Are luxury salespeople nicer in a downturn?

Devangshu Dutta

February 27, 2009

There’s some speculation that salespeople in luxury stores are being asked to become more friendly, so as not to turn away and turn off potential customers.

But I think it isn’t just them. I think as the economy slows, possibly everyone might become less abrasive and nicer to each other – less business around so you don’t want to turn off the spenders no matter how they’re dressed – “a king dressed as a beggar” is a good simile.

Actually that reminds me of a story someone told about 20 years ago about an Indian farmer walking into a car showroom and being treated patronizingly by the salesman. The salesman saw a more urbane customer walk in and handed the farmer off to a less agressive colleague, only to see 4 cars being driven off by the farmer’s sons after an all CASH payment.

Maybe the image is not evocative as Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, but still a pretty powerful one, nevertheless.

“Customer-Centric” – More than a Buzzword

Devangshu Dutta

February 2, 2009

Amazon was among the few US retailers last week to report any growth in the fourth quarter of 2008. There are, possibly, as many opinions about why Amazon has apparently bucked the recession as there are business analysts observing the sector.

I’ve shopped on since the year they launched. Every experience has been completely satisfactory, some delightful. On some occasions Amazon has picked my pocket – made me spend on stuff that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise, by their very helpful suggestions of what others had bought while they were browsing my selections. On other occasions it has saved me money, time and heartburn by providing comprehensive customer reviews at a click.

In my experience, Amazon’s sustainable advantage is their customer-orientation – the technology, the supply chain, the design – everything is geared to making the buying experience as good as possible. A Retail 101 principle that many other retailers – online and offline – seem to ignore every day.

Loyalty – Scheme or Sham?

Devangshu Dutta

December 16, 2008

A keystone of a retailer’s business is the loyalty that customers show in shopping at his or her store.

Loyal customers help to sustain a basic level of sales and reduce the need for expensive broadcast-style marketing spending that the store may otherwise have to do in order to keep the traffic and business flowing. This is as true for chain-stores as it is for independent mom-and-pop stores.

Therefore, as competition increases along with the number of stores selling the same products within a common catchment, retaining the loyalty of the customer becomes crucial, both in terms of strength of relationship (which is reflected in how much of the total spend the customer spends at the specific store) as well as the duration of the relationship.

In some parts of the more developed markets regulation may prevent the overcrowding of grocery stores and supermarkets. However, in markets such as India, one can see as many as four or five mini-supermarkets coming up on barely a kilometre along a busy street, before you even count the numerous kiranawalas. How can a store ensure a continued loyal custom from a certain share of that catchment?

Managers at modern chain stores may draw some comfort from studies which suggest that customers with higher incomes tend to be more “loyal” than customers with lower incomes. Since Indian chain stores tend to be targeted on high-income customers when compared to the traditional kiranawala, they may benefit from an intrinsically more loyal base of customers.

The variety of factors behind this “loyalty” may essentially boil down to the fact that with rising incomes the perceived benefit – lower prices, potentially better products or service – from comparing alternative stores may be outweighed by the perceived cost (time) of seeking these options and the personal adjustment involved in shopping in an unfamiliar environment. (Or, perhaps, to put it more bluntly: “rich customers couldn’t be bothered”?)

However, as the number of competing offers increases, promotional noise draws the consumer’s attention to benefits they might be missing out on, whether this is through flyers in the mailbox, kiosks set up near the consumer’s primary store, or even a full-blown ad campaign across multiple media. With every new offer or promotion, there is a temptation to try out an unfamiliar retailer.

This is more acute during recessionary times, when just about every competitor is shouting out deals to lure the customer to at least step into their store. And don’t think that high income customers are immune from the “toothpaste-discount” bait. During such times, whether they acknowledge it or not, everyone is down-shifting. It is at such times that loyalty is truly called upon. And it is also at such times when retailers start to think of loyalty schemes.

Most loyalty schemes are focussed on the objective of retaining existing customers through the use of incentives that are available only to loyalty programme members. They will ask a customer to provide some personal and contact information, and will provide some reference – a set of coupons to be redeemed during future purchases, or a card (index, swipe or smart) – that must be presented during subsequent transactions. In almost all cases, there is an attempt at getting the customer to return to the store because, as we all know, when we step into a store to redeem anything, almost without exception we end up shelling out more money than the redemption is worth. Since the value of the cash-back equivalent can be anywhere between 1 and 10 per cent (sometimes higher) customers are happy with the bribe, while the store is happy to ring up the additional sales.

