BrainTrust Query: Consumers Trust Strangers Over Store Associates

Discussion
Feb 06, 2012

The following is a summary of a point/counterpoint discussion held at the recent NRF show covering some of the hot topics in retailing. The series was sponsored by Alert Technologies. A transcript of the discussion is available at the Retail Doc blog.

A survey late last year by Cisco Systems asked 1,000 U.S. consumers to rank their top three influencers in the buying process and who helped them buy. Sixty-eight percent said online reviews were one of their top three influencers whereas only 13 percent indicated store associates.

For store associates, that’s down from 21 percent in a similar survey taken in 2010. Even friends and family were losing notable ground as purchase influencers, down to 41 percent from 60 percent the year before.

Paul Schottmiller, senior director, global retail and consumer products, Cisco Systems, said that although the results skewed toward the young, "quite frankly, even in the middle age and up categories, more and more interest and initiative is around using the technology channels."

Asked whether this far greater trust in basically anonymous online reviews devalues the role of store associates in the shopping experience, Mr. Schottmiller said, "The question is: What’s your value proposition to the consumer?"

He elaborated: "If it is qualified labor in the store, then you really need to make that a focus, and you need to spend the time, the energy, the money, and the talent to develop that. If you don’t, other people will and you’ll be replaced by these technology sources."

He added that mobile pricing apps, such as Amazon’s controversial one, only increases pricing transparency and exacerbates the consumer’s fixation on pricing.

"If you can catch people earlier in the decision process, in phases we call discovery and inspiration, then if you’re providing them that guided selling, either in person or through some of your online tools, it does somewhat alleviate some of the pricing pressure that we’ll see otherwise when people are simply shopping," said Mr. Schottmiller.

While retailers need to understand the appeal of the digital component of the shopping experience and invest on that side, the human component remains essential in some segments and categories.

"If that’s part of your value proposition, you need to make sure that you’re not kidding yourself in terms of the investment in that area … training your employees and paying your employees," said Mr. Schottmiller. "If you do, just like if you’ve got a higher price, it’s going to get exposed by the technology very quickly."

Discussion Questions: Are online reviews undermining consumers’ trust in store associates? How will the growing appeal of tech-enabled sales-help options such as online reviews and mobile apps alter the role of the store associate?

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16 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Consumers Trust Strangers Over Store Associates"


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Verlin Youd
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

Online reviews only undermine the shopper’s trust in store associates when store associates don’t have the training, tools, and incentives to adequately engage and assist. The right store associate approach, matched to the specific value proposition and brand promise of the retailer can be a powerful influencer that can work with other sources of information, be it anonymous online reviews, social networking, and good old discussions with family and friends.

Where store associates can and should have an influence on sales, retailers may want to think about giving their associates access to online reviews, other information sources, and the ability to measure their personal customer engagement performance so that they can feel the rewards to good customer service as well.

Lee Peterson
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

It’s not about the store associates, it’s about convenience. If I can find out something about a product at home and in less than a minute, that sure trumps having to go to a store to talk to someone — even if I DO fully trust them.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

Are online reviews undermining the trust consumers have in sales associates? That depends on the sales associate. Like all of us, I have dealt with sales personnel that I felt were great and others that were not so great. Frankly, I would rather deal with a live, knowledgeable sales associate than trust the reviews of people I have never met. However, the downward spiral of sales means fewer people on the floor with less training, etc., etc. Retailers would be foolish to ignore the impact that online reviews can and do have.

Ed Dunn
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

This survey reveals stranger storytelling is quickly taking over facts and fair practices in the marketing/selling process.

On a review site, someone can adopt the persona of a customer in distress who been rescued, someone who was critical but is now convinced or someone who is an expert and their expectations were blown out of the water.

I do not know if tech-enabled or any other options can take over the storytelling nature of review sites. It appear storytelling may have to be incorporated in future marketing plans.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

It is my opinion that a positive online review has more influence than a negative review. The negative review is in many ways “sour grapes” rather than an actual critique. So I tend not to put much credibility in them. I do, on the other hand, listen to a positive review.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
10 years 3 months ago

Online reviews are undermining customer trust in store associates, but it was never strong to begin with. Most customers realize store associates are expected to help sell as much merchandise as possible, not give honest opinions about products.

