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I'm a new store manager for a women's clothing store and I have been receiving male-presenting customers that are looking for women's clothes for themselves. I want to give them the best, supportive environment I can. I want them to feel safe, welcome and confident when they leave. I'm looking for tips on how to do that.

I had a client who was very nervous yesterday. We did a bra fit and I walked them through how to put the bra on in a private room, and I tried to be encouraging. They kept saying how nervous they were. I did share with them that we have a variety of clients that visit us, and I am honored and thankful for every client. I also said I was proud of them for taking the step.

In other situations I've showed a lot of enthusiasm that they are shopping with us, but now I think that I might have been coming on too strong.

I read a previous post about not asking, "who are you shopping for", that it makes the client uncomfortable and can come off as presumptuous and rude. I feel bad because I asked who they were shopping for, before realizing they were looking for themselves. I will be sticking with "how can I help you", from now on.

What is the appropriate way to approach this situation as a customer service representative? And how could I have made them feel more comfortable and less nervous?

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    Hello network visitors! Please note that IPS is fairly strict about using comments as intended. Comments are only for clarifying and improving the question. Partial answers or general thoughts about the situation may be deleted without notice. If you'd like to write an answer, make sure to check out our posts on How do I write a good answer? and citation expectations first. Thanks! – Em C Nov 25 '19 at 22:24
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    one thing i haven't seen mentioned: you'll need to rethink loss prevention if you want to create a truly welcoming environment. i've read about what LPOs are trained to spot, and they match up exactly with how i behaved early in my transition when i started shopping for clothes, and with other trans women's accounts as well. a lot of "spot the shoplifter" training is really counterproductive to creating a welcoming environment for really anyone who might be nervous about being in your store, whether due to social stigma, anxiety issues, having a bad day, or other factors. – user371366 Nov 27 '19 at 19:58
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I'm a trans woman, and have been (still am, potentially :/) the kind of person you describe in your post.

First thing to understand is that you literally can't stop them being nervous or uncomfortable. It's just a fact that shopping for gender affirming clothing is scary, because of the way society treats gender nonconformity (GNC). Especially for people assigned male at birth (AMAB).

But, there's a few things you can do to make it a little easier. These are some I found from my experiences.

Advertise inclusivity

This is the biggest thing. Hire visibly queer workers. Throw up a sign in your shop window showing yourself as a safe space for LGBTQIA+ individuals. Mark your fitting rooms and restrooms explicitly as gender neutral and/or trans friendly. Reach out to local LGBT groups and tell them that you're accepting.

I can't tell you how long I spent looking for a place that I felt accepted. Where I wasn't worried about getting kicked out by security (and I lived in a place where that is illegal! It still worried me). Before I started my medical transition, I ended up regularly going to a mall that was like 40 minutes away, instead of the 3 or so closer options, because the day I happened to go looking for makeup, there was a trans woman working in one store, and a drag queen working in another.

Don't ask how they're doing

This one is maybe counter-intuitive, and other trans/GNC people might have different opinions here. It also mostly applies to visibly nervous people. But, let the customer talk to you if they need something. Don't go up to them to ask if you can help find anything, or anything like that. And, somewhat obviously, don't watch them as they are shopping.

If you are required to talk to customers, then try to do so in a way that the customer can be non-committal and easily back out of the conversation. You can probably get away with "Anything I can help you find?", which lets the customer respond with "Just looking around" pretty easily. Or, I liked Juliana's suggested wording, "Hi, I'm Nicki. If there is anything I can help you with, I'll be by the counter." The goal here is to keep the onus of conversation off the customer, because social anxiety, on top of everything else, is a lot to deal with.

When I was first shopping, it would mostly be around 3 am at Walmart, so I could avoid anyone seeing me and then use the self checkouts. When I got a little bolder and started looking in the daylight, I was always terrified of people coming up to me an offering to help - even in good faith! It's just scary to have to respond when you're doing something that feels like a taboo, even if you know you're doing nothing wrong. Most of the time, after someone asked, I would just leave, because it made me too nervous. There's a lot more at play here than just my trans status, to be fair, but just the same, it would have been much easier to never have anyone talk to me.

Signpost how to use fitting rooms

This is a weird one, but one thing I found was that every store has different fitting room protocols, and figuring out what to do at each was a big hurdle. So, put up some signal indicating those protocols - I'm thinking about the couple of stores which had name plates that obviously needed filled out by a worker, vs a sign that just says go on back. What to do with clothes afterwards - leave them in the fitting room, or on a rack, or on a counter? All hard questions to answer, especially when you're too terrified to actually ask.

Conclusion

Ultimately, you will notice that there weren't a lot of strictly individual interpersonal skills here. Most of what I've described requires the store itself to be on board, and to make broader changes than 1 individual interaction. That's required, unfortunately - transphobia (which applies here regardless of whether the customer is actually trans), is a systemic issue, and requires more than just individual action to fight. Making inclusive spaces is not just about not rejecting people, but finding ways to be actively accepting, which is definitely more complex.

