Suggestive Selling in Retail: How to Increase Add-On Sales without Being Sleazy

Young man choosing shirt and necktie during apparel shopping at clothing store

Suggestive selling is one of the most powerful tools any retail sales associate can have. Not only can it increase basket size and sales, but when done right, suggestive selling allows customers to discover things they actually need, and helps them get the most out of their purchases. This, in turn, increases customer satisfaction, enables retailers to build trust, and keep shoppers coming back.

To help you step up your suggestive sales efforts, we had a chat with Reese Evans, the Content and Communications Manager for Vend U, where she trains retailers on how to run their stores better. Prior to joining Vend, Reese worked as a sales associate and store manager, and has consistently been named as a top performing salesperson. And with over 10 years experience in retail sales and customer service, she’s truly an expert on suggestive selling.

In this post, Reese shares her top tips and insights on how retailers can effectively suggestive sell. Check out what she has to say below.

Suggestive selling tips and tricks

In this section, we’ll talk about the different approaches you can take when making sales suggestions and offer tips to maximize your results.

Engage in back and forth conversations

Reese says that retailers should first get to know each shopper before even attempting to suggestive sell. “You wouldn’t be able to effectively suggest something without understanding your customers’ needs. If somebody walks into your store and you instantly start recommending products without knowing if they’re relevant, shoppers are going to feel annoyed or tune you out.”

According to Reese, the best way to understand shoppers is to engage them in conversation. Talk to them, ask questions, and be genuinely interested in what they have to say. You’ll be surprised at the insights you get out of doing so.

“You’ll be able to pick up on little things that they wouldn’t typically say that they’re looking for,” she continues. “A customer can come in at 5:30pm and say something like ‘I’m looking for a dress for a wedding, and I just got off work…’ From there, you’ll know that they’re looking for a dress but they also work a 9 to 5 job.”

“With that in mind, you can help her find that dress she wants, but you could also suggest things based on what you know about them. You could say, “Oh you work in an office? That suit would be perfect as well.”

Reese says that when associates gain insights into the customer’s lifestyle and combine their knowledge with a thorough understanding of the merchandise on hand, they can go further and suggest things the shopper didn’t even know they were looking for, provided that they can show the value in it and how it can improve their lifestyle.

Know your inventory inside and out

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Associates should be “masters of their inventory,” says Reese. Having adequate product knowledge allows you to suggest items quickly and effectively.

For instance, if a customer tells you that something is out of their budget, you should be able to quickly run through your inventory and suggest something that’s similar, but at a lower price point.

Knowing your inventory inside and out also helps you and your staff drive interest and sales. “Retailers should make sure that associates have some background on the store’s products,” she adds. “That could include the story of a designer or the origin of the item.

“Most of the time the customer who’s willing to spend more cares about those types of things. They care about the story of a product, they want to be able to relate it back to something and talk about it.”

Additionally, having the necessary product and stock information prevents you from suggesting things you don’t have, she notes.

“One thing that’s common is the associate suggests something, and the customer says ‘I love it, I need it in a size 6…” but then the store doesn’t have that size in stock.”

Prevent scenarios like the one above by staying on top of product and stock knowledge. Regularly update your POS and inventory management system, and keep the data handy, so you and your staff always have access to the info you need.

Another good way to ensure that all team members are familiar with your products is to set aside time to discuss your merchandise with the staff.

As an example, Reese brings up Elevator, Toronto’s leading accessories and jewellry boutique. Store owner Niko Downie takes the time to unbox merchandise with his staff, so they can talk about each item.

“They sit down with each product, look at it thoroughly, talk about the materials, the designer, and story behind it. They also discuss what makes each item unique and how to demonstrate it to customers.”

“Elevator does this every time they have new merchandise come in, and I recommend that retailers adopt a similar approach,” adds Reese.

Treat your customer like they’re your best friend

“Establishing trust is critical to suggestive selling,” mentions Reese. “Once the customer feels that an associate is only after the commission and they don’t really trust the salesperson’s advice, they’ll instantly get turned off and get hesitant about making a purchase.”

To accomplish this, she recommends treating the customer like they’re your best friend. Most customers love shopping with their close friends because they trust these individuals to tell them if something looks good or if an item isn’t right for them. Establishing a similar connection with your shoppers will go a long way not just when it comes to sales, but also in terms of cultivating strong customer relationships.

“Be interested in your customers. Know their names, treat them like friends, tell jokes, and make them feel comfortable. That way, when you tell them that something looks good (or not) on them, they’re going to trust you.”

“This isn’t about being sleazy or manipulative,” she adds. “You’ll find that when you start to build relationships with customers, you’ll actually enjoy the sales process that much more. You get a really good feeling when you show someone something that makes their day, makes them look good, or can make their lives easier.”

Reese also talks about how shopping is about the experience. If a customer feels like they’re shopping with a friend, they’re going to stay longer and feel more comfortable, rather than being in a store wherein the associate gives them the cold shoulder and only starts engaging when they think the shopper is willing to make a purchase.

Equip yourself and your staff with industry knowledge

Aside from product and inventory knowledge, see to it that your staff is also on top of the latest industry news and trends.

“Customers obviously want to speak to associates who know what they’re talking about, so make sure they have knowledge of your industry. There are easy ways to do this. You can have weekly memos that talk about what’s going in your field. That way, when a customer walks in, associates can offer tons of relevant and timely tidbits.”

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Be subtle when necessary

You don’t always have to be explicit with the products you’re suggesting. Depending on the customer, you could be a bit more subtle with how you recommend things.

According to Reese, a good approach could be to compliment items that you like (or think the customer will like) in the store. “You could say ‘I really like the color of that bag.’ Or, let’s say a shopper wants to buy a black dress. You could mention that you just had another customer shopping for the same product and they also liked the other items in the store.”