Roy White
Guest
Roy White
10 years 3 months ago
One of the weak links in the retail chain has always been the store associate. It’s not surprising that trust in store associates has slipped in the past year. It’s also no surprise that technology has assumed a greater role in influencing the shopper; that pathway to consumers is always there and ready to answer, usually isn’t rude or disengaged, and normally has the right answers. That technology gets to the shopper early in the buying process is a great plus, but store associates still could make a huge, even decisive, difference. That why Aeropostale, as presented at the NRF, has set up a major communications and management program based on mobiles with their associates. It’s designed to encourage them to be active salespeople, not passive clerks who don’t care. And it’s also possible to remember the early days of Walmart when it was expanding fast, how committed the store associates were and how that aided the chain’s expansion. The comment in the article that effort and investment is required to convert store associates into… Read more »
Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

I think “undermining” is the wrong word. We’re talking SELF-service stores, and as shoppers continue to become more connected, those connections are becoming increasingly valuable sources of casual and formal information they use for EVERYTHING, including shopping. It’s nice to have staff around the store, but it is an expensive luxury, and it is NOT the direction SELF-service retail is heading. No point in shouting, “Stop the future, I don’t want to go there!”

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

I think online reviews are as suspect as many employees’ perspectives. One obvious exception is Apple Stores, as the employees are sought out for their product “genius.”

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
10 years 3 months ago
Shoppers increasingly turn to online reviews because they seek an unbiased (hopefully) review of the product they’re considering, i.e., how will this product work, function, look, feel, etc.? Quite often, store associates simply don’t have the real user experience that can help shoppers make informed buying decisions. And when you factor in the hundreds of new products introduced to stores annually and the high turnover among associates, it’s easy to understand why associates lack such real experience, despite being held up as brand ambassadors. I expect consumers to continue to gravitate toward real user reviews vs. store associates. But I don’t see this as a question of trust. What’s really at play here is the continued evolution of shoppers, i.e., shoppers are becoming smarter about shopping. With a wealth of information just a few clicks or taps away, consumers are learning to make smarter purchasing decisions by learning more about potential products. As for the associate’s role, we’re already witnessing some changes, like expecting more shoppers to do their own research. For instance, while shopping… Read more »
Anne Bieler
Guest
Anne Bieler
10 years 3 months ago

Online resources are increasing the shopper information for purchase decision. It is moving the product consideration out of the store, when shoppers compare and explore their choices in a more “comfortable” space. This places a greater burden on retail employees, who are now talking to a more aware and informed consumer.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

Why should customers trust store employees in most cases when management does not invest the time and money to train them, does not trust them, and thinks they are disposable?

Robert DiPietro
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

Most customers take store associates comments with a grain of salt. They aren’t sure of the true intentions or knowledge.

Tech enabled sales help will help the store associate with crediability as the can help research with the customer then add specifics based on nuances of the customer need. This will be a positive customer experience.

Jason Goldberg
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

I don’t think it’s a matter of an individual sales associate having his or her credibility as a human being judged against a stranger on the internet. I’m sure any consumer that’s just had a great experience with a really good associate at an Apple Genius Bar, or a Plumbing specialist at Home Depot will be very influenced by that interaction.

It’s that generic sales associates as whole are seen a pure extension of the retail brand. And generically a “brands” credibility and influence on our purchase decisions is declining.

We used to need Brand to steer us to the good quality products. But these days does anyone think the private label ibuprofen is really any different than the Advil?

Marketers have all taught us that their messages are self-centered and untrustworthy, and so we’ve turned to other tools to help us expedite our purchase decisions. Social proof is now at the top of many decision trees, and those reviews from strangers are one form of that social proof.

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

Anonymity appears a powerful attribute on the internet. While some would want to know the ‘source’, others appear to feel confident that the source has no private agenda or axe to grind in sharing their review of a product or service. Right now, I am also tracking down a statistic the Chinese internet users are more frequent opinion sharers and blog participants than Western users. If true, it may be freedom of speech or a reaction to the strong cultural protection of “Face.” Saving, giving, and never damaging another’s face (in public particularly), is a social rule of engagement. But obviously not on the web.

Joe Nassour
Guest
Joe Nassour
10 years 3 months ago

The reason I rank reviews higher than store associates is because of my experience with store associates. When I ask about a product, I don’t get a sense the store associate knows anything more than what is printed on the package. When someone goes to the trouble of doing a review, I get the sense that they are users with experience using the product.

I tend to go to the reviews that are in the middle of the pack. I feel those reviews are the most honest. The highs and lows could be biased.

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