‘Can I help you – or are you just looking?’

This is the ‘question’ that I so often hear when entering a store on my local main street. However, the body language of the sales assistant often makes it obvious that this question is rhetorical. It doesn’t take a genius to see that they are secretly hoping that I say no to any help, and are asking me out of politeness (and because it’s their job to do so). I sense this underlying attitude and tell the assistant that I don’t need anything, with an awkward grin on my face.

The thing is, bricks and mortar are here to stay. Customers love to browse online, but the proportion of retail sales made online is only 12%. This means that the majority of customers still choose to visit the store to feel, touch, explore and try on the items of interest. A great example of this is Frank And Oak, a retail business that started online and within a few years opened physical stores. They recognized and responded to their customers’ needs – to connect with their brand and explore before buying. So, the question remains: why are store experiences today mediocre, frustrating (e.g. laboriously long queues) and, at best, forgettable?

The retail industry has changed fundamentally and will continue to do so as the digital and omnichannel influence continues to grow. But a real opportunity lies in that moment when the customer enters your store. As a store assistant, you should engage in a meaningful and helpful way that drives an enjoyable and memorable shopping experience, ideally creating an advocate for your brand.

We want to create a world where the customer walks out thinking ‘that was unbelievable’ – in order to do this, we need to switch from a transactional exchange to a transformational customer experience. We make money when we help customers make purchasing decisions, therefore the first point of contact, when a customer enters the store, is crucial. It is the first step in the customer journey – and we have to get it right. Simply asking, ‘Can I help you?’ isn’t enough.

In training and developing the floor staff on this first connection with a customer, we recommend that you consider the following three fundamentals:

  1. The psychology of the customer: What is the customer thinking, feeling and expecting from you as a brand as they enter your store? How can your people help deliver that experience?
  2. The confidence gap: What do you expect from your retail staff? What does good look like for your brand? Working with retail brands, we have often found that the floor staff actually do want to help. However, they don’t know how to help, so it’s easier to avoid the customer rather than take the risk of engaging with them and potentially getting it wrong. You don’t want your store staff to be stylists – but what is stopping them from recommending a jacket to go with that shirt? Or offering a different color?
  3. The store team culture: Driven by the store manager – how are you cultivating a ‘customer first’ team culture? It’s crucial to work together to make sure that all eyes are looking for those customers to engage with and that a consistent experience is given to each and every person that walks through the door.

Lynn van Rensburg, Retail Client Director


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