So you’ve got an interview coming up for a retail position. Whether you’re an experienced sales associate who could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves or you’re just looking for a first job with a flexible schedule, you’re probably wondering what to expect in that retail interview. Or maybe you’re getting plenty of callbacks for retail positions but you’re not getting hired, and you suspect your interviewing skills could use some work.
You’re in luck: I spent a decade as a retail hiring manager for Limited Brands (L Brands), Ann Taylor, and The Buckle, Inc., and during that time I gained a lot of insight into what makes a candidate stand out to retailing hiring managers and recruiters. I’ve got advice for answering the 10 most common retail interview questions, plus insider info on the unwritten rules you should be aware of while job hunting and a few bonus tips for acing your interview!
What Are Hiring Managers Looking for in Retail Employees?
When I was hiring retail employees, I looked for five key traits that prospective employees needed to thrive in our fast-paced environment. They were:
Reliability: Managers want to know that you will show up on time and ready to work. This is especially important for seasonal workers since the holiday season is often both the most profitable and hectic time of year for retailers.
Relatability: To succeed in retail, you need a combination of sales skills and soft skills. Most of the former can be taught. What I can’t teach you is how to be relatable. To excel as a salesperson, you have to be able to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and show genuine empathy for each of their individual situations. When you understand and value your customer’s needs, you build trust, and trust is the bedrock of customer loyalty. The best brand ambassadors and salespeople know how to make a customer feel validated and valued.
Meticulousness: As a hiring manager, I love detail-oriented people. These are the team members who are going to learn the inventory inside and out, follow best practices to the letter, and make sure our displays are always on point.
Ability to multitask: Retail often requires you to meet customer expectations while processing freight, running numbers, or changing displays. Poor multitaskers rarely succeed in retail.
Grace under pressure: Sometimes the amount of multitasking retail requires can make you feel like you’re working in a pressure cooker. I need to be confident that you won’t “boil over” by being rude to a customer or coworker or storming out, both of which reflect poorly on the brand.
Here are 10 questions you might get asked to find out if you have these traits and if you're the right person for the job:
1. Why Do You Want to Work for [Brand]?
This question is a way to ensure that you have done your homework. Hiring managers want to see that your understanding of the brand aligns with their internal vision for employees.
How to Answer:
Impress your manager with your understanding of the corporate vision. If the company you are applying to is a conglomerate (like L Brands, the umbrella for Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works, and PINK), your answer should include knowledge of both the larger company and the individual brand to which you are applying. The easiest way to find out what a brand stands for is to read the ‘About Us’ section of their website. You can craft a stellar answer to this question by using the company’s own buzzwords in your response.
So if you were interviewing for a retail role at PINK, you’d look at the L Brands ‘About’ section, which says: “Although our brands are primarily known for lingerie, personal care, beauty products, and accessories, our brand power extends much further. Together and individually, these brands have come to represent an aspirational lifestyle—a way of life. Our brands help customers feel sexy, bold, and powerful. They entice customers to pamper and indulge themselves and to add a dash of whimsy and fun to their everyday lives. Our brands invite customers into a whole new world of beauty and style.”
Then an example answer for this sort of company might look like this:
“I want to work for L Brands because I love how sexy and stylish your products make me feel, and I want to help other women feel beautiful and bold in their daily lives. To me, PINK is more than just comfortable clothing and lingerie, it’s a way of life that says I deserve to pamper myself in little ways every day.”
2. Do You Shop at [Brand]?
It’s hard to sell a product that you don’t use. Genuine enthusiasm shines through to customers and hiring managers. But so does fake hype. You want to be sure to answer this question honestly and diplomatically.
How to Answer
If you’re already a customer, be prepared to offer a detail or two about your favorite products. Try something like:
“I do! I’m addicted to your eucalyptus mint bathroom cleaning spray. I love the way my bathroom smells after I clean it, and it makes me feel great to know I’m using a product that’s nontoxic and good for the environment.”
If you’re not already a customer, say “not as much as I would like to,” then try to tie your reason why back into one of those five key attributes I mentioned earlier. For example, if you are a single parent on a budget you could say:
“Honestly, as a mother of three boys, most of my money goes to food! But I like that your cleaning products are actually good for the environment and safe to use in my toddler’s room, so I look forward to trying it out soon!”
3. Tell Me About a Time When You Dealt With an Extremely Difficult Customer.
As I said previously, retail work can sometimes make you feel as hounded as a pop star at a sweet sixteen party. Hiring managers ask this question to see how you respond to the rudeness, dismissiveness, and anger that sales associates can often encounter on a daily basis. We want to know that you are a solution finder and de-escalator.
