In my work with retailers, I’ve seen a radical shift in the power dynamic between customer and sales associate over the last decade. In short, customers have it; sales associates don’t. Customers hold their own velvet rope, choosing to admit (or reject) sales associates to their experience. Some stores have adapted and thrived; some limit their fixes to POS tech and data-driven solutions; still others manage decline and wish “the golden years” would magically return. But the customer of a decade ago is gone.

Seller beware

Let’s be realistic: the future will likely bring fewer customers into stores, for all the technological and cultural reasons we know so well, along with volatility in currencies and a sustained drop-off in international tourism. Count on fewer support resources, too. At the sales level, we can’t control any of that.

Meanwhile, “No, thank you” echoes off the walls. It’s surprising how few sales associates know what these words mean. “No, thank you” is a symptom of something much bigger than lack of interest. It’s a response to intrusive behavior, ill-timed conversational gambits, prodding questions, all the old-school selling techniques. Translate it to, “You don’t get me.”

Luxury sales teams must develop their understanding of the customer journey, learn new relationship-building skills and eliminate old behaviors that turn off store guests. After all, customers don’t need you—or at least, they no longer think they do. And what they think or don’t think turns directly into dollars they spend or don’t spend.

The good news

Customers are more primed to buy than ever, because they’re farther along on the journey when they walk in. Some know even more than you do about what you sell. They’re the savviest, most independent shoppers in history. That’s precisely why historically effective sales approaches now fail.

This is all just evolution at work. Customers have evolved faster than sales associates, who tend to keep trying what once worked well. More good news: stores can evolve, too. We can recalibrate our side of the relationship to meet customers where they are. This could be a time of retail reinvention, if we make it The Year of No More “No, Thank You”.

The evolved sales associate

Adaptation for sales associates is behavioral, but also conceptual. Redefine the job. It’s not to romance product or wield a battery of questions. Consider: at a networking event or singles gathering, would you come right out of the gate with a deluge of information or prying inquiry? Not if you want a relationship. The job is to facilitate feeling, thought and connection—mostly through listening. To help customers feel free, think new, imagine the pleasure and utility of ownership, and appreciate the value of their relationship to you.

What is that value? To provide an experience available nowhere else. Not just a tech experience, or a bridging of online and real life. After all, 40% of luxury brands aren’t available online; those that are must still offer a human experience of a higher order. We no longer work on a sales floor, but in the field of awareness. We’re here to notice everything. Allow people to reveal themselves. Understand if they’re after exclusivity or belonging. Connect to what matters to another human being. To be relevant. The evolved sales associate interprets dreams.


Be assured, these are informed dreams. Today’s customers are not the habitués of 1997’s high-end stores. Boomer, Xer, or Millennial (increasingly the latter), they’re focused. Backed by research, consumer reviews, peer recommendations. Armed with skepticism and a smartphone. If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, yours comes at about milepost 500 for them.

A new school in session

It’s a shock to old-schoolers to learn that they don’t choose customers; customers choose them. By eliminating forced conversations or product lectures, we create space for that choice. We give up trying to control the customer and instead learn to collaborate in the experience. We hand over the microphone. Listen. Can you hear it? That’s the gap closing—and maybe more wallets opening. Maybe the future can be better than we ever imagined.

Martin Shanker is the President of Shanker Inc, a global consultancy working with luxury brands developing sales teams to stay relevant in these evolving times. Clients include Burberry, Cartier, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, LVMH, Lane Crawford, Tod’s, Van Cleef & Arpels and many other luxury brands.