Report summary: Trading Skills for Sales Assistants

Sales assistants jobs have traditionally been regarded as requiring little real ability or skill. This in-depth study of the skills required by employers in the retailing industry suggests that this is not the case. The role of the sales assistant is expanding, and the technical skills of customer service and selling are receiving greater emphasis.

Pressures and change in retail

The retail sector has experienced considerable change in recent years, and the pace and impact of change continues to play an important role, influencing the nature of the industry and the skills required. Our research identifies the following particular pressures:

  • developments in technology
  • a high level of competition
  • increasing demands from customers
  • the adoption of new working practices
  • finding new opportunities for expansion
  • the extension of trading hours.

Although price is a key factor in competition between retail organisations, it is not the only one. Different organisations adopt varying strategies for meeting the needs and demands of their customers and in focusing their customer service. Great emphasis is placed on the quality of customer service, and therefore the skills and abilities of sales assistants.

An increasingly skilled role

Sales jobs have traditionally been placed at a low position in the occupational hierarchy and seen as requiring few skills. Recent studies have argued that, with the advent of new technology and new working practices, sales jobs have become deskilled. However, our research suggests that the job of a sales assistant is increasingly demanding.

The main skills and abilities requires of sales assistants can be summarised under the following headings:

  • personal characteristics: attitudes and outlook; people who like working with and serving people
  • basic literacy and numeracy
  • customer service skills
  • selling skills
  • computer literacy
  • product knowledge
  • a knowledge of the law and other regulations
  • taking responsibility and initiative
  • using the telephone, merchandising, housekeeping.

The skills required of sales assistants are increasingly complex. They are expected to cover a wider range of tasks, and to have a greater depth of knowledge within many of the areas listed above. Many aspects of customer service and selling involve some understanding of human behaviour and psychology. In particular, there is a growing need for people to work smarter, more efficiently and flexibly, especially as it is not possible to be prescriptive about customers needs.

Indicators of skill

The recruitment of sales assistants is usually the responsibility of store and line managers. Although efforts are being made to train and develop managers in this role, there is scope for discretion and variation in approach. Nevertheless, as the role of sales assistants is seen as more crucial, personnel departments are attempting to formalise and give more structure to their selection.

In some organisations, various forms of test are used in the recruitment process, including group exercises, role play and psychometric tests. However, the interview is the main method of assessing the suitability of potential recruits. Qualifications play little role in the recruitment process. Managers are more concerned with assessing a person’s personality, interest in and approach to dealing with people. To do this, questions are asked to explore, for example, their experience and approach, and how they might deal with particular situations.

Once recruited, our research shows that the performance and abilities of the majority of sales assistants continues to be assessed through a variety of methods, including:

  • appraisal systems
  • monitoring and observations by managers
  • comments made by visitors to stores
  • customer complaints, surveys and general feedback
  • mystery shoppers.

Recruitment difficulties

We found that few organisations are having difficulty recruiting people as sales assistants, and where problems do exist they are rarely causing significant problems. Most organisations are only experiencing pockets of difficulty, related to local demographic factors and the level of competition from other sources of employment. Any difficulties in recruiting are rarely due to a lack of applicants. It is more often the case that there is a gap in terms of the attitudes, personal skills and behaviour of applicants: ‘We are still not attracting good people.’

The increasing emphasis on customer service and people skills cannot always be matched in the recruitment process. This does not, however, seem to a major concern, but rather something to be lived with. Some organisations are adjusting their recruitment processes to more accurately identify people with suitable personal and behavioural characteristics. Managers are also being given the necessary tools and materials to work with new recruits to enhance their abilities and skills.

Existing workforce skill gaps

In most organisations it is felt that there is a gap between the skills and abilities of current employees and those ideally wanted by the organisation. There are some excellent sales assistants who like dealing with people and have quickly adapted to new ways of working. However, not everyone finds the new ways easy to work with. Furthermore, it was frequently reported that any gaps are as much a failing on the part of managers as sales assistants themselves. The demands made of sales assistants has been changing and expanding. It takes time to embed the necessary cultural changes promoting these roles, and for suitable training and development to take effect.

Training and development

In almost all organisations, greater attention is being paid to training and development activities, including:

  • induction of new employees
  • introducing new procedures, including approaches to customer service and selling, and products
  • embedding cultural and organisational change
  • addressing shortfalls in individual or group performance
  • updating and reinforce employee skills.

Our research found that in many organisations training and development is becoming more focused on the needs of the business. This does not always mean that more training is being provided, but rather that greater attention is being paid to its role within the organisation and what is actually needed for people to perform effectively. One major concern is ensuring that it is delivered to all staff, in particular those working very few hours.

There is also evidence of a move away from formal, classroom-based teaching. Training is being delivered through a range of mechanisms, including workbooks, computer terminals, videos, coaching and mentoring. Many of these activities may not be perceived as training by those on the receiving end and other studies have suggested that surveys of employees report lower levels of training than surveys of employers.

Looking to the future

Many of the themes and trends outlined above will continue to be important influences on retail organisations. This study identifies a number of key areas for the future, in particular:

  • obtaining the right people — the continuing importance of people skills, and how these can be enhanced
  • rewarding and motivating people, without increasing costs
  • addressing changing customer demands, including the extension of opening hours, and keeping up with, or ahead or, the competition
  • meeting and coping with opportunities offered by technology
  • ensuring managers have the necessary skills and attitudes, especially for managing and motivating people, to take the industry forward.

The study

This study was part of the Department for Education and Employment’s Skills Review Programme. The Programme explored the current and future skill requirements in major occupational groups in Britain. The study included four main components: a review of existing information and literature; exploratory interviews with key players in retailing; interviews with employers in 19 organisations; and a forum at which the research findings were presented and discussed with some of those participating in the study.