9 observations on the retail shopping experience

I think it is fair to say that there is tremendous pressure on the retail sector.  This would suggest to me that the retail sector has to up its game: to provide interested value propositions and attractive customer experiences in order to counteract the ease and convenience of ‘mouse shopping’ – internet shopping.  Looks like I am wrong.  Recently I accompanied my wife whilst she was out shopping for a dress.  Here is what I noticed and experienced:

1. No welcome

We went into countless clothes shops and not once did we get a welcome from anyone.  There was no welcome as in the greeting “Welcome!”.  There was no welcome as in eye contact and facial expression (smile) which suggests “Welcome!”.  We were simply invisible – at least that was our experience.  It strikes me that the entrance into the shop is no different to a guest entering your home – the welcome or lack of it sets the tone for the entire stay.

2. No signposting

In just about every shop we entered there was one rack after another of clothing.  There was no signposting (like you might find on a well designed site e.g. Amazon) to help us go to the right section.  No signposting in terms of types of clothes or size of clothes or colour of clothes…… Nothing to help the shopper to figure out where to head to find the clothes she is looking for.  I noticed that my wife was flitting from one rack to another and getting quite frustrated at times simply trying to find the right clothes!

Good signposting is what every good hostess does.  She sizes you up and points you towards the right people – those that you are likely to be interested in – and away from the people who you have no interest in.  It is also the heart of ‘information architecture’ on websites.  So why do the retail shops not do the same?

3. Information not made available

More than once a piece of clothing hit the mark and yet my wife was disappointed to find that it was in her size.  So she ended up wondering if the shop had that item of clothing in her size.  Yet she had no easy way to find that information.  Sometimes she ended up asking the store assistants, many times she did not because the store assistants were busy or simply not at hand.  When she did ask the store assistants some of them simply said “No”.  Did that mean “No that is not in stock.” or “No, I can’t be bothered to look and see.”  Those assistants that did go and look were sometimes absent for up to 10 minutes.  Is that an efficient use of a customer’s time?  Is it an efficient use of a store assistants time?

Now imagine having kiosks in store that provide the customer with that information.  Not only can the customer see what is and is not in stock she can also what other items of clothing go with the article that she finds interesting.

4. Size and pricing information was not easy to find

I noticed that my wife had to move clothes around and really make the effort to find the size and price information.  Why is this information not easily available?  The other thing I noticed was that in some of the shops there was a mismatch between the size quoted on the garment itself and the size on the price & size label tied onto the clothing. Which made me wonder how many women end up buying the wrong size?

5. Lack of an inviting atmosphere

It was clear that the retailers had invested in the exterior and interior of the shops.  Yet, I was struck by the lack of an inviting and engaging atmosphere in the shops themselves.

Some of the retailers (those on the cheaper end yet not cheap as these were outlets in a designer clothes mall) were packed full of ladies: there as little room to move and clothes were lying on the floor.  It simply felt like being in a cattle pen – how anyone can shop in that environment and enjoy it I do not know.

Walking into the high-end retailers felt a little like walking into a well run hospital.  The shops were spotless and the staff simply looked like and behaved robotic: cold, stand-offish, snooty – anything but human, helpful, hospitable.  Interestingly, there were relatively few shoppers in many of these retailers.  With simple dresses selling for £2,000 perhaps you do not need to sell much to make the numbers.

6. Fitting rooms: not fit for purpose?

Clothes are an item that you simply must try on especially if you are a women.  Given that is the case I assumed that a lot of thought would have gone into the design of the ‘fitting room experience’.   What I noticed: sometimes no assistant was available at the fitting rooms; almost all of the fitting rooms did not have enough hanging space to hang more than say 4 pieces of clothing; my wife remarked how hard it was for her to see how the dress looked on as she does not have eyes in the back of her head; and some  of the stores only allowed women into the fitting rooms.  The last policy meant that my wife had to do a parade in front of all the customers if she was going to get my opinion: a private act became a public one and my wife did not like this at all.  Which made me wonder how many other women feel like that.

