For a turn of the century corner hardware store or a small town boutique, customer intimacy meant that you knew your customers by name or remembered their size or preferred brand. Fast forward to today …While the local hardware store and small town boutique still exist, they are overshadowed by the appeal of the selection from the big box stores and national retail chains like Walmart. We also live in a connected world where the tap of a phone can have products zooming to your door within a matter of hours. While apps and sites can track purchases and make product suggestions, what they lack is the personal touch small stores had with customers many years ago.
True customer intimacy brings a sense of comfort and trust in the retailer and ultimately leads to brand loyalty, which then impacts the bottom line. Big retailers, like Walmart, struggle with a sense of customer intimacy as they try to be all things to all people through large footprints and massive assortments. The personal touch can be recaptured by big-box and national chains with thoughtful planning and a true focus on the customer. Key areas that will truly achieve customer intimacy are in store through product assortment, knowledgeable store associates and online through social communities.
- Assort the right products – Retail is about putting the right product in the right place so that the customer will buy it; A key aspect to a larger retailer getting closer to the customer is the idea of seeking to understand what types of products the customer is interested in. Localizing assortments can give the big box retailer more of a community feel by providing the brands and features of products that most closely match the desire of the shopper in that area. Many retailers and CPG companies have been working on this over the last 5+ years, and many have begun to get it right. Tailored to city dwellers and students, Target’s new Target Express stores are a great example of hyper local assortments geared to the surrounding area. The footprint is smaller, and the tailored products give an ‘around the corner’ feel.
- Know the product and be the brand – Shoppers want to go to a store where they feel they will get the best product for their needs. They want a place where they feel like they can trust the knowledge of the associate. They are looking for associates who are experts in the lifestyle that the brand represents. The amount of information online about any given product, while beneficial, can also be overwhelming. Providing a trusted voice can be the final push the customer needs to make the purchase. A 2015 Timetrade survey found that nearly 90% of respondents indicated they were more likely to buy a product when they were helped by a knowledgeable associate. To gain that type of trust from the customer, the retailer has to know the product and project the image of the brand. This is especially true for big box stores as manufacturers open more locations. The retailer must provide the customer with the same level of product knowledge and excitement as the manufacturer. One of the best in the industry at product knowledge and helpful associates is REI. They live the brand and encourage their associates to get out and use the products so they can be more helpful to their customers. That is a differentiator and projects a feeling of connectedness with the customer.
- Meet the customer where they are: Part of living the brand and lifestyle is being able to engage with your customer where they are sharing information, learning about things and creating communities. Social Media allows retailers to continue the brand discussion well after they have left the store. By providing a place for customers to demonstrate their love for the product and to share this with others through social media, retailers will continue to build intimacy and loyalty. Customers today are more likely to respond to a product they see someone they trust buying, using or wearing. This goes for a sales associate in store as mentioned earlier and a ‘friend’ online. REI provides us with another good example of building intimacy through their #OptOutside campaign. Customers posted pictures and shared stories about how they were spending black Friday outside. They felt they were part of a community, part of the brand and part of a movement… true customer intimacy on and away from the shop floor.
Competition for customers on price alone is a sure race to the bottom, however, focusing on strengthening the intimacy with the shopper can ensure they keep coming back. It is possible to make a national chain feel like it is truly tailored to the local customer with the right focus on products and the journey each customer takes through the path to purchase.
This post was coauthored by Patricia Brady. She is a retail professional and management consultant with extensive and diverse experience helping the world’s best-known retailers solve complex issues and face consumer and competitive challenges that impact merchandising, supply chain, pricing and store operations. She is an expert in addressing digital, social and brick and mortar opportunities with her clients resulting in strategic change that improves the customer experience.