It's no secret that online shopping has grown in the last few years, putting downward pressure on revenues at brick-and-mortar store locations. To add context to the size of this shift, e-commerce sales have grown by $129 billion between 2013 through 2016, growing from 5.8 percent to 8.5 percent of total retail sales in the United States. As of 2015, 77 percent of the U.S. population had access to the internet. With the proliferation of connected devices, more consumers are turning to an online channel to purchase merchandise. Brick-and-mortar retailers have begun to struggle with maintaining the historic levels of revenue in their stores.
To help overcome this business challenge, retail store managers must find ways to differentiate the in-store experience and create engaging customer experiences in-store. A differentiated in-store experience is important as some store managers have experienced positive financial results by enhancing customers’ in-store experiences. To better understand how some brick-and-mortar stores were seeing success with this, I conducted a qualitative multiple case study to explore the strategies that retail store managers were using to create engaging in-store experiences.
The primary themes I identified were fun at work, customer connection, relationship, pride, and genuine care. The themes that I identified in my study were significant factors that contributed to successful customer engagement strategies for these retail store managers. As I approached this study, I expected that I would hear the concepts of tools and training to be fundamental to the in-store customer experience. To my surprise, those weren't the main themes. The themes I heard were more focused on engagement between the store associate and the customer. Those themes were centered around the concepts of fun at work, customer connection, relationship, pride, and genuine care.
Strategy 1: Fun at Work
The most prominent strategy that emerged in my research was the idea of fun at work. Many of the store managers attributed their successful customer engagement strategies to the root idea of their store associates first having fun. Having fun at work was a component of the individual store culture and is something that was established at the manager level. This culture then cascaded down throughout the remaining members of the organization. This idea of fun at work manifested itself by playing upbeat music, dancing in the store, laughing at various situations, and finding a way to remain happy and pleasant even though the team was doing laborious work. Participant four stated that “if my store associates are having fun, they have a higher rate of interaction with the customer. That interaction is more pleasant for the customer and results in higher levels of sales productivity.” As I observed the store associates and their interaction with customers, I could see they were both having fun; because the store associates were happy and cheerful, the customers gravitated towards them and would adopt a similar attitude of happiness and cheerfulness.
Strategy 2: Customer Connection
Another strategy that emerged was connection with the customer. Rather than having that store associate go straight to selling a product, he or she will attempt to connect with the customer by learning about a project they might be working on at home or understanding what might have brought them into the store. From there, the store associate will build on that connection and tie the selling aspect into the conversation. This approach helps to create a higher level of comfort with the customer, allowing them to become more engaged with the store associate. Creating a more personal connection with the customer leads to a better and richer conversation that allows the two participants to more quickly find ways to help the customer fulfill their needs.
Strategy 3: Relationship
The strategy of building trust and relationships with the customer emerged from my research as well. This concept builds on connection and conversation with the customer by maintaining that level of engagement over a prolonged period of time. Participant four shared several stories of customers coming in with their spouses just to meet one of the store associates with whom they had a relationship. The bond between the customer and store associate fosters a deep level of trust that enriches the customer experience, both in the present and in the future. This level of relationship is built by having a store associate spend time with the customer. It's not a bond that's formed in a single encounter; it takes time to develop and mature.
Strategy 4: Pride
Participant two described pride as drawing a parallel to their store as their home: “The analogy that I use is when you shop at my store is that it’s like you come into my house. If these customers were guests in your house, how would you treat them? Using this approach helps to create pride for our associates; they make it personal.” The level of hospitality and pride that store associates take in their personal lives spill over into the stores they manage. Fostering pride can be difficult. Participant four described the method used for building pride in their store associates: “To create pride in our associates, we involve them in the ‘why’; it’s not just about telling them what to do, it’s about bringing them along on the journey of why we’re doing it. Providing them with a deeper understanding of why creates buy-in and fosters pride for the associate.” The sense of pride that these store managers and store associates had seemed to help elevate the customer’s experience in-store.
Strategy 5: Genuine Care
The final strategy that emerged from the collected data was the concept of genuine care. Participant two said, “it’s not just a job for us; we actually care about our customers. When we have an interaction with our customer, we're genuinely listening and care about what they have to say.” This concept ties into a few of the other strategies previously discussed; mainly, customer connection and relationship. Because the store associate cares about the customer, this leads to a deeper connection and relationship with the customer. Participant five said, “we interact with the customer because we care about the customer; we genuinely want to make a difference in their life.” The concept of genuine care seemed to help more quickly cultivate a strong relationship between the customer and the store associate.
Customer experience is an important part of the brick-and-mortar retail experience. As customers have many options from different retailers to fulfill their shopping needs, creating an engaging customer experience is a means to a differentiated shopping experience. This differentiated customer experience could be what sets the retailer apart from its competition. In an ever-competitive landscape, customer experience has become an important component for brick-and-mortar retailers. In this study, I identified and discussed a few factors that could lead to a differentiated customer experience. When used appropriately by retail store managers, these five strategies have the potential to create deeper customer relationships and increased revenues.
Dr. Jefferson L. Haddox is the vice president of e-commerce at Pier 1 Imports.