Quiet: At the Mall and In the Classroom
Fighting some early-onset cabin fever this past Wednesday evening, I headed to the local mall. Not only was I shopping solo (a mama win!), but I had some holiday cash and gift cards burning the proverbial hole in my pocket.
It was like a retail case study, and I was an already primed customer.
Which is why I was disappointed–and deeply concerned–when I meandered through several of my favorite stores, established brands, only to have no one speak to me. No greetings. No open ended questions (“What brings you in this evening?”). No check-ins. No eye-contact. Mostly just young sales associates focused on tasks, or each other, or the clock.
At one point a group of associates and a manager were talking about hiring, and not only didn’t they say anything to me–they also stopped talking to each other–creating a very awkward silence as I moved through the racks.
Which is where I made a strange connection: this silence reminded me of this past semester, as I struggled to engage a classroom of Juniors who responded to discussion prompts with a fixation on the middle distance. (Before eventually warming up.)
I am familiar with long stretches of quiet, especially early in the semester, and also in this current group whose learning the past three years has also been heavily hybrid. But I am not familiar with long stretches of quiet in the mall. Not in stores. Even the music seemed muted. In the golden age of the experience economy, the experience felt dull.
And it made me worry. What happens when the simple act of greeting a customer is difficult to execute? If my students don’t practice speaking up in the classroom, what is happening in other places? The office? The conference room? A client meeting?
I occasionally joke about how I feel that everything I learned in business, I learned in retail. But it is true. And, while I get it—it’s January. It’s post inventory. It’s boring. It’s an hour until closing. It’s a “job” where people are passing through. The pandemic brought out the worst in customers. Still, what happens on the sales floor can be the foundation of how to build good business relationships for the rest of a career.
"What happens on the sales floor can be the foundation of how to build good business relationships for the rest of a career."
As Modest Mouse sang in their 1997 song Teeth Like God's Shoeshine, "The malls are the soon to be ghost towns." So, I'll let go for a moment. This retail veteran will forget the lost sale. This brand strategist will forget the chance to build the brand. Forget the fact that other stores in this well-trafficked and top-performing regional mall have the doors closed early because they don’t have the coverage or sales to be open, which, if you think about it too much (like I do), you see that has a ripple effect around the community, the region, the world.
But I wish all of us this: Build your own career one greeting at a time. You never know who you may meet. And in retail, while you never know who is going to walk in the door, you also never want an opportunity to walk out the door.