Ever since Wal-Mart made it impossible to compete on price,retailers have been heard to declare, “
will differentiateon service!”Unfortunately, the retail boneyard has claimed quite a few companiesthat tried to “win by out-servicing the competition.” In most cases,they overlooked the customer.In the shopper’s mind, there is no service in retail. The best astore can do is manage your disappointment. A greeter maywelcome you to the store, but after that it’s all downhill. Youcan choose between a surly cashwrap clerk, self-checkout or the Internet.Even though people are quick to change brands because of it,most retailers remain ill-prepared to address service from ahuman resources or economic perspective. Turnover continues tocome with the territory—churn rates of 79 percent are considerednormal, except for fast-food where normal is 300 percent. For years,retail employment has suffered from a dumbed-down, dead-endimage. So much so, it’s become a job of last resort for the leasteducated. And as customer service falls, sales fall.As one retail expert pointed out, the customer can’t have low prices
a store lled with smiling, knowledgeable, helpful associates.
When the company and customer decide to pay for both, they get both, as in the celebrated Neiman-Marcus experience. Or from theeducated staff at The Container Store. Luckily, a little ingenuity canmake up for the typically small, nomadic staff. Strategic designthinking to the rescue.“The store has a serious role to play in customer service,” says Scott
Jeffrey, chief creative ofcer at Design Forum. “Today we design
stores to do two things. First, to act as the brand champion whichmeans it has to embody the brand promise and make a bold visualstatement. Second, it should make you feel really good to be there,so even though there’s less personal service, the overall environmentmakes up for it. A great design also gives the store credit for thespecialty services it does offer.”In recent years, category leaders have made major strides in
improving the customer’s perception of service with rened layoutsand adjacencies. Big box ofce suppliers reoriented the store around
shopper needs to make selection easy. Retail bank branches havedone away with teller cages, added concierges and provided kiddiespots. Smart auto dealers have brought the Internet into their showrooms, along with relaxed no-sales zones where customers canretreat. The friendlier atmosphere promotes the perception of better service. No additional staff or training required. Convenience is
stressed, as well as exibility of use.
“Experiences have to be more than convenient, they also have to beexciting,” says Jeffrey. “And service is an important sub-set of experience, which includes the sounds, smells and textures usedthroughout the store. Customers interact with those design elements,which impacts their perception.”Apparel stores compensate for small staffs by adding luxurious
lounge areas, attering light and sometimes fragrance. Shoppers feel
pampered by the surroundings, if not by personal attention. In thefuture, technology will connect to customers to a centralized personalshopper with style advice. But in the meantime, even small innovations
are having a big impact on perception. Gap installed a tting room call
button, and J. Crew directs shoppers to the red phone in the case of out-of-stocks—a major aspect of service in the customer’s view.Consumer electronics retailers have taken a different tack by focusingtheir labor budget on genius bars and geek squads where it will have thegreatest impact. The store proper is set up for product interaction.Strategically placed digital technology helps, especially with productcomplexity. IMO Independent Mobile stores developed their owntechnology so shoppers can compare phones and plans from everycarrier based on their own needs. Screens that educate, inform or inspirewith creative ideas help take the load off store associates.Accountability—a big part of service—is embodied in a welcomingreturns area. Accessibility also has a huge role to play in taking care of the customer. JCPenney’s fully integrated in-store and online operationsallow shoppers to check their local store inventory from home to makesure an item is available in the right size. And the website is available atthe stores’ cashwraps.Strategically applied design can be both tangible and intangible,involving communication, environment, service and behaviors. It’s alsoin a constant state of evolution, keeping track of behaviors and tweaking
design to inuence purchase. According to Jeffrey, a store’s virtual,
physical and human interface choices all spring from one strategy. Itrequires a lot of insight into what the brand means and what it wants to be. Even a company’s decision to offer full, semi or self-service isdetermined by brand.“Great stores tell a brand story in such a way that the shopper can insertthemselves into the story, and try on the lifestyle,” says Jeffrey. “And
the more creative, the better, like Urban Outtters and Anthropologie.
Creativity is a major source of value in our culture, and fresh ideas will be seen as part of a store’s customer service.“Brand strategy is central to everything,” says Jeffrey. “At the end of theday, it’s ‘who do you wanna be?’ When the customer leaves the storewith a bag, what else do they leave with? The experience. Now thatdesign is no longer at the back-end of the brand strategy process, it has alot to offer retail: greater customer satisfaction, greater control over your
offerings and greater prots.”