How to Answer
The key to answering a question like this is to share a story that emphasizes your de-escalation skills without rambling or ranting about unpleasant customers. To make sure you stay on target, use the STAR method, which was designed for exactly this kind of “tell me about a time when” question. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result:
- Situation: Give any background needed to understand your story.
- Task: Explain your role in the situation and what you needed to do.
- Action: Lay out the steps you took to address the situation.
- Result: Talk about the outcomes of your actions.
Let’s look at what the STAR method looks like in action. For this question, you might say:
- Situation: “When I worked for Acme Department store, a customer tried to return sheets that had clearly been used as a toga. The hem of the flat sheet was visibly dirty and torn, but the customer still had the original packaging and their receipt, so they were demanding a full refund and being rude to the customer service employees when they couldn’t comply.”
- Task: “Our company policy says that returns on damaged items are at the manager’s discretion. As the shift leader on duty, those kinds of day-to-day decisions fell to me. I knew there was no way we could resell these sheets—they would have to go back to corporate headquarters.”
- Action: “I stepped in and told the customer that, unfortunately, our company policy would not allow him to return the items, but I would be happy to allow an exchange and would even help them find alternate items to take home with them that day. I asked another employee to cover the floor for me so that I could give this customer my personal attention.”
- Result: “After 20 minutes of personal attention, the customer was able to find a tailgate table for a comparable price and was more than happy to make an exchange.”
Remember to focus your answer on what you did to solve the problem to the best of your abilities—and not on complaining about customers!
4. Can You Cashier/Manage a Shift/Recruit/Work Stock/Run a POS Register?
All forms of this question are basically asking the same thing: “how versatile are you?” In retail, very few days are exactly the same. Sometimes, a big shipment comes in and the stockroom could use an extra hand. Sometimes, cashiers call in sick during the back-to-school rush. Knowing that you have the skills to lend a hand in other departments if needed can make you an even more desirable candidate to a hiring manager.
How to Answer
Be honest and specific about your skill set. If you have a hard time with POS registers, but are a whiz at processing freight or merchandising, don’t hesitate to let your prospective employer know. An awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses shows maturity and integrity. If you don’t have a lot of experience or versatility, don’t fret. Impress your interviewer by focusing on your willingness to learn new skills.
You might reply:
“I’m an expert at merchandising. In my previous job, I was always in charge of floor sets. I can also cashier if needed, although it’s not my strongest suit and I would probably need some additional training to master it. But I’m always ready and willing to learn new skills.”
5. What’s Your Availability?
Retailers are often faced with a shortage of coverage, especially during the holiday season. Managers want to know your availability so they can schedule accordingly, but also so they can keep track of who might be able to be called in on short notice if needed.
How to Answer:
When it comes to retail, the more open you are, the better—especially if you’re looking for seasonal work. With that being said, it’s also extremely important to be honest and firm about your availability. Not only will it be easier for you to maintain work-life balance, but you also won’t have to call off later on because you were scheduled for a shift you can’t work. And your manager won’t call you to cover when they know you aren’t available. You’ll save everyone precious time!
“I’m available Monday through Friday to cover any shift, but I’m never available before 3 PM on Saturdays because I take a course at the community college that meets every Saturday for a half-day.”
6. What Is Your Greatest Strength?
This is a pretty standard interview question that you’ll encounter across industries. Your potential employer wants to know that your skills are a good fit for the position you are applying for.
How to Answer
Here’s a hint: your greatest strength should be something that is a key skill for the job you’re applying for. For example, maybe you’re great at customer service, even under pressure. But be honest! Don’t pretend something is your strength when it’s not. You can also wow hiring managers by showing you have the skills to benefit the company beyond your current position—ambition and confidence are never a bad thing in the world of retail sales.
Try something like:
“I’m great at recognizing the needs of different types of customers. When I was working for Acme Fashion, the only people who came in between 11 AM and 3 PM were moms with toddlers. Before I started, they used to call that time the dead zone because the moms would always be too busy with their kids to actually try anything on or buy anything.
“I quickly realized that the problem was that they were distracted, not that they didn’t want to buy anything. I’m the oldest of six, and I grew up distracting my siblings so my mom could shop in peace. So instead of trying to hard-sell stressed-out moms, I focused all of my energy on entertaining their little ones so that the mom would have space and peace of mind to shop. I brought in a few coloring books, crayons and finger puppets and set up a fun kids’ corner in viewing distance of the fitting room. Before long, 11 AM to 3 PM was a peak sales time. Those moms knew what they wanted to buy, they just needed someone who could understand their needs and offer the right kind of support.”
