Can I help you? Why retail customers always say no

These are the four worst words anyone can utter to a customer in retail. We all know they answer it gets 99% of the time – because we all give it.

“No thanks – just looking”

These 4 words are revenue stoppers, barrier creators, and empathy evaporators. It just says to the potential customer – I’m too bored and uninterested to even use a sentence that isn’t expected, practiced or considerate of the fact that you are the person who pays my wage. But rather than simply pointing out that it doesn’t work, let’s discuss a couple of simple and effective alternatives. And I’ll do this by giving you an example and a retail sales person who gets it.

I was recently shopping for some new jeans in a Myer store in Melbourne. When the sales guy approached me he asked me a simple question:

“Are you after pants or tops today?”

A very smart move. Either answer starts a conversation we he can ‘be help’ instead of simply asking if I need it. If I answer ‘pants’ – we can start narrowing down the selection. Same if I answer ‘tops’. Or he might even get lucky and I say ‘both’. If I say ‘neither’ I just look like a fool, and we can both wonder why the hell I walked into the store in the first place. Needless to say, I told him and he helped me find a nice pair of jeans.

blue jeans

The trick is simple:

First – never ask an open ended question. They don’t solve problems or lead to results.

Second – ask two pronged choice questions for which both answers are good for the sales person.

Third – don’t feel guilty or pushy doing it. People wouldn’t (especially men) enter a store just for the sake of it, they want help.

So next time you go into a store with sales assistants, pay attention to the language they use and you’ll start to notice those who get it and those who don’t. This example might also serve as a good question or test when recruiting business development staff for your startup.



  1. Helena Sorensen · May 21, 2013

    My reply to “Can I help you?”… I certainly hope so!

    Which typically gets their attention!

    Then again… I am a seasoned ‘shopper’ & usually know what I’m looking for ~;)

    • Patrice Boivin · May 21, 2013

      Actually, 99% of the time I don’t want help. Retail shopping (including grocery shopping) is a horrible, time-wasting activity. I go in, pick what I need, pay and get out. It would be even better if cashiers didn’t exist and we could just pay quickly or automatically as we leave.

      Problem is, most of the time, retail stores have what they want to sell people, not what people want to buy. I have a saying: “if you don’t know what you want, you’ll probably find it. If you do know what you want, you won’t find it.”

      Some people like to stroll aimlessly in stores or chat with neighbors in aisles, blocking access for others. But they are not shopping, they are loitering.

    • Michael Stens · May 21, 2013

      How sad.

  2. Chuck Mills · May 21, 2013

    I want someone genuinely interesting in helping *me* find what *I want*. Not someone who wants to get me out of the store so they can go back to Facebook, or sell me something *they want* for any number of reasons.

    Yes, I know, they’re hired by the company to sell whatever the company has, that’s why they exist, but at least fake it for me, allowing me to suspend my disbelief for a few minutes.

  3. Caroline · May 21, 2013

    The worst is when they ask that and you give the normal answer “No, thanks. Just looking.” and then they hover behind you until you feel so uncomfortable you leave the store.

    • Tina · May 21, 2013

      Yes, I feel exactly the same way! So annoying.

  4. peter · May 21, 2013

    Then there are customers — such as myself — who really would rather find something themselves. I appreciate being able to try many things on without having to inconvenience another person. I leave stores which are too pushy about engaging with me; I feel like I have to make a rushed purchase if someone is waiting on me. This is especially true for shoe stores, where it is neigh impossible to find a self-service store which sells nice shoes.

  5. charlieb · May 21, 2013

    Maybe I’m in the minority but if I want help I’ll ask for it. Being able to give eager sales assistants the brush off without having to be rude is a blessing. If I feel pressured to make a purchase then it is very likely that I will never darken your door again. It may help your bottom line overall but some people will be lost forever.

    Maybe there is a phrasing that gives me an out?

  6. wai · May 21, 2013

    “People wouldn’t enter a store just for the sake of it” -> “they want help.” That is broken logic. People enter a store because they want stuff, not help. Salespeople that “get it” recognize when someone NEEDS help and when they are clearly engaged in finding the stuff they want on their own. Asking your two pronged questions requires me to be rude to escape you. Since most people try to avoid being rude, this is manipulative sales behavior.

