Can Retailers Fix Their In-Store Experience Problem?

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Retailers need to do more than open their doors to win customers. Photo by j on Unsplash
Retailers need to do more than open their doors to win customers. Photo by j on Unsplash

I thought about driving to a store to shop today. But I wasn’t in the mood to be insulted.

That’s what happened recently when the serendipity of taking my dog to the grooming salon created an opportunity for a brick-and-mortar shopping experience.

Spring Shopping Ritual

There I was, with high hopes and poorly shod feet, eager to spend money on a pair of nice sandals.

It’s been a longtime rite of spring for me, although my childhood purchase of Easter shoes has changed a bit. Now I want shoes that blur the line between style and comfort — something I can pop on in the morning and forget about, no matter what I do.

And now that I live in the south, the purchase comes earlier. I no longer have to wait for the potential St. Patrick’s Day snowstorm, which often brought winter back with a vengeance in New York.

But I digress. This story isn’t about shoes or snowstorms or the pleasures of springtime.

It’s about the shopping experience. More specifically it’s about the shocking failures of retailers to craft inviting in-store experiences as well as to seamlessly link those experiences to their digital channels.

Dismal Shopping Experience

Walk into many stores these days and you’ll quickly discover someone has replaced the welcome mat with an ominous suggestion to “Go Home.” As a friend so accurately described it, “In-store shopping is a cold, dreary experience, often notable only for its poor service. It just isn’t fun anymore.”

Life in a small town has many advantages. Cleaner air, friendlier people, a slower pace. However, one thing that’s challenging is the limited number of retail stores.

I have two options to buy shoes in a 15-mile radius. (In fairness, that excludes the two massive hell marts nearby, which fail to deliver on my expectations of footwear I’d actually enjoy claiming as my own.)

So on this visit to the dog groomer, I was in close proximity to both: off-price retailer TJ Maxx and Belk, a Charlotte, NC-based department store that prides itself on “modern, southern style.”

I did a quick spin through TJ Maxx. But I was too distracted by the carts of discounted Valentine’s Day candy to focus properly on shoes. So I left as quickly as I’d entered, heading instead to Belk.

Sure I was born amid the rusty craters of an aging Steel City, north of the Mason–Dixon line. But after three years in South Carolina, I can say Y’all like a native. I’ve even learned to enjoy sweet tea, albeit in the form of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka.

 ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’

Belk had my shoes — a simple but decorative pair of sandals, comfortable but just borderline impractical enough to appeal to my bipolar tastes. But the experience deteriorated in a hurry.

“What size are you?” asked a voice from nowhere.

“You talkin’ to me?” I wondered aloud. Apparently, the lone clerk in the shoe department actually was addressing me. Given that he was so overwhelmed with the responsibility of serving a single customer, he skipped the expected pleasantries like “Hello!” and “May I help you?”

Nope, this guy got right to the point. I told him my size, and he was gone like a flash. “Do you have anything else you might suggest I try?” I said to the back of his head, my voice trailing as he wandered off.

“No.”

Ok, I thought. A man of few words. I decided to save my scintillating chatter for the next person I had a chance to converse with, like the ever-pleasant meat cutter in Publix, who always matched my pointless stories with one of his own.

The shoes fit and I decided to buy them. That’s when the Belk experience crumbled to annoyance.

The Coupon Conundrum

Belk, you see, is one of those stores that constantly sends coupons and sale offers. By email. By text. And by postal mail.

“Are there any coupons available today?” I asked.

The response: “I don’t have any. Check your email.”

Ok, so I did. No email, but a text, delivered yesterday, promised 20 percent off regular and sale priced merchandise. I was happy until I saw it was an “online exclusive” offer.

“Can you match the online price?” I asked.

“No.”

By now, I was annoyed — less about the $15 I stood to save than feeling unheard and disrespected.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll order online for in-store pickup them.”

He looked at me for a moment before saying, mockingly, “You have fun with that.”

Store-Website Disconnect

Perhaps the clerk was smarter than he seemed because indeed placing an online order was a hopeless exercise. While the Belk website added the item to my cart and deducted the promised 20 percent, it hit a glitch with store pick-up. Why? Because the shoes were listed as “Out of stock!” at the very store where I was standing, shoes in hand. Seriously?

At this point, I found another clerk and asked for a manager, who clearly realized the absurdity of the situation.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll honor the discount. And I’ll talk to the clerk about the way he’s treating customers. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the fact the website says the item is out of stock.”

Belk ultimately made a sale. But the shopping experience weakened my loyalty as a customer.

It turned a simple transaction to a time-consuming one and did nothing to encourage me to shop in-store. It made me feel ordering online is easier than driving a couple miles to make a purchase in person.

The lessons learned are not new. But they are worth repeating:

  • Make in-store experience a priority
  • Hire staff that supports a customer-centric vision
  • Create seamless cross-channel experiences instead of divisive “online only” specials
  • Optimize omnichannel technologies to provide accurate data, regardless of the channel
  • Above all, look for pain points in the customer journey — and do whatever it takes to eliminate them.

Be nice. Be welcoming. Maybe that will encourage potential customers to come to your store. It sure can’t hurt the shopping experience.

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