7. What Is Your Greatest Weakness?
This question is also pretty common in any industry, and in retail it’s a way of assessing your self-awareness.
How to Answer:
This question is tricky, because you want to be honest about your shortcomings while crafting your response around the insight you have gained while working to improve on your weakness. The easiest way to do this is to tell a story demonstrating the lesson you learned.
Here’s an example of how that might sound:
“It used to be hard for me to ask for help, even when I needed it. When I was working for Acme Telecom, I once lost a major client because they wanted service at multiple locations and I had no idea how to prepare a quote for a business that size. Instead of reaching out to my supervisor for help with the quote, I tried to wing it. It was pretty obvious to the client that I was in over my head, so they ended up going with a competitor. I used to feel like needing help made me a failure, but that situation taught me that seeking guidance could be the key to my success. After I lost that customer, I asked my supervisor how I should handle a quote of that size, and the next time the situation came up, I was sure to run my work by her before sending the numbers along to the customer.”
8. Why Should We Hire You Instead of Someone Else Out There?
At the end of the day, retail is about sales, and if you can’t sell yourself, why should anyone hire you to sell their products?
How to Answer:
Hiring managers want to hear that you understand their team needs and that you add something unique to the mix. Impress them by reminding them of how your skills complement the team.
Try something like:
“Well you already know that I’m an experienced cashier and can relate to almost any customer, but I also have really open availability and I live around the corner from here, so I can fill in with very short notice. You said you were looking for someone who is flexible and skilled, and I am great on the sales floor, in the stockroom, and behind the customer service desk. That’s why I’m a perfect fit for your team.”
9. Do You Have Any Questions for Me?
Asking relevant questions shows that you are engaged with the interview process. They also show that you have been thinking critically about what it would mean for you to be in the position throughout the interview process. Don’t skip preparing for this section of the interview. An applicant who is asking me questions is one who has already begun to take ownership of the role, which shows reliability, while the content of your questions shows you’re detail-oriented.
How to Answer:
Ask specific questions about the day-to-day job experience, the type of job training used, and opportunities for advancement.
You could say something like:
“You mentioned the back-to-school sales contest in August. Are there bonuses for high performers?”
If you’re looking for ideas of questions to ask in a job interview, you can read more here, but be sure to make them specific to the job you’re interviewing for whenever you can!
10. Would You Mind Doing a Short Sales Demo Today?
Retail interviews vary, but they often end with a twist, so be prepared to shine with a live sales demo. You might be asked to pretend to sell a product to your interviewer or actually interact with customers for 15 to 20 minutes on the sales floor. Sales demos help the hiring manager see you in action.
How to Rock a Live Sales Demo:
Making a sale during your demo is not as important as showing how you interact with customers. Be sure to greet every customer in a friendly manner and make eye contact whenever possible. If you do end up assisting a customer, focus specifically on meeting their needs, not whether or not you can make a sale. If you don’t know the answer to something, be honest about it and tell the customer, “I’m not sure about that but I can definitely get the answer for you.” Being honest and upfront always reads better than pretending like you know what you’re talking about when you don’t.
Bonus Tips for Acing Your Retail Interview:
Dress the part. Retail interviews are all about assessing how well you can represent the brand. Set the tone for success by always dressing the part. If your company sells suits, don’t show up in jeans. On the other hand, if you are interviewing for a more casual company like Dick’s Sporting Goods, dark denim with a button-down or nice blouse is completely appropriate. Study how the people who already have the job you are applying for dress, and show up in a comparable outfit. For example, if you’re interviewing at Target, you don’t need to show up in a red shirt, but it might be a good idea to dress in khakis and a polo shirt.
Be prepared for a solo or group interview. Many companies rely on group interviews to quickly determine who stands out in a crowd and to see how a group of new hires might interact with one another. Distinguish yourself from the masses by being outgoing, positive, and an active listener. Asking relevant questions will make a hiring manager notice and remember you.
Bring an extra copy of your resume to your interview. This is not only polite and professional behavior, it shows you are prepared and implies reliability, one of the key things retail hiring managers look for in potential employees.
If you practice and prepare for these common retail interview questions, are ready to shine in an in-person sales demo, and follow the bonus tips, you’re sure to find the perfect retail position for your skills.