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Serving the Customer


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As Amazon expands into physical stores with its $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods Markets, retailers are scrambling for ways to stay afloat. Industry experts having been rattling off a number of ideas and strategies to compete with Amazon Go and AmazonFresh, such as leveraging technologies and creating an omnichannel experience, but what about in-store customer service?

Living in Brooklyn without a car makes shopping trips challenging and time-consuming, so I usually do most of my shopping online. However, I recently visited my mother on Long Island to shop for dresses and accessories we needed for an upcoming wedding. We stopped at several major department stores in two different malls in hopes of not only finding the items we wanted at a reasonable price, but also to receive some much-needed advice and expertise from the stores’ employees.

Unfortunately, we were appalled by the lack of interest, knowledge and attention we received from the employees at every store we visited.

Not once did we receive a friendly welcome or acknowledgement upon our arrival.

Not once did an employee approach us and ask if we needed any help.

When we tracked down a sales person for assistance, she seemed distracted—practically annoyed—to be taken away from whatever she was doing to help us with our request. Employees on the floor directed us where to find certain items or sizes rather than retrieving them for us. When one store didn’t carry the lipstick shade I was looking for, the employee told me to try calling another location rather than offering to call and put the item on hold for me herself.

Customers shouldn’t have to work that hard to find what they need. After hours spent traveling from store to store, we returned home saying, “We’re better off just shopping online.”

Though our awful experience was with department stores, the same applies for grocery retailers. I can recall similarly unsatisfying experiences at the supermarket: cashiers who have refused to serve me because they were closing that particular check-out lane; employees who tell me rather than show me where a certain item is located—or worse, employees who don’t know where to find a product. If a shopper is looking for a certain product that a retailer doesn’t currently carry, that retailer should offer to order it so that it’s available for the shopper’s next trip. Maintaining a repeat customer is easier than attracting new ones.

Even outside the in-store experience, such as phone or email communication, customers often get frustrated with facing a series of automated recordings on the phone rather than speaking to a company representative, or having their emails go unanswered altogether.

The logic is simple: Good customer service keeps shoppers coming back and bad customer service keeps them from returning.

Retailers—in all categories—must provide excellent customer service above anything else in order to effectively compete with Amazon. Optimizing the in-store experience is vital, though it involves more than a well-thought floor design with coffee lounges, food bars and sample offerings. Retailers must hire a polite, professional and considerate staff, as well as train all employees to be fully knowledgeable about the store’s products and customer base.

Amazon’s threat and the move toward online delivery has nothing against the power of a customer with a flawless in-store experience. I for one will not be returning to those department stores again, and I’ve shared my terrible experience with others who are now hesitant to visit those stores again, too. By keeping shoppers happy with top-notch customer service, they will not only return, but they will tell others about their experience and draw more consumers to that store, keeping brick-and-mortar retailers not only alive, but thriving. 

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