Like so many retailers right now, I spend a large portion of my day brainstorming how to use our unprecedented COVID landscape as an opportunity rather than as an obstacle of ruin.

Some days I’m more successful at this than others, but I’m also well aware that my perspective will greatly affect the outcome. Like you folks, I want all of us to weather this storm. I want stores and staff to not only feel successful, but truly be successful, too. So, rather than wallow in the unknown and long for the good ol’ days, I do my best to embrace the now. And when I do, I am better suited to make this uncharted moment work in my favor.

Lately I’ve been contemplating our new retail norms — masks, appointment-based fits, reception area “rules,” outdoor queues, hand sanitizer, social distancing and the like. We’ve all managed to incorporate these details into our day-to-day, but have we dialed in how to appreciate these challenges as factors with potential to make us better at doing business?

The more I think about this, the more I keep circling back to what made specialty run retail relevant in the first place. We didn’t earn loyalty because of the quality of our inventory, the swanky design of our stores, or ample access to free parking. Such factors were certainly great, but they all fell short to what mattered most — our willingness, ability and commitment to genuinely connect with the next person through the door.

I believe we need to dissect how we did this yesterday and refocus our efforts to apply it to today.

Some truths: One word can ruin a customer’s experience. One vocal inflection, one glance, one eye roll, one doggone gesture can put a giant kabash on how the customer feels. In the past it was relatively easy to recover from an occasional botched service delivery — these days, not so much. Maybe it’s because we can’t stand as close. Maybe it’s because we can’t see validating smiles. Maybe it’s because adhering to recommendations has become politicized. Regardless, all of us are still trying to figure things out.

We, as leaders in this resilient space, need to start sweating the small stuff more than ever. We need to shine a collective spotlight on details we’ve come to be known for. We need to start asking our colleagues to pay close attention to how we talk, listen, and move — and then we need to open ourselves to constructive feedback and adjust our presence accordingly.

Two Suggestions for Today’s Retailing

Here are two activity suggestions to improve the nitty gritty details of your future customer interactions:

EYES CLOSED ROLE PLAY: Everyone but one member of your team closes their eyes. The staffer with eyes open greets the team as they would normally do. Hi! Good morning! Welcome in! (etc.).

With eyes still closed, the team, one at a time, tells the greeter how the greeting felt and why. Apply this to any moment of the customer’s experience to help staffers identify how to alter their vocal tone, inflection and word choice to make the moment feel better to the person receiving it.

QUIRKS AND TENDENCIES: Staffers team up for the day and are tasked with scrutinizing each other’s every move. Things to look for: common verbal habits, sounds and words that fill gaps in conversation, less-confident body language and physical positioning in the store. All day the staffers offer feedback on these tendencies as a means of helping their partner eliminate any unintentional, less-desirable messaging. An added benefit of this exercise — it builds trust.    

Remember what the poet Maya Angelou said, (and I paraphrase): People will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.

It’s time to make today’s challenge tomorrow’s advantage. Tap into the small things that add up to amazing, then make them BIG things.

Tom Griffen is a freelance writer and consultant for the running industry. He currently lives in Spokane, WA. Learn more at