It also struck me that the ‘fitting experience’ is a ‘moment of truth’.  It is here that the staff assistants can really contribute to the customer.  It is here that they can answer the customer’s question, provide feedback and offer to get the same clothing in a more suitable size.  Yet only one assistant did that.  She let me into the fitting room area it was against official policy – she pointed out that there were no other female customers so it was ok.  She actually asked if she could look and offer an opinion on how the clothes looked on my wife.  She provided her view in a friendly helpful manner.  She suggested alternatives and went out to find those alternatives and bring them back.  And she went into the stockroom to find the right size.  She made a difference and ultimately ‘landed the sale’ and the gratitude of the customer (my wife) and her husband (me).

7. Payment and departure

In more than one shop I saw customers standing at the payment counter waiting to be served.  The issue was not that there were too many customers in front of them being served.  No, the issue was that the shop assistants were busy putting clothes on the clothes racks or manning the fitting rooms or taking questions from customers.  In one instance I saw two shop assistants walk by a customer (who was waiting to be served) four times – not once did they acknowledge the customer.  After about five minutes I saw this customer leave the clothes on the payment counter and walk out.

During the payment process not once did any of the shop assistants make any comment on the clothes that customers had purchased.  No acknowledgement of the customer’s savvy in choosing that item of clothing.  No useful tip for caring for the item/s of clothing.  No mention of any other item of clothing that might go with a particular item being purchased.  No sincere “Thank you for shopping with us.  And we are looking forward to seeing you again. ”  Nothing – just robots taking out tags, processing credit cards, bagging the clothes and handing over items.

8. Options – where are they?

What about providing the customer with the option of having her items delivered to her home?  Or the option of leaving her email address and getting an alert when the items she wants is back in stock?  Or the option of a stylist to help her choose the right clothes/colours?  And so forth….

9.  Alienation is rife

Alienation is a fancy sounding name from being emotionally disengaged from the situation / task that you find yourself in.  It can be contrasted to ‘flow’ – the experience of being one with the situation and the task such that time flies by.  What I noticed was that most of the shop assistants were alienated from their work – that of serving their customers.  So I took the opportunity of talking to many of them.  Most of them are young, paid the minimum wage, given little or no real training and do not feel valued.  They are simply doing the shop assistant job until something better comes along.

How are the people that are staffing the shops going to make customers feel welcome and deliver an attractive experience for shoppers when they are so disconnected from their work?

Final thoughts

It strikes me that (offline) retailers still think that they are selling goods. They still think that the are running warehouses that happen to be located on the high street or the shopping mall.  That their role is simply to put the items on the shelves, let the customers pick them, bag them and take payment.  They do not seem to get that if they are to survive and prosper then they need to create and sell experiences: experiences that engage the physical senses and leave customers with a smile on their faces and something to talk about and share with friends and their broader social network.   This may be why many UK retailers are struggling.  The exceptions being the likes of John Lewis an ‘employee owned’ organisation that puts great customer service at the heart of everything it does and where the employees have voice, are treated well (generally) and share in the profits.

The opportunity to re-envision and re-invent retailing is here I wonder who is going to take it.  What do you think?  What is your experience?

Posted on July 19, 2011, in Case Studies, Customer Engagement, Customer Experience, Customer Service and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Absolutely love this post! I would shop online much more often if I could guarantee that the clothes would fit, because shopping on the high street is so tiring as a result of many of the factors you’ve pointed out here. I would love for a shop assistant to give an opinion on the clothes I choose, and to actively make suggestions for items that would suit my shape and skin tone; which is why most women pray that Gok Wan will appear on their doorstep one day!
    If they’re going to act like robots then maybe a more automated service would be better, and may even be more efficient. But I completely agree that High Street Shopping needs to change if it’s going to keep pace with the online world.
    Thanks

    Like

    • Hello Kerry, I believe that my wife is with you and so is my sister. I suspect that if I was a women I might be tempted to do the same!
      Thanks for dropping by and adding your voice to the conversation.
      Looking forward to hearing your voice again. All the best.

