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Insiders Tell Their Selling Points : Seasoned Reps Employ All Sorts of Subtle, Even Subliminal, Ways to Get O.C. Shoppers to Drop Defenses and Open Their Wallets


As the owner of La Galleria in Tustin and a saleswoman in the clothing business since 1968, Mary Ohanian has many techniques for wooing customers. That's why she's still kicking herself over the time, months ago, that she nearly blew a sale.

Her quarry, in this case, was a woman who came into the shop in search of a dress to wear to a wedding. The customer looked fabulous in vivid blues and reds, so when she tried on a lacy taupe-colored dress, Ohanian committed one of the biggest sins of salesmanship: "I opened my big mouth and said, 'Oh, that's my least favorite.' And she said, 'Do you think so? Gee, I really like it.' "

Ohanian knew that any attempts to reverse her position and gush over the dress would make her look foolish. Compliments can backfire on a salesperson by ruining their credibility.

"I had to get out of this big hole," she says. She saved the sale by having the woman try the dress on with earrings and shoes, then simply telling her that the outfit "is growing on me."

Never say anything negative about what you're selling--that's just one of the cardinal rules of smart salesmanship practiced by Ohanian and other seasoned sales reps.

Salespeople have all kinds of subtle, even subliminal, ways to entice buyers. From the moment shoppers wander through their doors, salespeople study every aspect of their demeanor to figure out how to break down their defenses and get them to open their wallets. Often, the best salespeople find themselves in the role of psychologist, image consultant, fashion cop and even marriage counselor.

A sales rep will first try to win their customers' confidence, greeting them at the door in a friendly but not aggressive way so that they don't scare them off.

"If someone comes in and says, 'I'm just looking,' we know they have a fear of being approached. Then we step away," Ohanian says. "If they start to handle something, that's a clue to open the conversation. You can say, 'Isn't that a pretty color?' "

At Zia Jewelry Co. in San Juan Capistrano, owner Ron Cohan and his staff concentrate on making the customer their friend before making a sale.

"We try to establish a rapport. We'll ask where they're from or maybe talk about something unusual they're wearing or what they're doing that day. The point is to put everyone at ease," Cohan says. "Sometimes when you go into a store, they jump on you and immediately ask what you want. How do you know what you want if you haven't looked around?"

To keep the mood light, Cohan will say or do outrageous things, such as donning glasses with funny plastic noses or hologram lenses.

When one woman was having trouble imagining how a necklace would look with a solid color instead of the complicated print she was wearing, he literally offered the purple shirt off his back.

"I was standing there in the middle of the store bare-chested. All of my salespeople were laughing their heads off," he says.

Cohan made the sale.

Only after they're on good terms with their customers will his salespeople turn their attention to the jewelry case. Cohan knows that if he can get the customer to try on the jewelry, it's almost a done deal. Yet he makes them feel as if they're just having fun, like playing dress-up with your grandmother's jewelry.

"Once they have something on, we ask them, 'What do you think?' I keep my opinions to myself because there's no point in my saying it looks good if they think it looks horrible. You can't fool people. You can't talk people into something they don't want. You can't hypnotize them. What you do instead is listen. After we get to know you, we ask, 'What kind of things do you like?' and most importantly, 'Why you like them?"

Salespeople study their customers' body language for clues to see if they're keeping the buyers' interest.

"It's another way of listening. If they're putting their hands in their pockets or wrapping their arms around themselves or they're in some kind of defensive posture, you're not listening to what they want," Cohan says.

Experienced sales reps not only listen to their customers, but anyone else who tags along on the shopping trip. Ignoring a spouse or friend can cost them a sale.

"You have to be very sensitive to both people when they come in as a couple," says Megan Thompson, spokeswoman for Neiman Marcus in Fashion Island Newport Beach. "If you just go after the one who you think will spend the money, you're being naive."

Sales have been stymied by an unaccommodating spouse who shoots down whatever item the salesperson tries to push. If, say, a husband and wife are angry at each other about something unrelated, when he goes to try on a jacket she'll "pooh-pooh everything," Thompson says.

"If he or she is cranky, you sometimes have to sell to them first," Thompson says. "Good salespeople engage them in the conversation so they're part of the decision."

Ohanian has a favorite technique for getting companions on her side.

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