where have all the people gone?
Basic tactics hold that when you have an advantage you press it, and when your opponent has a disadvantage you exploit it. Unfortunately, short-term goals and bottom-line thinking seem to have replaced these principles for many brick & mortar retailers.
We’ve all had a ‘Am I the last person on earth?’ moment. If you’re lucky it happens while sitting on the edge of a remote part of the Grand Canyon, or when you have an entire movie theater and a bucket of popcorn to yourself. I had mine in the bedding department of a major national retailer. And it wasn’t just one department—it was the entire floor. As I searched thousands of square feet in vain for someone wearing a name tag, I experienced a moment of panic: could it be possible the rapture had occurred and I was one of the unworthy, left behind? My irrational fears were assuaged when, eventually, I discovered a few other lost souls seeking someone, anyone, willing to take their hard-earned money. I would lock eyes with them, only to to see the same frustration I was feeling reflected back at me.
Other times the problem isn’t a lack of bodies. Say you’re in the big box store looking for some tech, so naturally, you have a few questions. You see plenty of appropriately-colored shirts, but they always seem to be occupied with someone else or on the phone. You finally make eye contact with someone, but their face flashes with alarm and they scurry away at a pace that defies common workplace safety practices. Or maybe you’re at another big box store and heading to checkout. Register lines clog the main aisle and carts are overflowing. You look to the express lanes with hope, but the signs clearly state ‘10 items or less’ and you’re weighing in at a solid 18. So you head to the escape pods, aka self-checkout stations. Half are out of order, so the wait will be almost as long as the regular checkouts.
If you’ve had similar experiences in the last few years, there’s actually a—if not good—certainly understandable reason for it. In terms of expenses, labor costs are often the biggest slice of the pie for retailers, so they are the most convenient target when budgets are under pressure. And a big part of this pressure on brick and mortar stores is the squeeze being applied by online retailers. In response, many retailers have cut staff drastically. The problem with this is that without staff you can’t have service. And while thoughtful environmental experiences can offer tremendous advantages, it is highly unlikely a common retail environment can, without service, be enough to overcome the fact that a few mouse clicks can now get almost anything you desire delivered to your door in days or even hours.
“At the beauty specialists Sephora, there is never a shortage of easily-identifiable sales associates who are ready to answer questions or even give you an on-the-spot mini makeover.”
Some brands understand this and have made service part of their very DNA. For example, at the beauty specialists Sephora, there is never a shortage of easily-identifiable sales associates who are ready to answer questions or even give you an on-the-spot mini makeover. This whole-hearted embrace of the try-before-you-buy experience ensures customers leave with the products that make them feel like their best selves. This sort of immediate gratification is not just engaging and rewarding, it cannot be meaningfully replicated—much less matched—by online shopping.
Another service-oriented brick & mortar retailer is the sporting goods company, Scheels, where it seems a staff member appears to answer any question as soon as you think it. Their customer-focused philosophy has been winning them loyalty at their 27 locations across the country as other brands in their category shed customers. Both of these companies realize anyone can buy the physical products they sell online, but by amplifying the positive aspects of the in-store experience, they are making it worthwhile for customers who make the effort to visit.
“...companies like Sephora and Scheel’s that invest in not just people, but the experiences those people provide to their customers, are poised to reap the benefits...”
While online retail will only continue to grow, companies like Sephora and Scheel’s that understand an investment in not just people, but the experiences those people provide to their customers, are poised to reap the benefits as an improving economy and customers seeking real-world experiences drive foot traffic. Other’s are (or will find themselves scrambling to be) reinvesting, but are playing catch-up after unintentionally driving traffic online (or to their competitors) with less-than-desirable customer service. As for the rest, in a world where customer experience is more important than ever, they may just find themselves walking their aisles and feeling very much alone.
Photos: SAMSUNG/BRYAN BEDDER/GETTY IMAGES/J. ALAN PAUL PHOTOGRAPHY/FARGO INC! MAGAZINE