      Maz

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  2. Pauline de Robert

    I stopped shopping off-line a long time ago, and not only for clothes. Not only is the selection better online, but often so is the stock availability. From Asos to net-a-porter, whatever your budget. it’s all there. You can browse from the comfort of your home, any time of day, you get to try on the clothes with other items you already own, in front of your mirror in private. Moreover, many online retailers make it very easy to return items with prepaid mailing labels or even for the premium ones, courier or DHL pickup.
    That said, as I’ve written elsewhere, many online retailers could still improve on findability and usability in general:

    http://www.foviance.com/what-we-think/usability-and-expectations-looking-at-gap/

    http://www.foviance.com/what-we-think/hm-website-first-and-last-look/

    and delivery can be an issue.

    http://www.foviance.com/what-we-think/the-last-mile/

    PRH

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    • Hello Pauline
      I thank your for dropping by and adding your voice to the conversation. I have read all three of your posts and I have a particular resonance with your third post on the last mile. I continue to be amazed at how brands cede the last mile to just about any old delivery company. And you as point out the brands seem to think everything is finished once they have taken your credit card details. The experience from a customer perspective is not over until the product is in hand and operational.

      Once again, thank you and I hope to hear your voice again and to learn from you.

      Maz

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  3. Maz,
    This post, like many other posts you published, describes the experience you got as “cold”, while I believe it is a matter of (your personal and professional) sensitivity, I believe we should consider these places as giving “Neutral” experience. (I think places that provide “cold” experience are doomed to be closed, as the bad words are spreading).

    Since shops which provide a neutral experience are still in business, it raises the question – does it really matter to have good experience ? I mean, people do come and buy there. These places prosper – so maybe the customer experience is not that important for these businesses and to most of their customers?

    I believe you know me enough to know that I am not trying to doubt the need for a good customer experience, but I find myself sharing similar neutral experiences with other people, and get responses like “stop whining, this is not that bad”, so maybe we are aiming too high ?

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    • Hello Arie
      You make a good point: you have identified the fact that I belong to a segment of peope who are pleased by the human touch. I prefer to dine with people than on my own. I prefer to ponder and then share my pondering with a group of people – to invite their contribution and work together to come up with something better. My colleagues tell me I am a natural coach as ‘helping out / sharing my passion-expertise’ is me. I love to facilitate workshop the more difficult the better because I love to be with people and help them work together effectively. I do not do social – social is me.

      Should retailers pay any attention to people like me? Only if they are relying on people like me for their living – their future existence. Which brings me to the crux of my point of view. Online retailers continue their relentless growth because they have cracked the ease/convenience piece. I no longer buy books from a book store. My 16 year old son buys his clothes online: mostly they fit, if they don’t he sends them back and gets a refund. My wife no longer does food shopping by driving to the supermarket: the fodd is delivered to our door. So how do you differentiate yourself as a physical retailer or what contribution does the physcial store make.

      My argument is that the physical stores have to ‘compensate’ people for the hassle involved in making the trip to the store. And one way of doing that is to deliver hi-touch: between the store and the customer, between the service staff and the customer, between the customer and the products and even between customer adn customer.

      Are some people happy with ‘neutral stores’ absolutely. How can you tell that? I once spent a whole evening greeting hundreds of people coming into a ‘convention’ and after about twenty minutes I could tell who wanted, needed, welcomed the human touch and who simply wanted to be left alone. My point of view is that ‘I want to be left alone’ segment is actually quite small (30%). The remainder are either suprised or positively delighted just to have a human being welcome them like a good host would do when you turn up to their party.

      Finally, as I say in my blog: do not take anything as I say as ‘truth’ instead try it on for size, wear it for a while and see if it works for you or not. What else can you expect from a physicist and a zen student (a poor one!)?

