How to Decode What Your Customers AREN’T Saying

Boutique: Mother and Daughter Discussing Clothing

Relating to your customers isn’t just about taking note of what they’re saying. With non-verbal cues making up about 65% of overall communication, it’s essential that associates also tune into how shopper’s behave. Paying attention to their tone, posture, and facial expressions can help you determine what customers really need and how you can serve them better.

How do you know when to approach a customer and when to keep it cool? How can you figure out what the shopper really needs when they’re trying to play down their emotions?

To help you answer these questions, we’ve compiled a set of general pointers and science-backed recommendations regarding non-verbal cues in retail. Check them out below and see if you can apply them in your stores:


Pay attention to signs that they’re ready to buy

According to author Lee Perlitz, signals that shoppers are interested in a product include:

  • Spending time looking at or discussing one product type – When a customer spends time focusing on just one product, there’s a good chance they’ve already set their sights on that one and are interested in purchasing it.
  • Looking around for somebody to help them – Catch the shopper’s gaze when you see them looking around. According to Perlitz, you can approach them “if they sustain the glance or raise their eyebrows.”
  • Body language – A shift in body language signals “a change in mental state that may well indicate readiness to buy.” For example, if the shopper suddenly looks relaxed after you’ve answered their questions, that could be an indication that they’re ready to buy.

Be sure to approach customers once you see them exhibiting these signals. Failing to spot these signs or not acting in time could result in you missing out on the sale.


Look out for signals that they’re NOT interested

On the flip side, Perlitz also writes about signs that the customer isn’t ready to buy and (probably) needs some space:

  • Avoiding eye contact – If a customer doesn’t hold your gaze when you look at them, it likely means they’re not ready to make a purchase yet.
  • Making ‘not now’ excuses – Statements like “just looking” or “not now” are clear signals that they aren’t ready to buy. Perlitz recommends that retailers “make an encouraging remark to keep them looking and back off.”
  • Looking at many different products – Not being focused on just one product is another indication that shoppers should be given space.

Remember that some customers may be masking their emotions

Body language isn’t always straightforward. In a recent study on nonverbal communication in retail, researchers have found that some customers have a tendency to mask their real emotions when interacting with retail associates.

Some people do it because they don’t want to seem too eager (this is especially prominent when they’re purchasing high-ticket merchandise); some do it out of politeness, and sometimes, a customer’s cultural background comes into play.

Retailers need to discern the genuine emotions and motivations behind their customers’ words or actions. To accomplish this, the researchers suggest retailers pay attention to less controlled behaviors of shoppers.

For instance, while people can usually control what they say along with their facial expressions, they may find it harder to regulate their tone of voice or the orientation of their body.

A shopper may act nonchalant on the surface, but if they’re talking to you in an excited tone, it’s possible that might actually love the product but don’t want to be perceived as too eager. Or, the customer might say they that like an item, but if they’re not very enthusiastic or their body is oriented away from the merchandise, then it could indicate that the shopper is just being polite.

The key is tapping into what they really need while respecting how they want to be perceived at the same time. For example, if a customer says she likes a product but isn’t very enthusiastic, do not call her out or push her to buy the item. Instead, try asking more questions to figure out what she needs or gently suggest other items. 

Decoding shoppers is a tricky task, which is why retailers need to invest in training associates or hiring people who are naturally good at reading others.


Know that culture can also influence non-verbal cues

Cultural difference can play a big role in the behavior of your customers.  As the study pointed out, “the politeness norms in Asian cultures lead people to express agreement even in situations where they may not agree. To an American counterpart who takes expression quite literally, he or she will understand that the parties have agreed even though they may not have.”

The study suggests that retailers “seek to reduce this cultural distance” by hiring locals when operating in foreign markets. On the other hand, retailers in markets that cater to an international clientele would benefit from “a diverse staff combined with cultural awareness training.”


Final words: Use your people reading skills for good

Don’t just study customers because you want to sell to them, do it because you want make them feel at ease in your store. Do it because you want to help them. Yes, generating more sales is part of the goal, but a more important purpose is to do it to provide a better shopper experience.

How do you tap into your customers’ non-verbal cues? Let us know in the comments.


About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.