“They key is making them aware of your other products without pushing them to buy.”

The best and worst times for suggestive selling

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Now that we’ve discussed how you can effectively suggest and sell, let’s talk about when to implement the above-mentioned tips (and when to back off).

According to Reese, below are some of the best and worst times to carry out suggestive selling:

Best times:

After you’ve gotten to know the customer

“The best time to suggestive sell is after you’ve gotten to know the shopper. Once you know what they want to buy, what it’s for, and what their size is, you’ll be able to make more relevant suggestions,” says Reese.

When they’re holding a product

There are also some suggestive selling opportunities when a customer is already holding a product, she adds.

“When they already have something in their hands, suggesting something that is complementary to it could increase add-on sales. Let’s say you sell garden supplies and the customer picks up a pot. From that point, you can recommend soil types or plants that would go well with it. And it’s even better if the suggested item is on sale because they’ll be more likely to buy it if they feel that they’re getting a deal.”

When addressing an objection

The next best time to suggest and sell is when you’re addressing an objection.”If someone is in your store and saying things like ‘I’m not sure about this…’ or ‘The fit is a little loose…’ retailers should grab the opportunity to suggestive sell.”

“The fact that they’re going through the process of eliminating things that they might not like means they’re seriously considering buying. If they weren’t, then the would’ve walked out of the store already. So let’s say the shopper thinks a particular garment is too loose for her body type; that would be a great opportunity to suggest a belt to go with the product to help make an outfit complete.”

Associates could also suggest alternatives. If a customer objects to the price of an item, the salesperson could recommend items at a lower price range.

Worst times:

As soon as a customer walks into a store

Reese advises merchants to avoid suggestive selling when a customer has just walked into the shop.

“Carrying out suggestive selling as soon as you see a customer is like displaying a popup ad as soon as someone lands on your website. The customer won’t like it, and their immediate reaction is usually ‘How can I get past this obstacle to carry on with what I’m doing?’”

She reiterates that retailers should take some time to ask questions and engage in conversation, so they can understand their customers’ needs and suggest items accordingly.

When a shopper tells you (verbally or nonverbally) that they’re not interested

“It’s really important to listen and realize when suggestive selling won’t work,” mentions Reese.

“A customer might come in and say ‘I really just want to buy a specific item’ or ‘I only have xx amount dollars to spend…’ when you hear statements like that, you should let them be.”

She brought up the importance of reading people’s body language. “The longer you work with customers, the more you’ll be able to read their non-verbal cues. You’ll be able to look at someone and know if they’re getting uneasy. Once you get the vibe, you should lay off of the suggestive selling.”

Bottom line

Learning how to effectively suggestive sell can do wonders for your bottom line, but you shouldn’t just do it for the sales. Practice suggestive selling to genuinely add value. Do it because want to help shoppers find products they want and need, and because you want to educate them on how they can get the most out of their purchases.

As Reese puts it, “Suggestive selling should be about enlightening people on how they can improve their lives and showing them products they can actually use.”

Do you have any other tips when it comes to suggestive selling? Let us know in the comments.

Recommended Reading

Want to maximize your sales potential? Check out these 10 retail sales techniques that will help you attract and convert more customers

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.

  • Cara

    This is a GREAT post. Suggestive selling is so often done poorly. Corporate stores hand down orders stating that every sale needs to have a certain number of products. (And horrible catchphrases to go with them. Two from my time: They need 3 to go free! and We need to sell 5 to thrive!) Managers frequently try to move slow products by insisting that sales associates suggest a certain product to every customer, as well. Both these methods are MISERABLE. They completely throw out the idea that every sale is different and every customer has a different set of needs. And ultimately, it makes life really hard for the sales associates. I remember once, I was showing a difficult customer around the store, and I was finally bringing her out of her shell, showing that she could trust me to sell her only the products she NEEDED, when my equally difficult manager started making signs behind the woman for me to show my customer this sweater that was not at ALL what my customer was looking for. My manager kept doing it, and finally, I asked the woman if she wanted the sweater. She got extremely upset and left the store without purchasing. Every customer is different, and you have to treat them personally.

    • Hey Cara,

      As always, we appreciate your thoughtful and very detailed comment!

      It’s good to hear about first-hand stories on poor suggestive selling. I’m sure many retailers will learn from your experience, so thanks for sharing.

      And I wholly agree that suggestive selling is often done poorly in retail. As a consumer, I often come across associates who immediately start suggesting items (usually those that are on sale) the moment I walk into a store. This is such a turn off, and I wish merchants would understand that I would be more likely to buy their upsells if they take the time to figure out what I need and suggest relevant items.

  • George

    Great post – very informative and could apply to sales in many industries. Reese is spot on, the sales process is enjoyable when suited to the client needs. If you want to just push product, open an online store. The value of client facing sales is the experience you create, which in turn creates loyalty, referrals and repeat business.

    • “The value of client facing sales is the experience you create, which in turn creates loyalty, referrals and repeat business.” –Very well-put, George. Couldn’t agree more.

      Thank you for weighing in. I’m happy you like the post, and I’ll pass along your comment to Reese. 🙂

  • Rohit Modi

    This is a very enriching article for someone like me who looks at the industry from a data perspective. Extremely insightful. Thanks!

    • Glad you found the post insightful, Rohit! Thanks for the kind words.

  • Mechellestone

    Great article! I think every retailer needs to train sales associates on these simple yet insightful techniques.

    • Glad you like the post, Mechelle! Thanks for the comment (both here and on Linkedin) 🙂

  • Minni Arora

    if i analysed the low performing stock & make changes to increase sell thru. what will be my learning and challenges related to this