      I thank you my friend for taking the time to turn monologue into a conversation. Be well and I look forward to hearing your voice again! Friendship does not depend on agreement – just mutual regard and an a small seed of love.

      Maz

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  4. Arie, I completely understand how you feel and it is indeed very reasonable to start doubting. But I do think reactions like “That’s life in the big city” are just cynical. I must agree that I too miss authentic contact in shops or stores. But I believe that it really does make a difference if somebody cares. And if people are still ignorant after a warm welcome, that is a moment where somebody should say ‘stop whining, your next encounter will probably be more genuine.’ But the neutral business won’t vanish, that I agree.
    As for Maz, I’d love to learn more about John Lewis. Unknown on the continent. I’m form Belgium.

    Like

    • Hello Karl
      Good to hear your voice again my friend. I hope that all is well with you. Belgium: that brings back great memories of the time I lived in Brussels. And one of my closet / oldest friends is moving to Brussels so if you live there and open to getting to know my friend then do let me know and I will put you guys in touch.

      Now on to your request around John Lewis. The first point to make is that John Lewis is exceptional in its operating philosophy, its ownership structure and its organisation. Here is what Wikipedia says:

      “The John Lewis Partnership is an employee-owned UK partnership which operates John Lewis department stores, Waitrose supermarkets and a number of other services. The company is owned by a trust on behalf of all its employees — known as partners – who have a say in the running of the business and receive a share of annual profits, which is usually a significant addition to their salary. The group is the third largest UK private company in the Sunday Times Top Track 100 for 2010. [5] Additionally, John Lewis also has the distinction of being UK’s best high-street website after beating M&S in October 2010. [6] The chain’s image is upmarket, and it appeals strongly to middle and upper class shoppers. Recently, however, John Lewis has broadened its marketing strategy towards all types of buyers, with the introduction of the ‘Value’ range to John Lewis and the ‘Essential’ range to Waitrose, and with the expansion of the business.”

      The interesting thing about John Lewis is that it tends to come top of the customer satisfaction ratings. During the last year when UK high street retailers have been struggling (and some closing down) the John Lewis partnership has been doing well – growing revenues and profits. The Waitrose chain (food bit of John Lewis) is expanding: a new store is being built where I live. The fact is that people who shop at John Lewis tend to continue shopping with John Lewis. People who work within John Lewis tend to continue working in John Lewis. I have a good friend in Waitrose and what he shares with me makes me think that Waitrose (part of John Lewis) is remarkable in the way that it treats its employees – “partners”. And because of that the employees treat customers the same way. Furthemore, these partners share in the rewards of their efforts because they get a share of the profits.

      If you want to know more about John Lewis then please click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lewis_Partnership

      I wish you well Karl and I thank you for giving me an opportunity to contribute to you. Be well and enjoy your weekend. I look forward to the day that we meet face to face and share a drink and/or some food!

      Maz

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  5. I absolutely agree with you here. To add to your points, I have noticed a huge lack of cohesion between retailers’ instore and online experiences – and the fact that these do not link at all is absurd. For example, I recently had a faulty item from a high end high street store. When I emailed the company’s customer service team I was told that they could not help me as I bought the item instore and must return it there. I called the outlet most local to me (not the one where I bought it) and they told me to return it to the store I bought it from (?!). When I asked why I could not take it to this store, the girl replied ‘because I will only have to send it there myself’. They will be lucky to get my business again! Interestingly, the particular store where I had originally bought the item has excellent customer service and I have always had a good experience when shopping with them. Given my expectations (particularly considering the brand), I was doubly disappointed with their service recovery. In the end I had had two email conversations, called two different stores, and returned the item to a third (where the experience was again not good).
    In my view, retailers desperately need a customer experience function (and strategy!!), and I have recently discovered that very few of them do this at head office level. Maybe one day they will catch up with the rest of the service industry…

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