New Retail Word: Handseling

Offer Your Customers a Good Luck Charm

I’d like to introduce a new word to the specialty retail lexicon—handseling.

Ever heard of this word? Neither had I until I interviewed the owner of a local bookstore for an article I was writing. She used it when referring to her staff’s interaction with each customer. As in, “When handseling, staffers really need to make sure we understand the customer’s preferences.”

But the whole time I thought she was saying “hand-selling.” Like, selling with your hands. I found her word choice interesting, but I knew what she meant. I took her to mean some sort of one-on-one exchange.

While transcribing my notes I Googled “hand-selling” and realized it’s actually a stand-alone word. An ancient word that, in fact, stems from both hand and sell. Duh, right? But there’s more to it than just that.

The word handsel, as a noun, has Middle English origins. Before 1050 AD, it literally meant a “hand gift”. Over time it evolved to mean a token of good wishes.

As a verb, it describes something experienced for the first time. A relevant and auspicious inauguration into something.

The modern definition: putting product into the hands of people who need it most.

Cool, huh?

Applied to bookselling, it’s perfect.

Take this scenario, for example: You walk into your local indy bookstore. You need something new to read. But what? There are so many options to choose from.

An employee approaches, greets you unassumingly, and notices your 100-mile stare. “You look like you might need a book,” she jokes.

“I do,” you say, snapping out of it. “But I haven’t any idea where to start.”

The employee then takes you through a brief series of ice-breaking questions to get to know you a bit, maybe even asks the sorts of books you’ve been reading lately and whether or not you’d like to keep down that genre path. She even walks the floor with you, pointing at a title here and there that could, quite possibly, fit perfectly into your basket.

The experience she’s facilitating is handseling. She’s getting to know you and your story before offering up a token of good wishes (in this case, a new novel).

You opt for one of her recommendations, and also grab a bookmark she said was made by a local artist. You even drop an extra fifty cents for a store sticker. Why? Because you suddenly are a big fan. (Retailers note: UPT = 3)

You leave the store singing her praises. And when you finish that book (which, by the way, was an amazing read), you return to the shop expecting the same sort of experience.

You been reading books for years, you’ve logged thousands of hours flipping pages. But still, you want someone to handsel something to you. Why? Because it feels good.

This is familiar, isn’t it?

Handseling plugs directly into specialty retail. Rather than rely on some sort of selling process, the ideal sale results from something experiential—a genuine connection between two people. The multi-item receipt is simply the natural outcome of two folks’ stories intertwining.

But make no mistake, this story-braiding was intentional. And that’s the mark of good handseling.

Handseling transcends good service. It goes beyond asking good questions and then asking more. It’s you offering you as you make recommendations that might ultimately change how that customer moves through the world.

Handseling makes customers feel better about themselves.

And there’s a bonus—the customer now associates you with their newly found good luck.

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