To incorporate empathy into your retail experience is to connect with your customers on a personal, intimate level. No one recognizes that level of interaction more than those in the lingerie industry—particularly those who also sell custom-made lingerie like Elise Olson, owner of lingerie boutique On the Inside.
Though it’s important to exhibit empathy when you’re selling a customer anything, be it bike accessories or running shoes, it’s an attribute that’s not just valuable but integral in an industry of unmentionables. Customers have to be comfortable stripping down and even talking sex with their salesperson, which requires an environment rife with authenticity and empathy. That’s why we tapped Elise to share her thoughts on retail, connection, and developing empathy in your staff.
Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.
My name is Elise Olson, and I am the owner/designer/maker of On The Inside Lingerie and have been in business for 13 years making lingerie. I opened a new brick and mortar shop on Haywood Road in West Asheville in October 2017. Before I opened my shop, I worked out of an artist’s studio and sold exclusively online and to selected boutiques. But now, I sell my line, as well as three other locally made designers and other ethically made brands from around the world. So I was never really in retail until I opened the shop, or had any experience doing so. I am finding my work much more rewarding now with the addition of the retail side, as I get to connect with my clients much more than previously.
We think empathy is an undervalued attribute in the retail industry, especially specialty retail, where product knowledge is often prioritized as an asset in employees, rather than soft skills. Do you think empathy is an important (and undervalued) trait in retail? Why?
I think empathy is an extremely important trait in retail, especially when it comes to lingerie. I often have women come in that are uncertain of themselves or embarrassed about their bodies. When I am able to connect with a customer, especially one who is uncomfortable, she is able to open up and let me help her better than if we didn’t make that connection. When someone feels heard and understood, they can communicate their wants and needs.
What’s your approach with your customers? Did you develop an empathetic approach to customers, or do you feel like it came naturally to you?
My approach is to be open and available, but to not crowd them if they are giving me cues that they want to be left alone (especially with lingerie, as it can be a personal thing). Often, people come in and want a little space in the beginning to get their bearings, and once they feel comfortable, they are ready for my help and suggestions. So, I try to give them that vibe – that I am there if they need me, but I let them be the guide as to how much I am involved. Once they are trying things on, I do pay more attention to if they would like my assistance, as they often do. I have been helping women with lingerie for so many years that I have just developed an empathic approach over the years and have just learned how to tune in to what they want their experience to be.
Any tips for retailers looking to cultivate empathy in their employees?
Be welcoming right when someone walks through the door. Listen to what the customer wants, because they often know. Be patient and not pushy.
Some might argue that intimate ware is an exception to the retail rule because it inherently personal, but what approaches from selling lingerie do you think should be adapted more broadly across retailers?
My goal with customers is to make them feel comfortable and relaxed and like they are not in a hurry, which could be adopted by any retailer.
Any other thoughts on infusing retail with empathy and understanding you’d like to share?
When someone doesn’t buy an item the first time they come in, if you give them a good experience, they are more likely come back another time. I strive for each interaction to be positive even if it doesn’t result in a sale. Just because someone walks into your shop doesn’t mean that they need to feel like they have to purchase something.
Learn more at ontheinsidelingerie.com.