Back at the founding of American retail, led by 19th and early 20th century visionaries like John Wanamaker, Rowland Hussey Macy, Marshall Field, Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck, the big idea was finding and getting products for the American consumer. The much-needed service that retailers provided then was gathering products in one place and making them available to customers hungry to acquire consumer goods. Back in the day, retail was a product-first, product-led, product-centered business.
Fast-forward to today, and finding and getting product is definitely not consumers’ problem – quite the contrary. The very product-centric foundation on which retail was based and grew so aggressively through the 20th century has changed completely.
The retail paradigm has shifted from one of Product-Product-Product to People-People-People. Today’s retail visionaries understand that meeting the new needs, desires and aspirations for the people whom their enterprises are organized for – the customers – is the key to success. Those visionaries include Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Angela Ahrendts (Apple), Steven Lowy (Westfield Mall), Andy Dunn(Bonobos, now Walmart), Neil Blumenthal (Warby Parker’s) and Rachel Shechtman (STORY Store). Serving the needs of people, not selling product, is the real goal of retail and how the money is made.
Product remains part of the mix, but that is eclipsed by the service side of retail, especially in brick-and-mortar retail. Success at retail today is less about what you sell, and more about how you sell it. That is the new retail paradigm and why people – both the people the retailer serves, i.e. the customers, and the people who do the serving, i.e. retail staff, are the two most critical factors in retail success today. Product is secondary.
A new survey by InMoment, based on the opinions of over 30,000 U.S. and Canadian consumers, provides context about the critical importance to customers for a human interaction during their in-store shopping experience. The study’s goal is, “A better understanding of their shopping habits during the path to purchase, from their decision to visit the store to the in-store experience to their feelings post purchase.”
Recognizing that, “Customers’ access to information, desires for personalization and immediacy and cravings for true connections are up-ending millennia-old business models,” the study shows just how critically important the person-to-person relationship between the customer and retail personnel is in today’s omni-channel retail environment.
When people want to or need to buy a product, they increasingly turn to the internet, but when they want a shopping experience — a very different thing — they go to the store. “Retailers that are concerned with in-store sales should look to experience,” InMoment reports. “The majority of consumers say they shop in store for a sense of immediate gratification and the ability to confirm quality. Conversely, a majority of consumers say they shop online for convenience.”
The convenience of the physical store is important too, since consumers rated location as the top reason to shop in-store, but that is followed by previously good customer experiences in that store that sets up the expectation of good customer experiences in their next shopping experience. And for that, the customers’ feelings about their interactions with the retailers’ staff, that person-to-person connection, are the most important factor.
Good, caring and personal customer service on the shop floor greatly enhances the customers’ satisfaction, resulting in a greatly enhanced likelihood that the customer will return to the store again for their next shopping experience.
The data makes the importance of that personal interaction crystal clear.
Overall a positive experience with the retailers’ staff increases customers’ satisfaction by 33%. But it is even more important for fashion retailers, who see upwards of 70% greater customer satisfaction when their shopping experience is enhanced by good customer service. And a happier customer results in a return customer. Retailers can bank on it.
It’s a message that Apple has taken to heart, with its goal for its Apple Stores not just to create a satisfied, but a delighted customer, with the money following that delight. Forbes.com contributor Steve Denning explained, “Apple has grasped that making money is the result of the firm’s actions, not the goal. By delighting the customer, Apple ends up making more money than it would if it set out to make money.”
The InMoment survey also reveals that department stores are the biggest losers when it comes to customer delight. In a year-over-year analysis, it found that customer satisfaction declined 4% in multi-department stores, which are heavily dependent upon fashion to drive sales. Maybe that’s not only because department store sales staff aren’t handling customer relationships well, but also because they are simply missing-in-action, as I find regularly when shopping in these stores.
What the experts at personal customer service say about delighting customers
To translate these research findings into actionable customer service strategies, I turn to true personal customer service experts, the shops that POP! in my book by the same name. Here are the secrets of their success in forging customer relationships in order to delight the people they serve.
