Thinking about becoming a retail sales associate?

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Many retail sales associate jobs are entry-level positions, requiring minimal education and experience and a general skill set.

When browsing entry-level jobs for a company that interests you, you may find retail sales associate positions available. But what is a sales associate, exactly? In this position, you serve as a link between your employer and the customer. Sales associates usually interact with customers in person, rather than by phone, email, chat, or social media, though some experience in those skill areas may be valuable.

Many retail sales associate jobs are entry-level positions, requiring minimal education and experience and a general skill set. Depending on the job, however, you may need more specialized knowledge and experience to help customers find the right products for their needs. Here's what you need to know to successfully find a job in retail sales.

What does retail mean?

The term "retail" refers to a business model in which products are sold to end users in small quantities from a single point, such as a local mall or a department store location. The retailer is the of the last points in the supply chain, or the process by which a product is manufactured and eventually delivered to the customer. For example, a piece of clothing is manufactured from raw materials, then sold in large quantities to a wholesaler. Clothing is then resold to individual retailers, who in turn employ retail sales associates to sell the product directly to customers.

What does a sales associate do?

Sales associates are essential to the final step in that supply chain process, helping customers select and purchase products. Job specifics vary depending on the company you work for and the products you're selling. A sales associate's responsibilities generally include customer service, sales, and administration. Here are some of the responsibilities commonly listed in a retail sales associate job description:

  • Greet customers and find out what they want or need
  • Recommend products based on customer needs
  • Advise customers about product options and details, answer questions, and demonstrate product use
  • Motivate customers to purchase by describing the advantages of a particular product
  • Encourage customers to purchase additional or higher-quality products, known as upselling or cross-selling
  • Explain policies such as warranties, discounts, and return limits
  • Assist customers with purchase completion
  • Build customer loyalty by offering incentives like coupons, branded credit cards, or loyalty program membership
  • Maintain sales and inventory records
  • Assist with product displays, signage, inventory, and stock management

What is the retail sales work environment like?

Where you work as a retail sales associate depends largely on the nature of your employer and the products you sell. If you work for a clothing or small electronics company, for example, you may work in a mall or standalone shop in an area with other retail stores. If you sell larger items, such as furniture or construction materials, you may work in a warehouse environment. Sales associates who sell cars and trucks may work in a dealership setting. Generally, whatever the specifics of the position, you will be expected to welcome customers into the retail space, help them find what they need, and assist them through the purchase process.

Because retail sales associates interact directly with customers, they are generally expected to maintain a professional appearance. You may be required to wear a uniform provided by your employer, so customers can easily identify you as a representative of the company. Alternatively, you may have to wear your own clothes according to specific guidelines. Depending on how the company defines its brand, there may be rules about personal grooming and appearances, such as hair length and color, jewelry, visible tattoos, or facial hair.

What kind of schedule can you expect?

Because retail sales associates' primary job is to help customers with purchases, their schedules mirror peak shopping times. As a sales associate, you should expect to work regular weekday business hours, as well as at least some weekends and holidays. This job is probably not a good fit for someone who wants to spend every holiday with family or for someone who wants to keep weekends free.

In addition to working during popular shopping hours, you may have to work before the store opens or after it closes. During these times you may take inventory; stock and organize product displays; or receive training on new products, systems, company policies, or seasonal offers and campaigns.

What qualifications are required to be a retail sales associate?

Education

There are no standard education or experience requirements for retail sales positions, but many employers prefer candidates with at least a high school diploma. Positions involving the sale of more advanced or complex products may require a college degree.

If you are interested in a retail sales associate job as a first step in a sales career, consider pursuing a degree in business or marketing. Communication and psychology are also helpful areas of study, as good salespeople can use a variety of verbal and non-verbal cues to anticipate a customer's needs and tailor their sales approach to each individual.

Experience

While educational requirements tend to be minimal, employers place a high value on experience when hiring sales associates. Data shows that 48 percent of people currently working in this position have between one and four years of experience, and another 20 percent have been in the field for between five and nine years. Those numbers drop off at 10 years and up, suggesting that more experienced sales associates either move into higher-level positions or transition out of the field into another career.

Candidates with little to no experience can still find work as a retail sales associate. They should, however, expect to work less desirable schedules and earn lower wages until they gain experience.

Skills

Sales associates need a varied skill set that includes aspects of customer service, sales, and administration. Here are some of the skills employers look for in retail sales candidates:

  • Interpersonal Skills
    • Confidence - Sales associates must be comfortable approaching customers and advocating on behalf of the company or product.
    • Positive attitude - Working with customers requires a natural friendliness and positive demeanor, even when dealing with unpleasant or unhappy customers.
    • Patience - You need to be able to answer the same questions and explain the same products and features over and over again while maintaining a consistently excellent level of service.
    • Empathy - The best sales associates are able to imagine themselves in the customer's circumstances to gain a deep understanding of their conscious and subconscious needs and motivations.
    • Ability to work as a team - In addition to your individual responsibilities, you'll need to assist your coworkers and make sacrifices as necessary for the success of the team.
  • Verbal communication - The ability to communicate clearly with customers is essential to making a successful sale.
  • Multitasking - You may need to assist several customers at once. You may also need to complete more than one task at the same time, like answering questions while completing a purchase transaction.
  • Ability to work under pressure - Retail companies rely on high-volume shopping times, like holidays, for a significant share of their profits. It's important that you can rise to the occasion without any impact on the quality of your work.
  • Time management - Sales professionals need to manage how much time they spend on each sale and on non-sales related tasks.
  • Meeting quantified goals - Your success as a retail sales associate may be measured, at least in part, by your ability to meet or exceed established sales goals.
  • Business know-how - By understanding your employer's business strategy, you can take proactive steps and make suggestions to help the company reach its goals.
  • Basic computer and office skills - You will likely use at least some office equipment and software as a retail sales associate. This may include a cash register or other payment processing equipment, point-of-sale programs, inventory management software, and a multi-line phone system.

What are the salary expectations for sales associates?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages for retail sales associates range from minimum wage to about $20 per hour, with an average hourly wage of $12.67. Median wages vary by industry, with more technical positions paying more. For example, clothing store associates earn a median hourly rate of $11.18, while the highest paying retail jobs in the manufacturing and automotive fields pay more than $20 per hour.

Sales associates may be salaried or paid hourly, and they may work full or part time. They may also earn commissions, bonuses, or other incentives for exceeding sales goals.

For more info on how much you can expect to make as a retail sales associate, check out these insights.

What are the job prospects for retail sales associates?

Retail sales employment is projected to grow about 7 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is consistent with the average growth rate for all professions. At that rate, there would be an additional 331,000 retail sales jobs in that timeframe. Employees with retail sales experience often move on to related or more advanced positions, such as retail store assistant manager, customer service representative, sales manager, or administrative assistant.

If you enjoy helping people and you're looking for an entry-level position that can open the door to a variety of exciting career options, a job as a retail sales associate might be the perfect fit.