  7. ravi · May 21, 2013

    Someone who asks me “Can I help you?” is politely indicating to me that while I browse I can get assistance. It encourages me to stay in the store, to call upon the salesperson to assist me, and not feel pressured about browsing. Someone who asks what I am “after” will be perceived as presumptuous, aggressive and conveying a message that if I am not “after” something that will add cash money to the register, I should go loiter around somewhere else. The latter style of salesmanship is not new. There is a place where it is common and much unappreciated by customers: low end auto dealerships.

  8. dog cat · May 21, 2013

    I would still say I’m just looking, I’ll find you if I need you

  9. Dave Shackleton · May 21, 2013

    I know nothing about retailing, but as a customer this doesn’t ring true at all for me. When I enter a retail store I am not interested in help, I am interested in exploring. If a salesperson asks a presumptuous question like “pants or shirts”, I get annoyed that I have to spend energy explaining that my interest in the store doesn’t fall into the narrow choice I have been presented.

    In fact, the stores I use the most are those where the salespeople approach me once with the passive “Let me know if I can help you” and then walk away. That doesn’t even require a response from me other than a smile and “Thank you”. And then I buy a lot.

    How representative am I? Probably not very. On the Myers-Briggs I am an INTP. But how have you qualified or tested your advice among different types of customers? Among the 16 different M-B types, is this valid for 5 of 16 or 15 of 16?

    From what I understand, the Apple stores are one of the most successful retail experiences in the world. I have never walked in there and been asked “Are you interested in iPads or Monitors?” Is that because they haven’t figured out yet what you are proposing, or is there another reason?

    Maybe what you say is true for a subset of the population and the trick is figuring out in which subset a customer belongs? So, for example, what if facial and posture profiling when entering a store could tell your salespeople how a customer prefers to interact?

    Every successful product or service starts with empathy. When in doubt, don’t presume what your customers want, find out.

    (By the way, I didn’t mean to sound harsh here. I applaud your blogging, and it is far easier to be a critic than someone who puts the ideas out there to be criticized.)

    • INTP · May 21

      I was thinking oh I totally agree with this guy! then I came to the INTP part…lol I’m also an INTP, and funnily enough also work in retail! Such a poor much for my personality. When shopping I just want to be left in peace and un-harrassed, so I feel very uncomfortable pestering customers myself, but companies don’t understand that lots of people want to be left alone and got to keep my job! Although INTPs are a minority, I imagine a large portion, easily half of all people would rather be left alone than bothered unless it’s a complicated item you actually need help with. Examples might be technology or equipment that is quite complex or something. Working in retail, it is a minority of people who want help with uncomplicated items, majority seem to want to be left to their own devices. I think there is a huge disconnect between retailers and a large porition of customers. Probably because the retail world is full of irritatingly bubbly and extroverted people. Most people are not like that and don’t want the same things as those people.

      I have personally avoided stores or even left where I feel too bombarded by retail assistants. I don’t even like being greeted, and I hate having to take the energy to refuse their help, if they offer me help more than once or I am pestered more than once I will probably leave. Though, I am polite to them because I know it is their job.

      Rant over.

      I usually shop online anyway, and I love the self checkout at supermarkets.

  10. “Are you after pants or tops today?” – If a salesperson asked me this in a clothing store I, and I think a lot of men, would feel cornered and uncomfortable and start eyeing the exits. It’s an invasive question designed, as you say, to have only answers that are good for the salesperson. The only way out of that question that gets me what I want (which is to just look at the merchandise and not be pulled into a sales pitch) is to be dishonest, because I probably am looking for pants, or tops, or both – I just don’t want to talk you. Thanks, you’ve forced me to be rude and dishonest. There are lot of valid reasons to go into a clothing store not wanting to be engaged by a salesperson that will still result in purchases. “People wouldn’t (especially men) enter a store just for the sake of it, they want help” – that is some seriously flawed thinking! You need to expand your idea of what customers want and be responsive to more types of shoppers.