However, it is surprising – or perhaps not – how many loyalty schemes turn into shams. In many such cases, the true benefits and the liabilities during the life cycle of the loyalty programme or of the customer’s relationship with the store have not been considered deeply enough. We all have multiple examples from our personal lives, which offer valuable lessons on such shambolic “loyalty schemes”. For instance:

  • An oil company’s “membership card” that you pay for, whose points can never be redeemed because you never get the points statement nor a list of rewards, and the last time you see the card is when the petrol pump attendant takes it with the promise to check the status with the company.
  • “Reward points” which offer a customer a second-rate bag or an uncertain brand of electrical gadget for points PLUS a cash amount that would be the equivalent of what you might spend with a pavement retailer buying a similar item.
  • A credit card that looks attractive with discounts at certain merchant establishments, until you discover that someone who doesn’t hold that card is getting the same benefit even on cash payment.

Very often we find that a loyalty scheme has been conceived by an executive in charge of advertising to get the message out more cheaply (?) and focussed on a set of frequent customers. There is little link with the other parts of the operation, such as merchandising, store planning, or even promotion management, and certainly no influence. Thus, a second and potentially more powerful objective – using customer shopping data to tighten merchandising and improve the targeting of promotions – is virtually ignored.

Some companies have decided that managing a loyalty programme would offer lower benefits than the cost of maintaining the scheme, and decide to pass on the amount to the consumer directly in the form of lower prices. However, given the times, and the prospective goldmine of consumer purchase information that consumers willingly provide through such transactions (despite all vocal concerns about privacy) I would expect loyalty schemes to mushroom in the next few years.

The fact is, whatever our income levels, evolution has deemed that we become creatures of habit. Once a certain path has been followed successfully, a berry has been eaten safely, a transaction has been made satisfactorily, we are inclined to return to it again and again.

Trust, predictability and precedence are huge factors in developing loyalty, and when translated into the modern life of shopping (especially for food and groceries), this translates into the phenomenon that has been called first store (or primary store) loyalty. This can lead to as much as almost 70 per cent of grocery shopping being carried out at one store. Typically consumers will have a strong secondary store, and the balance grocery shopping would be split between multiple stores based on product availability, convenience and opportunity, deals and other factors.

But just because customers are genetically wired for loyalty to the familiar, the retailer should not treat this loyalty with contempt. Or even laziness. Because that can tip over the loyalty scheme into being a loyalty sham. And that is it only one letter away from “scam” – a dangerous label in these times of the consumer-activist.

The Customer is God … really? – A Day of Ironies

Devangshu Dutta

March 15, 2008

Today is supposed to be celebrated as “Consumer’s Day”. I find that ironical, given a personal experience of poor service that occured yesterday whose effect is still lingering and will linger for another 2 weeks (with profuse apologies from 3 different people on the retailer’s side, for the delay, bad quality etc etc).

There is the saying: “Customer is King”. But it does seem that the days of kings are past.

Mahatma Gandhi went a step further and declared the customer to be God. But there may be problem with that as well – after all, how many people actually listen to God? And for all the “god-fearing” intent, how many actually act upon their morals (or their customer-service policy, in this case)?

The “God” of discount retailing, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, is reported to have said that the customer was the one person who could fire everyone in the company, chairman down, by deciding not to shop at their retail store. Unfortunately, many today would probably respond: “No problem, I’ll just get myself another job.”

To my mind, one of the biggest issues that causes poor customer service is the lack of ownership – someone in the retail or service organisation to actually feel that the buck stops with them, and they can take care of the problem. Much of problem lies in the processes and the structures that disempower the individual employee, but some of it is also personal conditioning.

Another key issue – transparency in approach – is highlighted in an article in today’s newspaper by Pushpa Girimaji [Advantage Consumer: Customers love transparency!]

However, how is this for another irony: the same paper presented a quote from Joseph E Levine – “You can fool all the people all the time, if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough!” Unfortunately many organisations view the consumer through this lens rather than the earlier one.

How was your day as king / god / consumer?

Culture of Caring – a Trump Card for Retailers?

Chandni Jain

March 3, 2008

Among the frenetic activity of large stores opening and the expressed visions of organized retail taking over the market in the past couple of years, the competition is becoming more intense with each passing month. What would set the winner apart is not just the customer experience and satisfaction but also customer loyalty – where, for instance, an “unorganized” kirana store can still beat a much-larger organized retail business due to the intimate understanding of their customer base and micromanagement of the store.

What it would take for the organized retailers to replicate that experience is the people who create a culture of caring. This may sound “soppy”, but only true concern for the customer produces fabulous service from a salesperson. And if the salesperson has true concern, then he / she is probably showing the same concern to others (including colleagues and others in his / her life), and this itself can’t exist in isolation.

Many organised retailers have already made huge investments to put the technology and systems in place in the store. The missing link, however, is bridging them and customer with care and understanding, which is an absolute essential for the front end of any retail business. When time and competition is getting tougher by the day, creating a culture of caring makes great business sense for an organized retailer.