J.C. Nichols’ “Don’t”s for Salespeople

(originally published 12/4/18)

Just because it’s the shopping season…

In 1933, J.C. Nichols circulated his “Don’ts for Salespeople” list among the Country Club Plaza businesses to be shared with their employees. The list is a microcosm of Nichols’ most defining characteristics. He was hands-on with every aspect of his vast, vertically integrated real estate empire, and no detail was too small to warrant his personal attention. His philosophy guided his relationships in business and he continually drummed those sensibilities into everyone who worked for him. And like many who have big ideas and like to be hands on, his writings are all over the place. In the transition from one sentence to the other, Nichols could go from flowery oratory to pedantic detail. And of course, the language – the vocabulary, the form and syntax – has the quaint lyricism of another era.

Nichols could be long-winded, too, so I’ve cherry-picked to create a sampling that captures all the characteristics of the Nichols’ character – the attention to detail, the business philosophy, and the paradoxical focus.

Don’t wear too much jewelry – too much paint. “Why look like a night club hostess?”

Don’t rattle money in your pocket…drum on the showcase…distract your customer’s mind.

Don’t under rate [sic] your customer. A chauffeur or maid may influence a good many buyers.

Don’t get high hat. Exclusive shops, particularly, should never get “snooty.”

Don’t criticize a customer. Back fence gossip will reach the customer’s ears eventually and will kill your chances forever of selling that person or those she can influence.”

Don’t express strong political, religious or social opinions until you find out how your customer feels.

Smiles win friends everywhere – and a smile means the same in any language. A clerk with a sincere smile is more valuable than one with just a college degree.

Neatness and orderliness of person, inconspicuous appearance, pleasant, genteel, helpful manners win the way to the heart of your customers.

Learn the names of your customers, children as well as grown-ups. When you call a child by its name, you get not only its friendship but that of every member of the crowd or “gang” to which it belongs.

Don’t stand like a bump on a log and wait for your customer to come to you. Go forward immediately and make evident you are anxious to be helpful.

If you don’t have what your customer wants, direct or – better still – take him to one of your near neighbors.

Nothing builds confidence in your shop more effectively than favorable comments on your near competitor or tears down confidence quicker than knocking him. This rings honesty. Your competitor hears of it and returns the favor by praising you to his customers.

We are not Robinson Crusoes, living, [sic] on desert islands, but are living in an age of cooperation.

Always offer to wrap into a single bundle the several packages your customer is carrying.

Customers resent being hurried just to keep you from being obliged to work a few minutes overtime.

Customers are always interested in new things – new styles, new shipments, new methods of manufacture. People like to feel they are getting new information. You can tell of things you have had for a while in a new and interesting manner. That really makes them new.

The list is sometimes cringe-inducing in its antiquated notions of gender and class. But at its core, the list provides advice that should still be the standard, and in shops that have sustained through the onslaught of on-line competition, it still is.

(Photo: Main Sales Floor of the Jack Henry store at the SE corner of Broadway and Nichols Road. From the JC Nichols Company records, State Historical Society of Missouri)

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