  11. Abe · May 21, 2013

    Actually, I think you can simplify your three rules to one: “Don’t ask questions you may not like the answer to.”

    Open-ended questions aren’t bad, as long as they engage the customer in dialogue. A really good open-ended question is one which doesn’t elicit a generic response: “how are you doing today?” “fine.” versus “what are you looking for in your next pair of glasses?” “I’m looking for something a lot more hip and trendy, something which fits my face better, something better quality…”

    Second: close-ended questions aren’t any better (by default) than open-ended questions. In fact, “can I help you?” is a close-ended question which fails because elicits, most often, a “no thanks.” The salesman you quote used a close-ended question that was simple and direct. Of the two options he offered, neither way a go-away-I-got-this-on-my-own possibility; both options intrinsically involved him helping you find something.

    Therefore, the key to using questions in sales is to use close-ended *or* open-ended questions which imply engagement…that imply that you, the salesman, *will* be helping them find/do/acquire something.

    But to say that you can only offer two choices and never used open-ended questions and always use close-ended questions is just silly. In fact, your salesman may have been even more successful if he’d asked, “what holes in your wardrobe are you filling today?” Maybe you would’ve walked out with pants, shirts, belts, shoes, hats, and more… Close-ended questions are typically a bad idea if better appropriate open-ended questions exist because they limit the outcomes of the interaction.

  12. rory gilmore · May 21, 2013

    In my experience it is extremely annoying to be approached by a sales person that is offering “help”. In almost any situation their help is completely unnecessary and their approach is an annoying speed bump to actually shopping. If I need help I will ask you. “Just browsing” is the nicest way of saying “leave me alone”. If I am asked if I’m after “pants or tops” my answer would be “I’m not sure, just browsing”, which translates to “none of your damn business, leave me alone”.

  13. Miles Bader · May 21, 2013

    The trick is simple

    That’s whole problem: this is a linquistic trick to avoid peoples’ natural reaction and make it hard for them to quickly disengage, not actually a useful question.

    Really good salespeople have the judgement to tell when somebody really wants help. They read body language. They have patience and know when to leave their customers alone.

    Bad salespeople use tricks (like this one) to disarm their customers and try to goad them into making a purchase.

  14. CK Ng · May 21, 2013

    Most salespeople fail to understand that a lot of customers just wants to browse. They may not have anything in mind (yet). Asking “May I help you?” or a rephrased question like the one suggested forces them to make a decision on what they might want. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

    There are a few times I enter a store, let’s say a CD store and before I can browse anything I get asked the question. Hey look, you operate a CD store. People may not have a particular CD in mind to buy when they enter. They want to explore and discover music. Same goes for other stores.

    So, salespeople – please let us browse in peace. If we need help in looking for something, we will look for you.

  15. ExRetailEmployee · May 21, 2013

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is that most, if not all, retail stores use “Mystery Shopper” programs, where an external company sends a person to the store to evaluate the “service” provided. One criteria on that evaluation is how long did it take from point of entry for an employee to either greet or offer assistance. If the employees wear name tags, the evaluator can write down the name and it gets included in the report that goes to the store manager and the district manager. The consequences of not engaging a customer can be a bad review and up to the loss of a job, even for non-commission jobs.

    So, for those of you who are irritated by being asked, that’s something to bear in mind. When I worked on a retail sales floor in electronics at a major office supply retailer, I’d ask, because there was a risk in not asking. I never worked for commission, so I didn’t hover or continue to pester, which perhaps a commissioned person would do. The only thing I would do is ask again if the person had been in for a considerable amount of time, both as an effort to try to help, and as an effort to make sure the person knew that we were around and watching.