- Hire the right people
The people that work in a retail store are there primarily to delight customers, not necessarily to sell product, but to serve them. That means staff members must be people-pleasing and people-oriented. Dan Bellman, of Boxwoods Gardens & Gifts in Atlanta, says he looks at resumes and qualifications, but what he really studies is the person, his or her smile, friendliness, helpfulness and caring.
Bellman has discovered one interview question that reveals whether the candidate has the right stuff to succeed at Boxwoods. “I ask, did they ever achieve success in their mother or father’s eyes. I find people that are striving to please mom and dad have a very good work ethic,” he says.
- Pay a reasonable wage
If you want to hire minimum people, then pay minimum wage. But if you want to hire exceptional people, pay a wage commensurate with their duties and responsibilities, which with customer-facing retail personnel is critically important.
Dan Tribby, Prairie Edge Trading Company in Rapid City, SD, says the company takes a fair-trade approach to commensurately reward the Native American artists and craftspeople that supply the items it sells. So too his company pays a fair-wage to the staff employees. “We take employee involvement more seriously than a lot of other companies do. We believe our employees are the driving force in the company,” he shares.
- Make the shop floor “party central”
Many retailers have abandoned the term “customer” or “shopper” in favor of “guest,” or in the case of Beekman 1802 “neighbor,” to describe the people who patronize their store. Thinking of them as “guests” elevates them and makes retailers see them in a new light where the retail staff becomes the host or hostess for the guests that come to visit.
Mary Carol Garrity of Nell Hill’s, a home furnishings retailer in Kansas City, MO, says the environment she fosters in her store is like an “eight-hour cocktail party without the alcohol.” And like every great host, she and her sales staff spend all of their time at the party and make the guests’ comfort, pleasure and enjoyment the ultimate priority. She has another group of people devoted exclusively to staging and arranging the merchandise.
- Imprint your staff and store in shoppers’ memories
Being memorable and claiming your customers’ most valuable real estate – a place in their heads and hearts – is the aim for retailers today. Getting to know your customers personally on a first name basis is crucial.
But an easy way to make a memory is for the store, shop owner and staff to develop a style trademark that they “wear on their sleeve” that makes them stand out. Logo t-shirts or aprons are okay, but retailers should push the boundaries to find a trademark style that really sets them apart and makes them memorable, like fashion icon Iris Apfel. If Apfel didn’t style herself like she does, she would be just another little old lady who blends into the background. But when she dons her signature over-sized black glasses, her extravagant jewelry and fashions, she is someone you can’t help but notice, want to know and remember. That is the thinking at fashion boutique Dirt Roads Divas, outside of Houston, where the girls that staff the store come decked out like the “dirt road divas” they are.
Mary Liz Curtin’s Leon & Lulu home furnishings and gift store in Clawson, MI, outside Detroit, is situated in the town’s old roller skating rink, so appropriately customers will often be met by a greeter on roller skates, memorable indeed. And in a tip of her hat to the Motor City, she parks a vintage pickup truck on the shop floor right next to a living room display.
Retailers are competing in a marketplace today where consumers’ expectations of the customer experience is elevated beyond simply finding and getting a product. The human element in retail is the most important factor in attracting customers and driving sales in-store, not product.
It’s not so much the product anymore, but the customer experience that gives the brick-and-mortar retailer the competitive edge and which only people can deliver. Surely, Amazon can satisfy its customers with wide selection, cheap prices and fast delivery, but who would ever describe shopping on Amazon.com delightful?
Delighting customers must be retailers’ goal. That takes people interaction. The ability for brick-and-mortar stores to develop personal relationships with customers is their secret weapon. But too many retailers are not deploying this most powerful of competitive weapons effectively or consistently.
Latest posts by Pamela N. Danziger
- Retail: The New Paradigm – It’s A People, Not Product, Business Now - December 14, 2017