A long time ago in a galaxy that seems very far away retailers used to provide something that has gotten lost over the century-long history of modern retailing.
Call it service, call it customer care, call it knowledgeable sales help, even call it guest services if you must, but whatever you call it, it all falls under one heading: people on the selling floor to help customers buy things.
From the days of the first general stores and the local merchant who stocked pretty much whatever you needed, the most basic part of retailing has always been about someone behind the counter who could help.
In the rush to dumb down modern retailing, that concept got lost in the spreadsheets, replaced by ever decreasing numbers of salespeople, self-checkout lines and minimum-wage workers whose main function was to stock shelves, not help customers.
With the online onslaught and the need to compete, that process is being reversed—not that it’s by any means a universal turnaround for retailing in general. Far too many physical stores are void of any human life forms there to assist. But some retailers are starting to get it.
• Say what you want about the Story concept at Macy’s—and I still have my doubts they are ever going to make this work—but one of the pleasant surprises one finds when shopping these ever-changing pop-up shops is that there are living, breathing salespeople there to help you. They are for the most part cheerful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the products for sale in the area. It’s a stark contrast with the rest of the store.
• Showfields, the experiential retailer in downtown Manhattan that features small shops leased to mostly online brands, has a person in each of these areas ready to tell you all about what’s for sale. They’ve even tested a reality shopping experience where salespeople play-act roles revolving around the products being sold. It could go horribly wrong if the salespeople-cum-actors lay it on too thick but it works nicely in the best traditions of a Disney-Broadway mash-up.
• Whenever anybody pines for the good old days of department stores, they usually end up referencing Nordstrom as the only present-day player in the space that still adheres to the concept of professional salesperson. Even with some of its recent struggles, Nordstrom remains probably the most successful department store in the country and it’s largely due to the quality of their people. They are the poster child for customer service in today’s legacy retailing world.
There are many other examples but let’s not forget the reverse: the poster child for getting customer service wrong was the late, little-lamented Circuit City. During one of its iterations, the consumer electronics big-box chain systematically got rid of all of its best, most knowledgeable salespeople in the pursuit of lower costs. The move was a disaster as evidenced by the fact that the company went out of business a few short years later.
Contrast that with Best Buy, which has gone the opposite route, emphasizing customer service through its Geek Squad and other initiatives that thrive on salespeople helping customers through the often-frightening world of buying a big expensive electronics purchase. This strategy has made Best Buy the envy of most comparable physical retailers that are trying to come up with anti-Amazon strategies.
This Rise of the Floorwalker movement is catching on across many parts of retailing, though some stores remain oblivious. Those that get it right are likely to have long runs. Those that don’t probably won’t have any sequels in the Store Wars.
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