    • Evie · May 21

      I agree ExRetailEmployee. After reading some of the comments, it’s left me disappointed in the lack of awareness and rudeness of customers. Yes, many customer service and sales representatives are very obtrusive, however Sales Assistant employees are required, by their contracts to specific companies, to follow ‘shopper experience’ guidelines- set out by the COMPANY in which they work. This usually means greeting within the first 30sec-1min of a customer entering the store. As a shopper, I also like to ‘just browse’, but understand that as part of the BUSINESS’ regulations and criteria to meet ‘customer service’ and ‘mystery shopping’ needs, I am more empathetic in my response. If you don’t enjoy the customer service provided by given companies- eg. being greeted within the aforementioned time frame, I suggest that you interact with the businesses themselves, and request no ‘mystery shopping’ so retail staff can relax and enjoy the experience with the customer.

  16. Lyndsay at Kayak · May 21, 2013

    It’s funny that in an age of social media and connection, the sales staff -> potential customer approach is still so awkward. Content is king everywhere else, and I think content and inbound-style thinking can navigate this scenario as well.

    One way around it might be to give the customer something. “Can I help you?” and “Pants or tops?” are both questions that are far more important to the seller than the buyer – the buyer knows the answer to this question, and knows why you’re asking.

    Reframe the interaction to draw them in instead. Be on their side: “Good afternoon! We’ve got a great sale happening on the rack *here*. This side of the store is mens, and this side is ladies.” While you’re talking to them and making their shopping easier, they have plenty of time to think up anything they want to ask you.

    • Martin · May 21, 2013

      It just goes to show that you can never please all the people all of the time. I suggest you stick a big smile on your face and say good morning or good afternoon. That way you appear approachable and you have met the criteria for the secret shopper and everyone is happy. Happy people are always good to be around and will attract customers that want to buy from you.

  17. Mikaelynn Frank · May 21, 2013

    Can I help you isn’t open ended. It’s responded with yes or no.
    What are you looking for today is opened ended and gives the customer a chance to explain what they want.

  18. David C · May 21

    It;s annoying enough to be asked if I want help when in a retail store. Even MORE annoying is when the clerk asks the type of question the article above wants them to ask. Am I here for pants or tops today? Get the hell out of here, PLEASE. If I want help, I’ll frigging ASK you for help. The ONLY thing a sales clerk should ask is “How are you doing?” Period. If I need help, I’m gonna let you know right then or whenever I do need help while in your store. Until then, leave the customer ALONE. Nothing makes me leave a store faster than a pushy sales person. So annoying….

    • Evie · May 21

      Maybe you should shop online? That way its a win/win situation for both yourself and the sales assistants that are just doing their job (which by their contracts and management, require to greet you within the first 1min of entering a store) Be a bit more lenient David C, many assistants are students trying to support themselves through UNI :)

  19. Dan · May 21

    The article doesn’t take into account that most browsers so called customers are bored zombies that would prefer aimlessly wondering around a destination spot then being assisted by another human being. Retail stores should be turned into the equivalent of automated phone operators. No human beings trained to educate the customer on the product they offer and the difference between their company and others but mindless automation. Then you’ll complain about that. Everyone who works in retail or customer service in general should get a free pass to heaven. If you offer help you’re pushy!! If you don’t approach you’re lazy!! When I’m buying I would like an educated salesperson and a great price. I want to know that I’m buying from someone who wants my business and is willing to offer great customer service to get it. My time is valuable so I don’t want to look around for hours or days to find it. Nothing annoys me more then walking into a store and not being approached by a HUMAN BEING so I can tell them what I’m looking for. I don’t like waisting my time. However, keep pushing for mindless sales associates and thats what you will get and then you’ll complain about that! There’s nothing more attractive to business owners then cutting cost and maximizing profit and cutting an entire a sales staff will definitely do that. I’m disappointed in some of the comments I’ve read!! I’m a district manager for a large retail comany and have worked in customer service for 25 years. Most of us go into the service because we love people. It’s dispointing to read how service is not valued anymore. When a sales person approaches a customer to assist, it’s just that!! Customers make for bad service, not the other way around. When you don’t allow someone to do their job and you reduce a sales person into an order taker, thats what you get. BAD SERVICE!! The pushy uncaring sales person you’re dealing with didn’t start out that way. If you don’t like sales people, order online and deal with that B.S. Good LUCK!!

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