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Posts from the ‘in-store experience’ Category


The Fit Fitting Room – Part 2; Color Counts

On a recent shopping trip to a well-known fast fashion retailer I decided to try-on a few things.  Since fitting rooms are my thing I always approach the fitting room area with great anticipation.  I have a mental checklist that I work through as I proceed through the fitting room process.

Upon entering the fitting room area I was pleased to be greeted by a smiling attendant. The area was large so it was easy to maneuver around other customers on the way to an open fitting room.  Unfortunately that was pretty much the end of my good experience.

Upon entering my fitting room I was blinded by a glaring overhead light and even though there was a lot of light, I could barely see.  As I hung my clothes up I realized that the fitting room was painted jet black!  I found that pretty peculiar, but not until I tried on the first outfit did I realize how bad an idea it really was.

I’m not a designer, an artist, or anyone who understands color, but I can tell you that a black fitting room does nothing to help me, a customer, look good.  It seemed to absorb the light and made it hard to see myself in the mirror and what I did see wasn’t good!  It created shadows that made me look sallow and it was impossible to see what the outfits really looked like.  My buying decisions were; no, no, and no.  When I left the fitting room I noticed other shoppers making the same decision and piling their rejected items on the table in front of the smiling fitting room attendant.

The sad thing about it is that some designer thought that painting the entire fitting room area black was a really great idea!  The fitting room color was edgy, hip, and cool, but it didn’t make their customers look edgy, hip, and cool.  It made me look scary, weird, and very uncool.  And there’s the problem, the customer is often left out of the decision process when it comes to fitting room design.

Professional designers do know the ins and outs of color and how it makes people look and feel.  Shame on them for choosing fitting room colors that don’t keep the customer and their experience at the front of the design process.  Funky and edgy colors may make your fitting rooms look fabulous, but make sure they make your customers look fabulous while they’re making their buying decisions. Ultimately, the customers do get the final say when they reject the retailers offering because of how it makes them look.  But is the fitting room experience ever rightfully blamed by the retailer or other experts?  I don’t think so.


The Fit Fitting Room – Part 1; Size Matters!

I’m often asked what constitutes a good fitting room from a customer point of view that would take into consideration things like size, color, and environment.  This is the first in a series of blogs on what I think about each element of fitting room design and the impact each has on the overall customer experience in the fitting room.

First up is size.  Size matters!  Unfortunately, there is no standard size fitting room.  Sizes range from a box about the size of a phone booth (remember those?) which are so small they make you lean up against the door when trying on, or the curtained ones that your butt pokes out as your balancing on one foot, to eerily large rooms that make you feel isolated and deserted.

Last there are the ‘gang fitting rooms’ that are so horrible they should be illegal.  There is nothing worse than standing half naked in a fitting room bay full of other half naked women pretending that the other one doesn’t exist and no one’s looking.

What appears to dictate size is the type of retailer.  Discounters are generally tiny, and the size usually grows with the price tags – but not always. Some architects try to jam as many fitting rooms as possible into the designated fitting room area without much thought about function or consistency of size.  Even within the same fitting room bank the rooms can vary significantly.

What constitutes a good sized fitting room?  It should be large enough to fit your customer and a reasonable amount of their stuff (purse & shopping bags), and something to put their stuff on, to sit on, and to lay their clothes on while they are trying on their selections.  People need room to take off their clothes and put yours on comfortably.  If you offer ‘big & tall’ items, be sure your fitting rooms can accommodate a ‘big & tall’ customer!

It should also be large enough so that when they have successfully undressed and are attempting to make a decision about what to buy; they have enough room to look into the mirror from a reasonable distance and see themselves.  This will not only make them feel more comfortable, it will also help them make their buying decision final in the store instead of taking the items home and trying them on to make their decision.

If you don’t make your fitting rooms fit for your customers, they’ll work around them by taking their selections home to try and buy.  And there’s the rub, taking items home increases returns, kills margin, and destroy comps.

So the next time you think about redoing your fitting room, remember, size does matter!


Why Retail Fitting Rooms Are Awful & What To Do About Yours

by Marge Laney

Fitting rooms and their service, as well as how to outfit and staff them, are passions of mine.

That’s why I was excited to be included in the article in the Wall Street Journal about fitting rooms yesterday.

As I was reading the story though, I had to re-check the date at the top of the page because it sure sounded like it was 1995 all over again. The writer focused once again on why making fitting rooms productive is so elusive for the brick and mortar apparel retailers. 

Why is keeping the dressing room area free of dirt and dust too much for some, while others think a laser focus on tweaking paint colors, adding couches and posters will ‘seduce’ customers?  All under the misnomer of service

Why wasn’t the importance of the fitting room in relation to sales and other performance metrics the true story in the WSJ rather than an episode of HGTV for dressing room chic? 

