Retail: Customer Service¹

Retail: Customer Service

State-of-the-art technology and a strong marketing plan clearly brings new shoppers flocking to the door, but the question remains How can the small to medium-size retail operation keep them happy?

Research released by Jupiter Media Metrix predicts that a growing number of U.S. businesses will spend at least $500,000 on customer relationship management tools over the next two years, more than they'll commit to any other major infrastructure initiatives.

According to many experts, this is the right move. An investment in technology - along with a healthy measure of old-fashioned service - is the ideal mix to build a loyal customer base.


  • Use computer systems and software to serve and reward customers. In the checkout line, point of sale technology can store names, addresses and the personal information of loyal shoppers, as well as track purchase histories. Collecting data in this manner makes it easier to target the appropriate demographic groups for special rewards, such as discount certificates or frequent shopper cards. In the last decade, the practice of sending birthday cards with generous discounts as "gifts" has become increasingly popular.

    Pole Displays, POS accessories allowing customers to see item and price information, as well as advertisements for related goods, keeps them informed right up to the time they check out. These run around $200.

  • Utilize a Web store - together with your bricks and mortar operation - to glean consumer information. Online sites often provide registration forms requesting mandatory data, such as names, home addresses, e-mail addresses and phone numbers, as well as optional input, depending on the nature of the product (e.g. clothing sizes, birthdays, family data, etc.).

    Keep in mind, the idea is not to invade anyone's privacy, but to deliver more personalized service by getting to know your customers.

  • Help shoppers help themselves. Many retailers are installing in-houseKiosks to facilitate customer transactions, as well as to improve the total shopping experience. Analysts estimate that retail kiosks, with an average cost of about $6,000, make up at least 30 percent of the self-service kiosk market. At their most basic, these models contain touch screen product displays and interactive store directories.

    Even so, a number of major chains, including high-end department stores, have broadened their functions to include gift registries, entire product catalogs, automated order forms, credit card enrollment and even job application centers for prospective employees. Purveyors of big-ticket items, such as home furnishings, are discovering that Instant-Credit Kiosks can be especially helpful to younger consumers who must be mindful of their budgets. Unlike the traditional experience - where folks shop first, then apply for financing - these stations enable potential buyers to apply for private-label credit immediately upon entering the store. Credit-line approval follows within seconds.

    A retailer who operates furniture stores in Pennsylvania and Maryland (Wolf Furniture) estimates that about 90 percent of his credit applications are done via kiosk, with an average ticket growth of 15 to 30 percent across stores. Typical rental costs of credit kiosks, including service and maintenance, run between $400 and $600 per month, based on a three-month lease. Retailers must provide a broadband connection.

Tried, True and Traditional

  • Reward loyal customers. A personal relationship with customers can keep them shopping at your friendly neighborhood independent, even though that chain-store giant lurks just down the street. Statistics show store owners can increase profits by 25 to a whopping 125 percent simply by retaining 5 percent more customers. Given this, increasing numbers of smaller retailers are offering incentive programs, such as frequent shopper cards, preview sales and V.I.P events for particularly loyal patrons.
  • Show your clientele you care. Calling regular customers by name; inquiring after their families; phoning them when special or unique items come in; remembering their favorite colors or brand of coffee - these simple kindnesses may well impact the bottom line.
  • Respect customer privacy. Given the volume of data retailers can access via POS systems and the Internet, the consumer's right to privacy has become a hot topic. To this end, retailers should assure their clients that personal information they've provided won't land them on someone else's e-mail or telephone list.
  • Respond graciously to complaints. The majority of successful retailers say it's better to suffer a minor loss rather than lose a loyal shopper. To this end, rectify problems promptly and the customer for bringing it to your attention. Remember in mind - shoppers who feel cheated, insulted or ignored won't hesitate to spread the bad news to their friends.
  • Teach the principles of customer courtesy to your employees. A rude or uniformed salesperson can lose business. Be sure personnel understand that keeping customers happy means job security for everyone in the store. When you notice an employee taking particularly good care of a shopper, recognize the effort.