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?