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    Since we've deleted a number of comments objecting to the word "hiring" - perhaps "recruiting" would be better? Or if there's a wording that doesn't imply hiring new/different people, maybe (not sure how to say that). Future commenters: if you want to argue about legality, please go to Law.SE. – Em C Nov 27 '19 at 13:54
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    the comments are deleted now but given the face this community has shown recently, i suspect they were probably just angry at the idea of going out of one's way to give queer people opportunities, and finding excuses to concern troll. nothing wrong with how it's written now. – user371366 Nov 27 '19 at 20:01
  • @dn3s except for suggesting that queer people look different to non queer people. That seems like a big issue to me? – Tim Nov 28 '19 at 1:53
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    @Tim No, that’s not an issue. We do look different. – Grimmy Nov 28 '19 at 11:29
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    I feel like the signpost on how to use fitting rooms concept should be more prominent. It feels almost like an afterthought here. Trans people at this stage are almost entirely effectively introverted in this situation, due to the intense social anxiety the situation provides. Most introverted people I know, regardless of cis or trans, would benefit from this. – Ed Grimm Nov 28 '19 at 21:46
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I worked as a sales clerk in clothing about 15 years ago and we did have the occasional male presenting person shopping for female branded clothes.

One of the things you already picked up on is not asking who they are shopping for. Don’t make an extra fuss about it, just greet them as you would any other customer and tell them you are around if they need any help. (rather than asking if they need help, leaving them to come to you and not bother anyone unnecessarily)

In case they themselves open up about any nerves or a bit of shame, you can reassure them you are there to help any customer have the best experience they can get. Depending on the store’s return policies, you could ease their apprehension by offering them the option to try the stuff at home and returning or exchanging the things that don’t fit.

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I have a number of trans woman friends who have shopped for women's clothing while still being male-presenting.

One important thing, as I think you've realized, is not to be too enthusiastic towards them -- treat them as you would any other (female-presenting) customer. If you start telling them how happy or excited you are for them, that's probably just going to make them feel more alienated.

If they start expressing doubts, feel free to reassure them, but don't go over the top.

Asking "how can I help you" rather than "who are you shopping for" is a great step as well.


Editing to add more detail about my experiences, as requested:

When I've gone shopping with my friends, the salespeople have mostly left us alone, which was fine by us.

I've also had conversations with several of my trans friends where they emphasized how uncomfortable they feel when people give them extra attention while trying to be supportive -- for example, giving them a big smile while on the bus. It reminds them that they don't "pass" as their gender, i.e. they "look trans". It makes them feel awful to be treated differently, even though the intention is good.

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I wil advocate against any welcoming strategy. The best way how to approach "different" people is not to care for their "difference" at all.

Treat every customer as anyone else - no matter their skin colour, preferences, clothing, eye colour, hair length. Being oversupportive is as bad as treating "others" as creepy ones. In both cases one is drawing attention to someone who does not want attention at all.

If you want to improve how the customers feel in your shop you can:

  • Avoid eye-tracing them.
  • Avoid commenting them at all. Watch for your gestures - smiles, frowns, all that displays your attitude to whatever you are watching.
  • Place "I will appreciate your assistance" and "I don't need assistance, thanks." baskets or simillar signals for customers to show you whether they want your attention or not.
  • Place the "I would appreciate assistance" signal in the cabin. So the customer may request your assistance while you are the only one to know about it.
  • Help all your customers poker-faced using neutral tone.
  • Keep the Problem-Solution-Leave doctrine for everyone.

The customer may visited your shop many times just watching some stuff, maybe shopping for their friend just to observe how you may treat them when they leave the "standard" arrangement. Assure them that they are ordinary people to you, like anyone else.

If you slipped to the "Who are you shopping for?" question or any simillar, do not freak, do not panic; act like it is a casual question for you. "OK, if you need my assistance, you can call me." definitely not "Oh-[pause]-kay, if you need my assistance, you can call me."

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    I see quite a few interesting points in your answer, could you give some backup for this? Have you done this yourself before? What was the outcome/reactions this generated? Your answer would definitely improve with such additions. :) – dhein Nov 26 '19 at 7:08
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    My only backup is that I may suffer from a mild anxiety. The points are how I personally would like to be treated when struggling. – Crowley Nov 27 '19 at 12:10
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    @Crowley your backup does not have to be about the exact same issue. If you could elaborate a bit on it (e.g. I'm likely to have anxiety issues and I'm relieved when I go shopping in stores that do XYZ because ABC ...), that'd be great :) – avazula Nov 27 '19 at 14:55
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I can only say that from my personal experience, I have had salespeople go out of their way to indicate that I was welcome in their store, even though I did not fit the stereotype of the people typically shopping there. Each time I appreciated it.

Before they approached me with kindness, I felt out-of-place, awkward, closely watched, afraid, and unsure if security (or law enforcement) was going to remove me against my will.

Once they approached me with sincerity, kindness, and figurative open arms, I felt welcome, unafraid, and included.

That is my personal experience. I can't speak for others.

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