Wednesday, August 22, 2007

’Tis the Season

Spending season is in full swing—not Christmas (at least not quite yet), but back-to-school, when parents’ expenditures on clothing, backpacks and school supplies approach the gifting costs looming on the upcoming holiday horizon.

In my third trip to hip shoe retailer Journeys—for, yes, a third pair of back-to-school shoes—I watched with interest as a young man adroitly balanced four customers. He may not have looked like your typical high-school success story, with ink and piercings and scruffy hair nicely paired with well-worn t-shirt and sagged jeans, but his service skills more than made up for anything lacking in appearance.

At checkout, I complimented him on his ability to manage multiple customers simultaneously while appearing to remain cool, calm and collected. He smiled quickly, and replied, “Thanks. I actually am better under pressure. The more customers I have, the more fun I have. When it’s slow, I get bored and watch the clock.” He went on to say that this day’s challenges were “nothing compared to the last two days in Iowa.”

The Lincoln, Neb., Journeys employee was referring to the much-publicized sales-tax waivers in states such as North Carolina, Tennessee and, of course, Iowa.

The no-tax shopping days attracted throngs to the malls. This young man had been sent by Journeys’ corporate office to the state next-door to help manage the crowds. At one point, he said, he had 10 customers at once—and he was proud to report that he didn’t get a single complaint.

Sales-tax waivers went a long way toward spurring earlier back-to-school sales—which helped promote advances of 3.1% in July at U.S. retailers—but they also provided valuable, real-life training opportunities for retail employees on the front lines.

—Katherine Field

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