The Four Most Damaging Words in Retail: “May I Help You?”


Are you a salesperson? Whether you own your natural products store or just work in one, if your job duty is to interact with customers, you are in sales. You may not think of yourself primarily as a salesperson—maybe you are a nutritionist—but your customer does. And, this is why asking the universal retail store-clerk question, “May I help you?” is the worst possible way to begin your conversation. When you say, “May I help you,” your customer hears instead, “Can I sell you something?” Nobody likes to be pressured into buying; that’s just human nature.

In a selling situation, only ask a yes or no question when you’re sure the answer will be yes. You build momentum toward a sale by stringing together positive communications and getting a series of “Yeses.” Cardinal rule number one in sales is, if you are not sure that the answer to your question will be “Yes,” don’t ask the question!

In my seminars, I often ask retailers to tell me how their customers answer the question, “May I help you?” Everyone says the same thing: “No thanks, just looking!” If you know that your customer is going to say no, why ask the question? Now you have no place to take your conversation. This reminds me of the story of the fellow who goes to the doctor and says, “Doc, when I reach around like this (demonstrating an arm-twisting move), it hurts!” The doctor says, “Well, don’t do that!”

So, how can you politely greet and break the ice without sending your customer into a defensive crouch? Since you know very little about your customer at this point, asking any question is risky. Instead, make a statement. The weather is always a safe, neutral topic. Whether it is hot, cold, rainy, windy or pleasant outside, you can simply remark on this. This non-pressure approach signals your customer that it is okay to relax, and makes it easier to tell you why they’ve come in.

A few tips:

1. Let your customer decompress. Give him or her 10 to 20 seconds to adjust to your indoor environment before saying anything.

2. Don’t be afraid of silence. After you’ve made your greeting, relax. Remember, your main purpose at this moment is to acknowledge your customer.

3. Simple is best. A heartfelt, “Hello,” “Thanks for stopping in” or “It’s nice to see you,” can put the customer immediately at ease.

4. Body language and tone of voice matter. Whatever you say, say it with a smile, and mean it. People spot insincerity instantly.

There are other safe, neutral ways to greet customers. If you have tea or coffee available say, “Please help yourself to some tea or coffee.” Once you begin to explore alternative ways to welcome customers, you’ll find dozens of fun options that will start the flow of productive conversation naturally. WF

Jay Jacobowitz is president and founder of Retail Insights®, a professional consulting service for natural products retailers established in 1998, and creator of Natural Insights for Well Being®, a comprehensive marketing service designed especially for independent natural products retailers. With 34 years of wholesale and retail industry experience, Jay has assisted in developing over 900 successful natural products retail stores in the U.S. and abroad. Jay is a popular author, educator, and speaker, and is the merchandising editor of WholeFoods Magazine, for which he writes Merchandising Insights and Tip of the Month. Jay also serves the Natural Products Association in several capacities. Jay is next scheduled at National Products Association Southwest Healthfest in Arlington, TX. Jay will speak during the afternoon program on Saturday, April 9, 2011. He can be reached at (800)328-0855 or via e-mail at

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2011