Published November 10, 2017. Updated September 6, 2022.
A lot is written about customer engagement in retail.
How retailers are trying to engage shoppers in their brick-and-mortar locations by making the store more like an online experience.
And the more information IT departments can gather using Big Data and feed it through an algorithm, the more personal they can make a customer’s shopping experience.
I have news for them…and therefore for you...
An algorithm is not personal.
An algorithm is what causes those ads that stalk you after you’ve visited an online retailer. It’s what shows up next to your Facebook feed, pops up next to your New York Times article, and what generally annoys you.
It cannot look you in the eye; it cannot talk to you; it does not have a heart.
The more your store is like an algorithm, the less likely it is to get people inside your four walls.
Heck, I remember shopping on Michigan Avenue, one of the top 10 toniest meccas for retailers in the free world.
I should have had an exceptional experience as I was visiting luxury retailers exclusively, but in three stores I was ignored.
No one asked me anything.
I was free to browse the warehouses and stores that held Kenzo, Armani, Prada, Alexander McQueen, and the rest of the finest luxury brands in the world ...alone.
All of this happened while in the background all kinds of other processes carried on oblivious to me.
At Neiman, there was the young man five feet from me who looked up from his smartphone to scan my face and then looked right back down at his palm.
There was the crew at Saks on two different days who were having a swell time discussing their personal lives. I was tempted to share how they should be greeting a retail customer but didn't.
There was the obnoxious woman shouting to her crew at Tommy Bahama about how funny another employee was.
I could go on, but you get the idea….
If back in the 80s, retailers without knowledgeable salespeople hadn’t stacked it high to hope it would fly, engagement would still be personal.
But we now have generations who endured rotten service, highly promotional marketing, and cavernous big boxes that make the very idea of going shopping a chore.
Can a store associate, if they can’t even stop what they’re doing and greet a customer, use technology to engage a customer?
I would suggest the answer is a resounding no.
Many believe technology is the answer so an employee knows when a good customer appears in a department or the iBeacon can touch everyone on the sales floor more effectively than any one human being could.
Developing an app or using iBeacons to connect to a customer’s smartphone to push coupons means those shoppers will be looking into the palms of their hands more than around your store.
And you have enough employees doing that already...
If a store associate has been trained to build rapport and engage the customer, technology can be used to show how a product works or to help with mundane stock checks.
But the more you encourage your store employees and customers to look to the palm of their hands for answers, the less they will look at each other in the face.
Because they have such a strong sense of identity online that they have difficulty separating their virtual actions from those of a human being.
Face-to-face is the most engaging way to show customers that they are more than the proverbial rats to the cheese who can be manipulated by offering coupons in hopes they will take something home that day.
As we’ve said for centuries, the devil is in the details.
Take This Simple Test To See How Engaging Your Store Is:
1. From the outside, can you see customers engaged in shopping?
a.No, our windows are covered or filled with merchandise. b.No, I can see in, but I just notice employees waiting. c.Yes, I can see into the store and easily see customers shopping.
2. Once inside the store, are the employees
a. In front of the counters? b.Behind the counters? c.Not easily visible?
3. Go to four different departments an hour apart. Do you hear laughing?
a. Yes, from customers. b.Yes, from customers and employees. c.Yes, from employees. d.No.
4. Toward the end of a shift, ask a couple of employees what kind of customers they had that day.
a. Can they recall individual details of customers? b. Did they complain about customers? c. Did they just say fine or kind of slow?
5) And if you are an apparel store, have a customer pick up three unrelated items. Have them go to the fitting room without looking or asking anyone for help.
a.Did someone find them and start a room for them? b. Did someone find them, start a fitting room, and be available to fetch additional sizes, colors, etc.? c.Did they get to the fitting room by themselves but were checked on at least one time by an employee? d.Did they get to the fitting room by themselves and were left alone?
I’m not going to tell you how to score this; you already know.
The Secret of Engagement:
Engaged stores are fun places to shop. Their customer experiences are unique. They are dependent on the welcoming personalities hired to work there.
Your store design, your curated merchandise selection, your premium location... only got you into the game of retailing.
Unless you have a retail training program that is actively focused on engaged human connections one-on-one, you’ll lose the game of retail.
And don’t train them to get it right just once in a classroom, train them so well that they can’t do it wrong on the battlefield of your store - where you are fighting online competitors, often on your own turf.
If you haven’t been training on how to engage customers, there’s not much time. The shakeout in retail will continue as weak brands focus on the wrong things and go under.