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September 3, 2009

Big Retail Needs to Think Small

by Marge Laney

 by Marge Laney

If you’re a student of retail as I am, you must notice most retailers talking out both sides of their mouths these days.  On one side is the constant yammering and hand wringing about the importance of the customer experience.  2009 was heralded as the “Year of the Existing Customer”, in other words; take care of the customers you’ve got because if you’re not taking care of them someone else will…gladly. On the other side there is a constant drumbeat of cutting costs, and in brick and mortar that means payroll.  Actions speak louder than words and the winner in this race for attention and budget is; cutting payroll, aka, lean payroll optimization…. in softer, gentler retail speak.  

What about the customer, what do they want?  Customers, when asked, say that they want to be able to quickly access knowledgeable and friendly service when they want it. The question is; can the customer be served the way they want to be served in a lean payroll environment?  These two points of view at first glance seem to be at odds with each other and suggest their inability to co-exist in the same strategy. 

Many retail customer service strategies are high touch and focus on the sales associate breaking through barriers and engaging the customer in a meaningful way.  These strategies involve following the customer around asking open ended questions and trying to anticipate the customers’ wants and needs.  These strategies are often very involved and encourage the associate to delve deep to establish an emotional connection with the customer.  The trouble though is that these strategies in the hands of the typical large chain sales associate are either executed poorly or not at all.

These high touch strategies are in fact an attempt by the large chain retailer to act small.  Many aspirational apparel retailers want that proprietor feel that small shops and very high end retailers can achieve, especially in the fitting room.  But, that’s just not possible.  Sole proprietors and high end retailers are emotionally and economically vested in each of their customers.  It’s a great thing to aspire to, but with high turnover, little incentive, etc. even the best chains are really fighting an uphill battle. 

The best way to achieve “acting small” for the large chain apparel retailer is to give the customer a way to access the service the sales associates have been trained to give when they want it.  This means giving the customer control of their service connections.  Instead of depending on the sales associate to be motivated to engage the customer, let the customer initiate and control the engagement.  This raises the level of service for every customer and gives the associates the option of being a call answerer or a sales superstar; but the good news is that customer will never again be ignored.

Seems like a simple solution but many retailers are resistant to access technology. Why?  First, they see this as a detriment rather than an enhancer of their personal service strategy.  They are fearful that their associates will become dependent on it. In my opinion, access technology can help them “act small” and service customers personally by setting a level of service availability that they cannot fall below.  At its lowest level it makes the worst associate a call answerer and may save the sale.  At its highest level it gives great associates a way to stack and service multiple customers simultaneously.  In the current lean payroll two coverage scenarios being played out in most apparel chain retail today, it just makes sense.

© Alert Technologies, Inc. 2009

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