Should making the fitting room area inviting and clean be a priority?  Absolutely! 

Will making the fitting room area inviting and clean sell merchandise? Absolutely not! Yes the design aesthetics of the fitting room should complement the rest of the store, but chandeliers don’t sell!

 Our studies at Alert Technologies show that guys don’t use fitting rooms when they know they can’t get service. But when you give a guy a sales associate feeding them clothes in the fitting room – they’ll stay there for hours. 

Better yet, give a guy a call button to call an associate to help with sizes, colors, or just an opinion and they’ll use it often and without invitation! The men’s clothing segment is the fastest growing segment in 2011.  Are you really going to use 1995 thinking to capture them? No!

The problem for most retailers in their pursuit of excellence in the fitting room is that either no one in their organization owns the fitting room experience, or it’s owned by the store designers.

Let me make this clear: Design is not service

Nobody’s paycheck depends on how well their fitting room strategy performs.

It’s nobody’s job to buy fitting room technology.

No one really knows what percent of their store traffic uses the fitting room. Or how long the typical customer stays. Or how many times they’ve received service.  And why is that?

It’s nobody’s job to know. Hence…


According to Envision Retail in the WSJ article:

  • Customers who try on clothes in fitting rooms have a conversion rate of 67%.
  • Customers who don’t use the fitting rooms have only a 10% conversion rate.
  • Shoppers who use the fitting rooms spend a third of their in-store time there.

Driving customers to the fitting room and keeping them there with service and selling strategies should be job one for associates.

Hoping that customers wander in because the poster on the wall encourages them, or the lounge chairs offer a comfortable rest stop for hubby, is a lousy strategy. 

Look I get it, payrolls are stressed. But with the right payroll allocation and technology that helps with the control and service of the fitting room area, it can be done.

Brick-and-mortar is stuck. Technology that supports the fitting room experience is practically non-existent – that must change. And that’s why our company does what it does with technology and training.

Please stop calling store design customer service

Let’s make someone’s paycheck depend on how good the fitting room service strategy is. And how well it’s executed.

Embrace your fitting rooms as a conversion tool, because if you don’t a competitor will.

Marge Laney is President of Alert Technologies, a technology manufacturer and consultancy that is focused on customer facing service technology for retail.  Call her to discuss your fitting room needs at 281-326-9900.


Where Did All The Browsers Go?

by Marge Laney

Back in 2003 Envision Retail published research that confirmed –

“The fitting room customer is 71% likely to buy versus the customer who browses the sales floor at 28%”. They further declared that this proved that getting customers into the fitting room was good for business. 

Recently, Envision updated this statistic and now states –

“Conversion of customers in the fitting rooms is 67% compared to those who do not use the fitting rooms of only 10%, making the fitting rooms the most commercially valuable space in the store”!

There has been an 18% decrease in the likelihood of the browser buying from 2003 to today!

That’s significant! And begs the question; Why? 

Could it be lack of traffic?

Overall traffic has trended down over the period of time, but I don’t believe that would impact the likelihood of purchase once inside the store.

I believe the reason is the internet.

Consumers no longer need to leave the comfort of their home to browse and purchase. Free shipping and easy return policies make shopping a breeze if there is no immediate need for the product. 

This isn’t all bad and it’s definitely not going to change. Retailers need to be where their customers are. Smart phones and all the mobile technology have expanded shopping opportunities and changed the retail landscape beyond recognition.

Consumers access information and purchase products in different ways depending on their location and need. It is essential for successful retailers to understand who their customers are and how they choose to interact with their brand and make it easy.

The important take away for the brick and mortar apparel retailer is that even though the browser is shopping in a different way, the customer who uses the fitting room is not. 

Fitting rooms and those customers who use them, are the reason they will continue to exist. 

Customers who traditionally visit stores, buy without trying on, and return what doesn’t fit are abandoning this shopping routine in favor of online shopping from home. 

The 2011 customer who makes the trip to the mall is a more committed customer, and they are there to buy. 

While creating and implementing a memorable fitting room service experience may not be sexy or cutting edge, it will sell merchandise, which is the point.  Isn’t it?


Victoria’s Secret Success is No Secret

by Marge Laney

The last chapter is closing on Holiday 2010 with the release of the January retail sales figures.  It was pretty much as we all expected, maybe a little stronger than some had guessed, but overall pretty good for most retailers. 

Limited Brands, however, blew it out with strong comps and margin improvement throughout the season.  Ending it up with their January performance off the charts with a 24% comp increase company wide, and Victoria’s Secret turning in a 35% comp increase (up against a 17% increase in January 2009); no small feat.   

The analysts credit their success to the right product at the right price. 

I agree that having compelling product that is priced correctly is crucial, but I think that’s far from the whole story of their success.  Nor can their remarkable increase be credited only to a mobile app, kiosk, or discounts (their semi-annual sale took place in January) although they utilize all of these.

