Retailers Claim They Are Customer Focused

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I spent one day this week attending Stores 2007 – which is the annual conference for the Retail Council of Canada. It was a fascinating time learning all about the major (and smaller) retailers and what challenges they face (hint: it’s not that much different from the rest of us). From minimizing theft and fraud to online marketing and the environmental impact of their business to better customer satisfaction, one message kept ringing through as every major presenter spoke: “we are customer focused.”
It’s good to hear and it’s a fine sentiment.
I think as consumers, we expect all retailers to be “customer focused,” but how can they deliver on this statement? The big box stores are notorious for being cavernous cities of slightly better priced items with little (to no) on-the-floor staff with any semblance of knowledge and experience (if you’d like to know, the main message I garnered from this issue, it was, “we’re working on it.”). Also, twenty minutes doing basic searches for the product you’re interested in always trumps the retail associates obvious lack of knowledge and experience in helping you make the best purchase decision.
How does this tie back to Digital Marketing and Social Media?
As I sat through a keynote session where a major brand-name retailer was presenting, it struck me that individuals do much better on their own (i.e. online) than when they are at the in-store retail experience. This creates a major shift in how retailers can (and should) be communicating with their customers. I know that we all know this, but has the retail environment truly shifted to embrace this shift in customer experience and culture?
Second, when I presented the concept of Social Shopping, I made a mental note of the crowd and their note-taking ferocity compared with other concepts and opportunities in the new marketing space. Although Social Shopping is new, I have garnered much of my knowledge about this channel by following the major retail e-newsletters, Blogs and websites. I’m hoping the retail industry is paying attention to their own industry-related news sources.
But let’s face it: companies always think they are customer focused. I’d like to think that this is true (and not, as Stephen Colbert would call it, “truthiness”), but if we’re interested in buying a car and our first stop to gather information has shifted from going down to your local car dealer to finding the closest online connection, then the world has changed.
If we read peer reviews or connect through some kind of Social Shopping network and we believe the information we’ve gathered there with a much higher level of confidence versus having a one-to-one conversation in person with a sales associate, then the world has changed.
If retailers truly are “customer focused” shouldn’t the brunt of their new efforts be focused on where the consumers “are” versus trying to make the in-store experience better than it was the month prior? If they are asking sales associates to increase their product knowledge and customer service, but the mass of consumers are migrating from in-store to online and coming in after the purchase decision has been made for the final part of the sale, my guess is that retailers need to be “customer focused” on the new experience customers expect for where they are in the buying cycle. Maybe it’s as simple as better in-store navigation and “thank you gifts” for even bothering to come in when you should have been able to buy it online.