How Do You Motivate Your Retail Employees? The Answer Might Surprise You!

While giving a keynote speech, The Retail Doctor was once asked, “How can I motivate an employee?”

Being a motivational speaker, his reply might surprise you: “The short answer is you don’t.”

“Motivation is the desire or willingness of someone to do something. You can’t successfully motivate people to do something if they just don’t want to do it. They have to want to do something, and they have to enjoy doing it. You can’t motivate the unmotivated.” 


Source: Doug Fleener, Retail Customer Experience

In the short term, you might be able to motivate a retail employee with “Do this or you’re fired,” but you can only use that tactic once or twice because fear only goes so far.

On a more positive note, you can try and motivate your employees by boosting their self-image with frequent compliments. The problem with that is, trying to pour good feelings into a bucket with holes will only succeed in frustrating you until you eventually give up.

Why Do You Want to Motivate Your Employees?

Your desire to motivate your retail employees might include reasons such as wanting to hit a sales goal, wanting to fix them or help them do better because you see potential where they don’t, or wanting them to succeed so your retail business can succeed.

While those may be great reasons for trying to help your retail staff members the truth is, it’s up to employees to motivate themselves! And that statement is true of everyone, not just your employees but also yourself.

It’s been said that you can motivate employees by giving them a bigger purpose, a big vision of what you’re trying to do with your company. Another theory for motivation is that higher compensation motivates employees.

However, a study by Edward Deci, a psychologist at Rochester University, found that students offered cash prizes to solve puzzles were less likely to continue working on them after payments had been made, compared to students who were offered no money. Deci’s study defines the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — doing things because you like doing them or doing them because you want a reward.

Offering a motivated person more money may result in higher performance, but it will have little or no effect on an unmotivated person. In other words, if you pay a mediocre employee more money, all you’ve achieved is keeping a mediocre employee who gets paid more.

10 Ways to Inspire Motivated Employees

“Instead of trying to motivate people,” says Doug Fleener, former director of retail for Bose Corporation, “I believe the key is to inspire the motivated and remove the unmotivated.”

He gives 10 suggestions on how to do it:

1. Make work enjoyable – “You can’t ask people to give service with a smile until you give them something to smile about.” That pretty much sums it all up. The best leaders and managers have the ability to make each day a great experience for their employees.

2. Challenge employees every day – Working retail can be the same day in and day out. Good leaders challenge their employees to try new things and to strive to improve something they weren’t terrific at the day before.

3. Invest in ongoing staff development – Motivated people have a desire to learn and grow. They want career opportunities. While this is one of the most important parts of a leader’s job, it doesn’t happen that often in retail. A training and/or development plan doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does have to be consistent and ongoing.

4. Frequently recognize each employee’s performance and achievements – The importance of individual recognition can’t be emphasized enough. Employees want to contribute to a store’s success, and they are especially appreciative when their efforts are acknowledged and praised by managers and other organizational leaders.

5. Create a strong sense of Community – Good teams tend to bring out the best in each member, providing mutual support, and adding more purpose to each individual’s work. Remember, a group of people doesn’t make a team. A group of people who share a common cause and a desire to enable each other’s successes does.

6. Offer opportunities to earn more and win prizes – Games, short-term contests and other incentives are a great way to inspire motivated employees, but they can also be wasted efforts on the unmotivated ones. Make sure you focus on and reward the right behaviors in order to achieve the desired results.

7. Empower employees and simplify processes – Employees shouldn’t have to get a manager every time they need to process a small refund. Show your staff that you trust them by giving them ownership of tasks that make their work easier. It’s fine to have checks and balances, but empowering your team means you won’t spend time worrying about a $10 refund.

8. Enforce high standards and expectations with the appropriate accountability –  Everyone should be held accountable for the same standards and expectations, otherwise, there’s a risk of demotivating the motivated. Most employees will rise to the standards expected of them. Unfortunately, they’ll also lower themselves to the level of accountability established for others.

9. Give employees a voice – Generally, motivated employees want to contribute to the company and be a part of its future. They’ll feel more encouraged and inspired when their ideas are acknowledged and potentially put into practice.

10. Get rid of unmotivated employees – Unmotivated employees who don’t meet acceptable levels of performance drag the entire team down. Motivated employees will resent managers who accept and enable poor performance. Moving under-performers to a more suitable department or terminating them altogether will encourage and inspire motivated employees and improve performance results.


Remember, you can’t motivate employees who don’t want to be motivated. They have different personality types and world views and you’re simply not going to change that.

Work on motivating yourself first so you can give your retail store your best effort. Then work to inspire and energize your motivated employees. If unmotivated employees are dragging your team and/or store down, don’t ignore it. Fire them, if necessary.

Continually lift up each one of your employees, using the 10 suggestions above, and your store will be an energized, motivational place to work at all times.

Sherene Funk is the author of the contemporary romance Autumn in Your Arms and two small business e-books. She is a voracious reader who owns more books than she can ever read in this lifetime. A graduate of Brigham Young University, she worked in advertising for many years before moving to her current writing position at Rain Retail Software. She researches non-stop to see what successful retailers do and loves to share what she learns with small business owners.