Selling luxury brands in the duty-free world is a different proposition to selling them in high-end stores on Bond Street, Fifth Avenue or the Champs-Élysées. For sales staff, success requires a different set of skills – and their training has to reflect those differences.

While customers browsing the shelves of the luxury retailers in airports like Heathrow may not be “wealthy,” they will almost certainly have money to spend, and they are in a mindset to spend it. Research shows that air travelers, whether flying for pleasure or on business, are in a receptive buying state. Shoppers in airport luxury outlets want to feel special – and that’s where sales training, focused on soft skills, comes in.

Successful selling in the airport luxury arena is all about creating an experience. Everything should be personal and even sensory. Obviously, product quality and the way items are displayed are important, but so, too, is the way staff interact with people. You’ll only have the best staff if you provide the best training. Here’s what training for duty-free luxury sales staff should focus on.

Emotional Intelligence

Good sales staff have higher levels of emotional intelligence; they’re better at engaging customers, and they’re better at finding out not just what they want but why they want it. They don’t parrot a script. According to Penny Blake, founder of Penny Blake Associates, a training company for luxury retail staff, emotional intelligence is also a key trait for successful luxury brand sales staff; they have to be able to empathize with the customer. She argues that 70 percent of lost sales in the luxury channel are due to sales staff without emotional intelligence.

Developing a salesperson’s emotional intelligence starts with helping them develop their self-awareness. If they don’t understand why they feel the way they do or react to certain stimuli in a particular way, they will never be able to relate to their customers. Training in this area should include of classroom learning, including videos demonstrating key “tells” that can indicate a person’s state of mind, but it needs to be backed up with on-the-job experience. For example, Blackjack Promotions uses a buddy system, pairing new staff with seasoned salespeople so they can observe them and ask them questions about their behavior. In the classroom setting, role-playing can also be helpful.

Cultural Awareness

In the travel retail environment, customers can come from anywhere in the world. Indeed, staff have to be trained to understand that over the course of a day, they will not be dealing with one single audience but with many. In the travel retail industry, we call this destination targeting: analyzing the consumer makeup in a particular airport as time goes by and adapting product offerings and marketing messages to reflect changes in spending power, language and cultural preferences.

Different cultures can have markedly distinct expectations when it comes to customer service and will be more likely to buy certain types of products than others. Training in this area needs to share the major cultural differences among travelers from particular regions and countries and teach staff how to communicate with customers from these cultures in ways that engage without causing offense. Again, the best way to convey this information is classroom learning mixed with on-the-job training.

In-depth Brand and Product Knowledge

Luxury brands often have complex and interesting origin stories. They are also usually crafted rather than mass-produced. They have, to borrow a term from Hollywood, great back stories, which are a fundamental part of their appeal. Therefore, it is vital that the retail staff have an in-depth knowledge of the product or service they are representing. This knowledge includes information about the particular product they are selling but also the story behind the product – how it was made, what goes into it, who makes it – and the brand or company.

Put simply, they have to be so well trained that they can hold their own with customers who may be connoisseurs and collectors of the brand. Take Scotch whisky, for example: Salespeople need to know the story of the brand and about the production methods and aging processes of the expressions they will be suggesting – and they will need to be able to ask the right questions of the customer to identify which variant is most likely to appeal to him or her. This type of knowledge comes from exposure to the brand itself, which can include tasting sessions, distillery visits and training sessions with the distillers themselves, backed up with regular online tutorials and assessments.

The challenge is that in many cases, due to the peaks and varying demand in luxury travel retail boutiques, staff sell one luxury brand one week and a different brand– perhaps even a completely different kind of product altogether – the next week. In the High Street, that wouldn’t be a problem: The brand would just bring in staff from another store. In airports, though, the security vetting process for employees is a major barrier. Obtaining an airside pass is difficult; it’s easier to train someone who has a pass than to obtain a pass for someone who is trained.

Faultless, Understated Service

Luxury travel retail requires staff who live the brand, can understand the consumer’s needs and are able to deliver a service along the lines of the personal shopping you find in up-market fashion houses. The target should be effortless elegance without being off-putting.

Travelers who engage with staff in luxury travel outlets are investing their time in the relationship, both with the brand and with the person helping them. Staff should build rapport by having non-sales related conversations that establish that both the shopper and the person behind the counter are people. Don’t forget that many travelers are frequent flyers; if the retail staff make them feel welcome and special, they’ll stop by the next time they’re in the airport. There are times when it might be better to lose a sale in order to keep the relationship – which is also a challenge for more traditional retail sales training.

Blake says that there are five stages to selling in airport luxury outlets: welcoming shoppers, questioning them, creating desire, suggesting solutions and closing the sale. It’s not a mechanical process; it’s an art. While some people are born with a natural flair for it, most have to learn it. The good news is that it can be taught. You can’t afford for retail staff to stop learning.

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