Service, Please…

Black Friday will shortly have been and gone, so brace yourself for more sales analysis and the inevitable laments about the demise of in-store retail.

With a foam finger-sized finger being decisively directed at online.

Er, no. Online is just another channel.  Now I am no fan of contact centres, but they made the transition from call to contact centre, when new technologies surfaced.

Successful retailers have fathomed how online might enhance their enterprise. They have acclimatised to the new order and invested in that particular capability.  While it may mean that their retail operations have scaled down, they’re still making the same, or more money.

If Jack wants to jump over the candlestick, he must be nimble and quick.

The in-store retailers are largely neither. But these are the very same outfits who for years have piled on obscene mark-ups because customers had no other option but to buy from them.

Well the chickens may not have yet come home to roost, but they are approaching the henhouse with some gusto.

Now, in many cases, customers can apply their sweaty mitts to less expensive items online from the sanctity and comfort of their humble abode, as long as they are prepared to wait for delivery.

In-store retailers offering basic stack and pack been caught flat-footed, with their trousers down.

For decades they have been paying minimum wage to staff who stack shelves and take payments, but they try to convince us all that it is some sort of service.

Which sort of brings us some crunch points about instore retail.

Quite often – for goods that can be purchased both online and in-store – customers would prefer to go -in-store rather than make their purchases online.  And why?

Well, there’s the experience of browsing. Of handling goods and scrutinising them. Getting comfortable with the goods, while weighing up the prospective acquisition. It’s a ritual for some or a day out for others. It is an experience.

And there’s the service. Seeking support and advice that is expert, considered and planned for you as a customer by an organisation that knows you. Service begins and ends with the customer.

And that is where the problems lie, because that is not how in-store retailers see it.

Retailers man their stores with untrained staff, who are there for the meagre wages.  And these companies are focused on two activities only sales and the augmented basket size of those sales. And in among that mosh-pit of self-interest, the customer is flushed down the pan (after of course their payment is appropriated into the coffers.

That is why, when you stride into an electrical superstore, the assistants spin out of the rafters like ninjas, asking how they can help. And then you ask them a question and they can’t help; they leave you standing there.  And when you do get your product to the till, they try to upsell a warranty for twice the value of the product.

I mean, if the product were likely to go kaput within 3 years, it shouldn’t really be on the shelves, should it?

And this upselling at the till. You buy some lightbulbs and the guy is asking if he can interest you in chocolate for £1.

That’s not upselling as such. It’s not offering me a great deal to enhance my intended purchase.

While I don’t enjoy the inescapable upselling in fast food outlets (when you end up for hours at the till while they try to extract an extra 30p from you for every item, before producing a bill that you’d need a PhD in data analysis to comprehend), at least it’s legitimate upselling, with enhancing and pertinent deals that make sense.

In these general merchandise shops, it’s all about profiting from pressure to answer a question quickly, in order to increase basket size. They don’t care whether you like chocolate, or if it’s going to be any good for you. They just want your £1 and they have a punt for it.

Even when you proactively sell them that you’d just like the lightbulbs, the chocolate will still be offered.

And even the ‘can I interest you’ part of the question is bogus. He’s just pointing to it. No interesting side story about the cocoa plantation in Ghana, or another such engaging titbit.

All of this is done to strip you of your cash, and they expect us to feel sorry for them now they’ve been caught out?

Not a chance.

I mean, these are the people who have in the past blamed rising prices on shoplifting.

So, they can’t keep their house in order, and the cost of their incompetence must be borne by the rest of us? Well, customer pilfering isn’t half as rampant as retailers would have you believe. The overwhelming majority of stock thefts occur before the goods have reached the shop floor, with the staff themselves liberating the merchandise.  Venture into any shop and see how many cameras are pointing at the tills for a window into employer trust.

They’re also the ones who have conspired in the downsizing of products across the board, while steadily increasing prices.  

Guys, you’ve screwed yourselves.

If in-store retail is to survive, you’ve got to start differentiating and more crucially, you must start focusing on the customer.

That doesn’t mean shouting out ‘You ok there?’ across the shop at whomever enters.

It also doesn’t mean ostensibly shuffling clothes on rails, while trying not to betray that you are maintaining surveillance on the black woman who has absent-mindedly strolled into your line of vision with her pushchair.

Use some common sense. Learn to read body language and approach the people who clearly need help. And guess what? You all wear uniforms with name badges, so if someone has a question, they will come up and ask you. Waiters might learn a thing or two about that as well. Constantly asking if your food is alright to construct a rationale for a tip. It’s excruciating.

But most of all, know your subject, know it inside out and make your customer the focus.

However, don’t expect any major changes any time soon.  If they’d had any common sense, they would have re-grouped at any time since about 2008.

They must be barmy if they think that some miracle will pop up and save them now. The direction of travel is downwards into the quagmire, and the stark choice is change or die.

You know what the real problem is though? Apart from the fact that in-store retail has always premised every endeavour on the amassment of filthy lucre.

Well, when some of the more enlightened people realised that they needed to replicate the personal service of the corner shop, and later when online started to generate changing consumer habits, the charlatans rode into town.

The customer experience experts and consultants with their unimpeachable formulae and scripts for success. All the MBA tosspots from the University of Clown.

The ones who anoint the company brotherhood with service standards that induce regulated and rigid ceremonials, whatever the circumstances.

Like the edict that everybody entering a store must be greeted. That everybody purchasing a sale or offer item must be told that the deal was a bargain. That customers at a till must be asked about what they’re planning for the weekend.

Take it from me, that claptrap grates. And it isn’t service.

Don’t hire people who don’t give a toss, then robotise them into droid-like adherence to processes that habitually don’t remotely complement contexts.  It drives your customers away and kills your business.

Hire people who know their subject, who know the customer and then afford them the freedom and the autonomy to engage on a personal level.

What happens next is great service that lands well with the individual customers. Merely because it’s authentic and meaningful.

That’s some free consultancy, and you never know, it might just save you.

unsplash-logoTim Mossholder

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