What I believe separates them by such a wide margin from the rest of the apparel retail pack is that they wrap all of those right moves they make in product, pricing, and marketing in an in-store experience that is personal, efficient, and consistent across the brand.

When you walk into a Victoria’s Secret you are met by sales associates who know the product and are trained and managed to service their customers from the moment they enter the store to the moment they leave. 

On the sales floor they engage with each customer and encourage a fitting room visit where their specialists take over and provide an attentive, knowledgeable experience which in many cases results in a purchase. The cash wrap experience is efficient and appreciative. 

Some apparel retailers say that selling underwear warrants special attention and fitting room service, therefore the model doesn’t apply to them.  I say baloney!  For non-apparel retailers door traffic and sales floor engagement are where the action is.  The sales floor is where their customers “try-on” their products and the buying decision is made. 

 But, for the apparel retailer fitting room traffic and fitting room engagement is where their opportunities lie.  The customer who uses the fitting room is 67% likely to buy, versus the customer who shops the sales floor at 10%. 

Engaging the customer on the sales floor, driving them to the fitting room, and servicing them efficiently and knowledgeably in the fitting room should be in every apparel retailer’s playbook.  For the apparel retailer conversion takes place in the fitting room!

The secret of Victoria’s Secret success is no secret.  Simply put, they understand that an in-store experience wrapped in knowledgeable personal service may not be the newest or sexiest strategy, but without it they become just another retailer relying on discounts and gimmicks which ultimately commoditize their products and render their brand forgettable. 

Lot’s of retailers sell sexy underwear, but with more than 50% of the market in North America, and unparralled growth Victoria’s Secret is unforgettably the brand to emulate or ignore at your own peril.


Technology and the In-Store Customer Experience

by Marge Laney

One of the sessions that I attended at the NRF convention in New York this past week was conducted by McMillan Doolittle where they unveiled their “8 C’s Model of Customer Experience.”  The model included: Clarity, Convenience, Choice, Communication, Cast, Control, Consistency and Connection.

This is a great list, but I can’t think of one chain brick and mortar retailer that gets it all right on a consistent basis.  But, I’m not going to focus on consistency as I think the biggest challenge is cast and connection. It’s relatively easy for the chain retailer to get the other 6 of the 8 C’s right through the use of technology, but getting the people, training, and connecting with customers in a meaningful way takes more than a mobile app or a twitter account.

Technology whose goal is to encourage and enhance personal customer service in the brick & mortar store was nearly non-existent on the show floor. Which begs the question, when you need to deploy a great cast and connect with the customer who makes the effort to visit your stores, is technology the answer? For the most part, I think not. The Container Store was noted as an example of a chain that executes cast well, and I agree. They also do a fabulous job connecting with their customers in their stores. I will tell you that they spend a lot of time and money on selection, training, and creating an environment that encourages personal growth of each employee. Sound a little Kumbayah? Maybe, but when you walk into one of their stores you don’t need a mobile app or an augmented reality android to find out about a product or service. You get a real person who knows the products well and can help you with your particular storage problem. Sounds so last century, but it’s what their customers expect. What’s really interesting is that they sell commodity product at a premium that can be bought from Walmart or any other discounter, but they’re doing well and growing.

So instead of spending on sexy tech solutions that ex out the associate and promise to be the silver bullet, brick & mortar needs to invest in their people and technologies that help them create a differentiated experience, build customer loyalty, and most important, sell more product.


Retail Margin 101: Grow It or Kill It

by Marge Laney

The word on everyone’s lips today in retail is margin.  From the gurus on Wall Street, to the management teams steering the ships of big retail, everyone’s preaching, ‘Enough with the cuts already!’  ‘We need top line growth and margin improvement!’  So why is it when I walk my local mall and enter almost any store I’m greeted with “Hi, welcome to fill-in-the-blank! Check out our buy-one, get-one stuff and our 40% off whatever!” Or my favorite, “…we just did a whole bunch of new markdowns, come check them out!” 

I’m not speaking to discount self service retail here.  They know who they are and they pay for their service model with margin.  I’m talking about the retailers who preach that they do put customer service first and attempt to provide personal service to their customers in the name of adding value which translates to higher margin. 

I did a training recently and had the opportunity to ask the sales associates what margin was.  Not one of them had a clue, but they all were aware that it was something that they needed to improve.  For those of you who don’t know, margin is profit. Markdown’s destroy profit and eat up payroll that could and should be allocated to customer facing time to sell merchandise when it is fresh instead of sucking up that payroll on processing markdowns.  Sure, margin can be boosted by cutting SG&A (read payroll), but retail is pretty much done with that.  They’ve rung all the available fat out of their P&L for the most part.

