to solve communication problems. Being able to act quickly during a difficult situation calls for a crisis communication plan. Now, in the PR world this will be most likely be on a mass scale, it might involve writing a press release, releasing a statement to the organisation’s publics on social media and taking calls from members of the press to ensure the same message is communicated to all.

I am thankful for all that I have learned during my time working in retail, I feel it’s a rite of passage for us millennials.  Now to graduate, get a job and enjoy some retail therapy of my own.

Alannah Stephens is a final year BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. Alannah can be found on Twitter @AlannahStephens and on  Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/alannah-stephens-ab1525127/ 

2 thoughts on ““Would you like a bag with that?” What retail taught me about PR!

  1. So recognisable To me Alannah!…. whether it is retail, politics medicine or whatever…..it all depends on taking the person with you…….make the customer/voter/patient your friend and life will just be SOOO much easier!!! Cedric (having said that it is an art/gift some never learn!!)

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