Industry Lingo Confusing Your Clients?



I like to think that my background in writing and English literature has given me a reasonably comprehensive vocabulary. But the day I started writing for, I kept hearing a word that didn’t make any sense to me. My new boss told me it was important to learn about the quality of different “substrates.” Hmmm . . . OK. My only exposure to that word was from high school science class – I thought “substrate” referred to the various layers of the earth. From the context of the conversation, I finally realized that he was talking about the different types of materials used to make signs (vinyl, plastic corrugate, magnetic sheeting, etc.). But I felt kind of stupid for not knowing the word.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary confirmed my original definition of “substrate” as, “a layer beneath the surface soil.” But it’s also, “the material of which something is made and from which it derives its special qualities.”

Here at, we throw the word around a lot, but we’ll never ask our customers to choose the substrate for their signs. Why? Because the word is usually reserved for industry insiders (check out this insane list of sign industry terms and just be glad you don’t have to memorize it for your business).

Using industry lingo that the general public doesn’t understand can cause serious confusion for your customers and in the long term may cause them to look elsewhere to purchase their goods or services. Here’s a short list of retail lingo that should be avoided:

SKU: This acronym stands for Stock Keeping Unit and is often pronounced “skew.” I once called a store to see if they had a particular item and the woman asked me if I had the “skew.” What? No. I don’t. I’m a customer.

Cash/Wrap: The area where the final transaction occurs (the cash register). Sometimes sales clerks wrap up the merchandise, sometimes they just plunk it into a bag. Don’t direct your customer to “cash/wrap.” Instead, tell them that you are happy to ring up their merchandise at the cash register.

RTV: Acronym for Return to Vendor. I try to return a broken item and the employee says, “Just a minute while I fill out an RTV form.” I don’t know what that means. And I don’t care. Just fill out whatever needs filling out so you can give me a refund.

Hardlines: Merchandise such as housewares, electronics, toys. Basically almost everything except food and clothing. I hear this sometimes over the intercom in stores when someone needs to pick up a customer service call. It’s disconcerting–what’s a hardline? Bath towels aren’t hard, are they?

CVC: Acronym for Card Validation Code. It’s the little three digit number on the back of the credit card. People who steal credit card numbers online don’t usually have access to this little number, so it reduces fraud. Usually when someone asks for the number they say something like, “and what is the three digit number on the back of the card?” I was ordering something over the phone last week, and the customer service agent asked me for the CVC. Huh? Oh. That.

Etailer: A business who offers products or service through the Internet. Super snobby. Don’t have your employees tell customers, “Oh and we are also an Etailer.” You have a website and people can order product on it. Call it what it is.

Remember that many of your customers work outside the retail industry. Use pedestrian, common language and you’ll avoid confusion and irritation.