The funny thing is that everybody in these organizations knows that the customer should come first and that the sales associate time is better spent connecting with the customer and selling.  So why don’t they just do it?  There are a million reasons why most don’t and they all make sense to somebody, but a couple of retailers are doing it and reaping the benefits.  One of them is J. Crew. Mickey Drexler,  CEO of J. Crew, is quoted in a recent WWD Article  and gives insight into their formula for success; “We are and will continue to be focused on our mission — to innovate in our design, style, quality and customer service and to invest in our business, our associates and our customers for the long term…”  J. Crew posted strong first quarter results with net income and gross margin up significantly across the board.  J. Crew associates are true brand advocates; they connect with their customers personally to provide service and sell, they don’t task.

I challenge all retailers who preach margin growth to put their in-store customer service strategies and their payroll allocation where their mouth is and provide the customer with the service and experience they advertise.  Select your front-line associates based on their ability not their availability, train them to be the knowledgeable brand advocates that deliver your message to every customer, give them standards and goals and monitor them, and offer tangible rewards for success.  And above all let them do the job you hired them to do – deliver the brand promise personally, and hire other non-sales people to process shipments, execute plan-o-grams, clean, and process a lot fewer markdowns.


The Ultimate Cost of Service

by Marge Laney

Seth Godin’s blog yesterday, Open Buying and Open Selling , made me think about retail customer service in a different way.  He writes, “When the customer does a lot of work for the seller, the seller can afford to sell it cheaper.”  And he ends his blog by saying; “The cost and method of selling (and buying) have a lot to do with the ultimate cost (and benefit).”  Sort of a “duh”, but the ideas are brilliant in their obviousness.

I posit the following to all brick and mortar retailers, big and small: It doesn’t matter whether you give your customers one on one personal service or require your customers to service themselves, either way you’re paying for it. 

If I go to a store where I don’t get much help and definitely not expert help I don’t expect to pay as much as I do at a full service store.  If in the case of a clothing store I’m left to schlep in and out of the dressing room trying to find something that fits without help, I don’t expect to pay as much as I would if the staff were attentive.  When I’m finished shopping I’m met with a self-service checkout or a long wait at a service desk, I expect the bill to reflect the inconvenience. 

On the other hand, if I visit a store where the staff is helpful and knowledgeable I expect to pay more for that attention and expertise.  If the associates in the clothing store show me the newest styles, service me in a dressing room by bringing me the correct sizes and complementary items, I expect to pay for that service as well.  And when I’m finished shopping and I need to have a garment altered and the associate lets me know that they can take care of it, I happily pay more for that convenience.

On my next shopping trip, who will I remember and where will I return?  I will probably remember the stores where I had the worst and the best experiences.  Where will I shop again?  Definitely not where I had a bad experience and was treated poorly or where my needs were ignored.  More than likely I will return to the store where I feel like I got what I paid for.

The next time you’re in a meeting and customer service is the topic, realize that whether you require that your customer’s service themselves, or you provide them with great customer service, either way it has a direct impact and ultimate cost to you on your bottom line in margin and customer loyalty.  So no matter how you figure it, you’re paying for it.


A Review of the Aberdeen Group Report: “The Automated and Connected Store”

by Marge Laney

“The Aberdeen Group, a Harte-Hanks Company (NYSE: HHS), surveyed 138 retailers (between October and November 2009) to reveal that the foremost business pressures prompting a renewed focus on in-store experience include dynamic nature of customer buying preferences due to current market uncertainties (40%), and growth in sales channel preferences (40%).” – Alpha Trade Marketing, Dec 8, 2009

The report, “The Automated and Connected Store: Next Generation Shopping Experience,” clearly states the case for Retail 3.0.  I think the current recession has accelerated the need, but it is the internet that created it. The 3.0 internet experience gives the customer full control of their access to the product and information available at a given retailers website. The retailer, on the other side, has full visibility of their customers as they navigate through products, payment, and fulfillment. They can warehouse this data and use it to build meaningful “after the sale” programs that build repeat visits and brand loyalty.

Brick-and-mortar is stuck on Retail 1.0. Customer facing technology that supports the in-store experience is practically non-existent in apparel retail, which is my focus.  Self-service kiosks that support an in-store internet experience miss the point.  Consumers choose brick-and-mortar experiences for many reasons not the least of which is personal interaction.  If they wanted an internet experience, they would have stayed home.

Technology platforms that give customers access to “during the sale” personal service, give the sales associates visibility and control of conversion areas, and provide management with meaningful BI from which they can measure, analyze, and control the in-store experience in real-time are what is needed to improve not only the in-store experience but the KPI’s as well.

Full Disclosure: My company sells a tech platform that enables the 3.0 experience in the fitting room which is the highest conversion area for the brick-and-mortar apparel retailer.

© Alert Technologies, Inc. 2009


Big Retail Needs to Think Small

 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