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Do consumers have unrealistic expectation of retail service?

Marcus Jaye
19 April 2023

Retailers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the pandemic was the catalyst to make stores more efficient. Stores had to slim down costs and make the consumer do more of the leg work in order to survive. While on the other, the post-pandemic return to stores has created a number of grumbles about service. People complaining they have to process their own goods, scanning and putting items into bags themselves.

While retailers have been intent on making efficiencies - and by efficiencies it usually means the number of staff and man-hours reduced - self-service tills have been rolled out in stores that were previously manned. Now, many stores, at times, have only self-service tills. While consumers have accepted it in grocery stores, there is some pushback on clothing retailers, particularly amongst the older generations and those who remember shopping before the internet.

Retailers are thinking about the offline experience too much like online. For them, it’s all about speed, getting things into the basket and paid for as quickly as possible. And while for some items, and, at certain times, people want to shop like that, at others, they don’t, and many stores are no longer giving people the option.

Marks & Spencer, in particular, is in the firing line. Recent tweets include:

@lulubaker – Self service tills at M&S in the Gyle a total disaster. Older customers completely baffled. Constant queues for returns. Sort it out #marksandspencer. This is NOT good customer service.

@alisaurus – I don't know if it's lockdown or the increase in self service checkouts, but a lot more people interact with me as if I'm a machine rather than a human.  The only upside is that you now look amazingly polite when you just say please and thank you.

@DebGreenwoodTV – Dear @marksandspencer , if you can’t be bothered having proper checkouts anymore, please can you make sure that your scanners like your barcodes? Everyone around me needed to call a “colleague” at least once. With me it was 3 times. No wonder the High St is dying. So frustrating.

@DavidBrewis15 – @marksandspencer M&S Windsor on a Saturday morning - 9 sets of people all waiting for the one till you’ve got open, most elderly, most with trolleys. Totally useless. Meanwhile, a solitary assistant implores people to use the self-service tills, which nobody wants.

In a recent landmark study partnered with BigCommerce to take a deep dive into how consumers are shopping for fashion and what motivates their behaviour in the post-pandemic era. Two thousand shoppers from a nationally representative sample were quizzed on how they’re shopping for fashion and what motivates their behaviour, post-pandemic, and the research shows that fashion shoppers are split down the middle when it comes to which channel they prefer, with 40% preferring to buy fashion in-store, 41% preferring to shop online and the remainder (19%) having no particular preference.

Among the 45 and overs, the preference for shopping online drops below 40%, eventually reaching just 21.6% for over 65s. The biggest benefit of shopping in-store versus online is the ability to try on clothes before you buy them. Some 65% of our shoppers cited this as the number one advantage of the physical over the digital. All age groups cite this as the number one benefit. (Try asking for a different size when there is no staff).

Marks & Spencer

Self-service Click & Collect and returns at Marks & Spencer

Going to a store has to feel worthwhile, since the time and financial expense of travelling to a store are not insignificant. In the survey, 33% said ability of speaking to a sales assistant is one of the main advantages of shopping in-store.

While consumers want an efficient experience, it doesn’t have to mirror online. People aren’t always in a rush to leave. They often want help or are there to browse and try things on. There’s the social aspect to shopping even if you are on your own.

Walk into a Uniqlo. Zara or Decathlon and you don’t even have to scan. When items are placed in the till bin, the RFID tag instantly come up with the item on the till. Consumers like this, if they don’t need any extra help, but when you want to return things you have to often queue which particularly aggravates peoples.

Bradley Lane, Ecommerce, Omnichannel, Advisor & Digital Transformation Consultant, says “We must never forget service. Some retailers are built on the service level they offer customers, the after care and the ability to take the hassle out of something, when something goes wrong. Having enough team members on the 'floor' is as important today as it has been for the past 50 or 100 years.

“Don’t get me started on self service tills! The end-to-end experience with Zara is shocking. One of my favourite brands yet they take my money quickly then make me queue for 40 minutes to get my money back,” he says.

Zara Battersea

Self-service checkouts at Zara's new store in Battersea

Often these self-service tills are the opposite of efficient, they frustrate the customer and also are more open to shoplifting. It is stripping a lot of the joy out of shopping and is also as predictable as an online experience. You leave the house for something different.

The conundrum is, people are coming to stores less yet they want human service on the rare times they visit. Human service in stores is a bit like public transport, people are using it less yet want a full timetable running at all times. Is this realistic?

When people do go into stores they complain there is nobody there to serve them. It speeds up the stores’ demise and pushes people to online which is often more costly for the retailer.

It would make more sense for consumers to book time with a member of staff. They could do it as they walked into a store. “Would you like help today?" Be given buzzers to be notified when staff are free, all the while browsing in store. It works in food. It could work for returns too and it would help keep availability and staff time tighter.

Make it a policy to always have one manned till open at all times. You could give it a snappy name. Brands like Marks & Spencer and John Lewis would do well to take note.

Ask employees to volunteer to work with customers. Use people’s strengths and preferences. It could be more fulfilling for the employees too.

The future will be about brands finding a balance and not all rushing to self-service, tempting as it is. Self-service tills should be an option, but not the only thing open. If people want a human service then they won’t mind waiting a little bit.

Retailers need to look at staff as an asset not just a cost that needs replacing at every opportunity and something that helps them standout from online and from other retailers. It currently feels like stores have swung too far in the self-service direction. The self-service till won’t have the opportunity to leave a lasting memory, wow somebody or make somebody’s day. The shops have staff, they just need to be as efficient with their time with customers as they are with everything else.

Download your FREE copy here of X BigCommerce report: Fashion's New Omni-Consumer: How fashion brands and retailers can adapt to the new channel-hopping, post-pandemic fashion consumer.

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