Retailers Re-visit In Store Customer Service to Boost Sales

Remember when most retail stores greeted you upon arrival and sales clerks competed to "assist" with your shopping? If you're under 30, probably not. The number of small retail shops has steadily declined for decades due to their inability to compete with the big box stores on price. And as the big chains have won patronage on their volume price advantage, in store customer service has declined precipitously. But as the recession hits bottom, large retailers are looking beyond survival and looking for "new" ways to stimulate sales.

Craig Rowley, senior vice president of Hay Group's retail consulting business, is quoted in today's WSJ saying "about 20% more clients have requested his advice on sales training in the past six months, and that such training is increasingly for customer service -- a big driver of sales -- rather than tasks like restocking." The Journal also reports that "J.C. Penney & Co. plans a three-day conference in June to bolster store managers' sales skills, and in February gave workers bonuses to boost service and sales. Macy's Inc. is tying a greater portion of top executives' bonuses to sales growth. Home Depot Inc. this month is starting to train cashiers, not just floor staff, new sales techniques."

This "new" focus on good old inside sales and service is way over due and will require a lot more than training seminars to increase market share from post recession consumers. Case in point: I spend a bunch of money on hardware and building materials. My experiences at the big box stores like Home Depot and Lowes over the years have been abysmal. But I'm fortunate to have found a couple local hardware and building suppliers -- yes, they still exist -- where service reigns supreme. Their prices are slightly higher, though not always, and the savings in time more than covers the difference in cost. The clerks on the floor don't wear name badges -- I know their names and they know mine. They even ask if my prior week's purchase was the right item for the job.

Part of Home Depot's new strategy includes "training cashiers to ask customers if they've found everything. If not, the cashiers are trained to call the department to see if the item's in stock." Perhaps recovery retailing can also re-open the doors of those vacant shops on Main Street. Providing small business opportunities and employment as consumers realize anew that there's more to value than just the price tag.

William Busch

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