Shopping for an experience

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HALM
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

Attendants sitting down unconcerned while customers struggle to find their way around the supermarket. Front line employees chatting among themselves, without a care for the many shoppers moving around the retail centre. A TV show capturing the attention of customer-handling employees in the middle of a working day, meaning customers have to struggle to get the attention of those who are paid to serve.

Empty shopping baskets strewn across the aisles, forcing customers to literally jump over these obstacles to get to the wares on the shelves. No sign of a supervisor walking across the shop floor, putting things right. It is little wonder then that, as far as one can see, customers just want to get on with their much-needed purchases and get out of the store, as quickly as possible.

When the customers manage to survive the hell within, the outside is not any better. Because of the proximity of the supermarket to the main road and the size of the customer car park, customers have to struggle to get back on to the main road. Reversing on to the main road without any one directing you is not only frustrating but can result in accidents. The security man that is supposed to directing the traffic to and from the supermarket is nowhere to be found. Welcome to Shopping Hell!

If you have ever witnessed the above scenario in any shape or form, trust me, you are not alone. It is, unfortunately, a daily occurrence for many. Shopping at some supermarkets can be nothing but plain torture. But should this be the case? What stops shop owners from learning best practices from others who are giving customers great experiences? Even if a retail business cannot find any good examples to copy from its own backyard, what prevents it from learning from those other high-performing, customer-centric retail centres from outside its area? Are there not several cases studies all over the great WWW?

In my more-than-a-decade of pushing for organisations in this country, and beyond, to offer great customer service, I have come to the conclusion that many business leaders, supervisors, owners and managers do not learn. Many come into business with a certain model in mind and that is what they stick to for years, even if it is resulting in scenarios like the one that opened this article. I make this statement on the argument that if our business leaders were learning and upgrading their knowledge about how to do things, why is customer service still a big challenge in this country? Why do we still have cases like the ones in the opening vignette?

In an era of hyper-competition, when businesses are struggling to differentiate themselves by virtue of the quality of their merchandise and pricing, it is unfortunate that many shops still subject their customers to such harrowing experiences. In an era when customers do not even have to visit the retail outlet, an in-person customer visit to a brick and mortar store must be viewed as a gift by every organisation. When customers can sit at home and order everything they want, their presence at a shopping centre should be celebrated rather than punished.

Without any advantage to be obtained by way of the quality of goods, it makes sense that the kind of experience customers have when they walk into the establishment should become the differentiator. And the truth is that elsewhere, retail businesses are ensuring that their customers are given a great treat whenever they visit these outlets. Businesses are thinking outside the box to ensure that their customers would keep coming back for more.

When it comes to making shopping an exciting experience, the physical size of the shop does not really matter. What matters is the thinking that goes into setting up the place. As a matter of fact, the smaller the shop, the easier it should be for the owners to design a great experience for customers. The proliferation of mobile phones means that even the mom-and-pop store or the small neighbourhood shop can even give customers a great experience. All it requires is a little non-linear, out-of-the-box thinking.

True, there are retail outlets that are making use of technology, like the use of mobile apps, to enhance shopping. Those businesses have the financial might to do things of that nature. But even without money to spend in developing apps, a small retail business can still make ample use of mobile phones to give its customers a great experience.

The financial status of the business has nothing to do with the willingness of the retailer to place a call or message to a regular customer asking if the one’s regular purchase should be reserved. The call credits or data that front line employees use to browse and watch funny videos on the Net could easily be put to far better use. A customer who places his or her order online or over the phone, and even pays over the phone, does not have to join a queue when coming for his or her goods. That singular act has the potential of winning the business a customer for life.

Another common strategy that has been utilised by retailers is the bundling of products with a similar purpose at one place in the shop. For instance, shaving sticks, razor blades, shaving gels and creams can be bundled at a common location. This is to ensure that when a customer moves that particular spot in the supermarket, all the items related to that one product would be in the same place. This saves the customer the inconvenience of moving around the entire supermarket to pick up related products. That simple and common act can do wonders for a customer’s experience.

A May 2020 edition of the Journal of Services Marketing carried a report of a research done by five American scientists which sought to prove the importance of retailers offering such solutions to their customers. The report titled “Consumer responses to shopper solutions in service settings” found that offering shoppers with solutions in-store positively influenced the shoppers’ perceptions of shopping convenience, as well as their purchase intentions. The researchers also found higher word-of-mouth and loyalty intentions from customers who had been provided with the in-store shopper solutions.

Offering shopper solutions like the bundling of related products is effective for certain sizes of retail outlets. Large supermarkets and the hypermarkets found in some city centres would be ideal places to practice something like that. If the shop is below a certain size it becomes very difficult to pull something like that off. However, this should not stop any retailer from offering its customers a similar experience.

This is where the issue of cross-selling and up-selling comes to play. Shop assistants should be so trained as to be able to effortlessly cross-sell and up-sell to customers without coming across as being pushy. An observant sales boy would notice what a customer has bought and use the opportunity to offer a related product to the customer. It is entirely possible that the customer might not have even thought of that related product—and might end up making the additional purchase.

It is important to add, at this juncture, that offering customers a great shopping experience of convenience is very possible if the business has good information about its customers. It is only by knowing the preferences of its customers that a business can tailor-make the experience for those customers. This calls for front line employees to be given the mandate to collect customer information regularly. Collecting information about customers does not have to involve questionnaires or any sophisticated data collection method. In a normal conversation as the customer is checking out, a good front line employee can garner very useful information about the customer.

The Japanese call it “kaizen” and it is a concept that means continuous improvement. This is what business owners are supposed to be doing, especially those in retail. They must always be thinking of the latest ways to help improve the way they do things. Smart retailers are always seeking to improve the experience their customers have in-store. They are always on the lookout for simple, cost-effective ways to give their customers great shopping experiences.

Smart retail businesses know that what they are selling are not only the goods on the shelves. They know that the in-store experience is also part of what they are offering. They know that customers are shopping for more than just goods—the experience also counts. These smart retailers therefore ensure that they provide the kind of experiences that create an emotional connection with customers.

In the times we find ourselves in, when the average customer steps out to go shopping, two things are very important to the experience—speed and convenience. Customers do not have to be punished when they are coming to spend their hard-earned money, especially when there are enough options available to the customer. Retail businesses must train their front line employees to always keep these two words in mind when serving customers—speed and convenience. Failure to do so would end up ruining the customer’s experience. And we have enough evidence to know what aggrieved customers do. They go shopping for a better experience, elsewhere.

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