Customers want to be left alone while shopping

Photo: RetailWire
Mar 26, 2018

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the IMS Results Count blog.

A new customer survey by HRC Retail Advisory reports some rather startling findings: 95 percent of shoppers want to be left alone while shopping.

Other findings in the survey:

  • Seventy-six percent rated an in-store app with personal recommendations as important
  • Customers prefer to get advice and purchasing ideas from friends, family and social media, particularly for apparel items
  • Eighty-five percent prefer to check prices through a scanner or phone versus an associate
  • Thirty percent wanted to be able to do a payment transaction with an associate anywhere in the store (à la Apple).

A clear takeaway from the survey is that customers now expect technology to be a major part of their store experience. Today’s customers are empowered by unprecedented access and information. They can literally shop anytime and everywhere, including on their smartphone while standing in the store aisle.

The survey suggests that the best investments retailers can make is in technology which: provides critical information, enables online shopping anywhere and automates the experience as much as possible, especially eliminating checkout wait lines.

It’s not a choice between technology and people. Retailers need to test what combination of solutions are relevant for their customers.

The same survey found that nearly 52 percent of all respondents say an in-store personal shopper who helps them choose products is important when shopping for technology items. And beyond Apple and Best Buy, REI and Ace Hardware represent other great examples of where customers value staff. While customers are increasingly channel agnostic and more comfortable using their smartphone as their portal, they call on staff who are trained to help and engage.

Far too many retailers are making assumptions or simply doubling down on what they know. More retailers need to ask their customers how to improve their experience. So many of these decisions regarding investments in people versus technology are measurable. When in doubt, retailers need to test what works best for their customers. Kudos to Macy’s for testing VR and technology in selling furniture in their stores. The stakes are simply too high to guess where to invest. Just ask Toys “R” Us.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How should stores balance technology investments that enable associates versus those that enable shoppers? Do you expect the associate’s role to diminish as shoppers increasingly become channel agnostic, self-reliant and oriented to technology?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Shopping in a retail store is a social experience. There is tremendous value in leveraging a skilled, knowledgeable team of retail associates. "
"“Being left alone” is quite subjective and the vague nature of the phrase probably resulted in such a high response."
"We should never underestimate the value that great associates bring to the shopping experience."

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22 Comments on "Customers want to be left alone while shopping"

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Neil Saunders

95 percent of customers want to be left alone until they have a query that technology can’t answer, wish to complain or are faced with something else that requires a human. Shop floor staff remain important, but perhaps the solution is for them to be present but not overly intrusive.

However, overall customer service is clearly vital. The question retailers need to answer is how should they balance providing this via technology and humans.

Joanna Rutter
4 years 10 months ago

Right! I read this study’s headline as, “95 percent of shoppers aren’t getting the customer experience they deserve and expect.” Expectations are low, so customers want to be left alone. Retailers can fix this stat. Invest in more rigorous training. Invest in better employee scheduling data so your stores aren’t over- or under-staffed, contributing to this problem. Invest in creating better retail jobs on the sales floor where employees are approaching shoppers mainly out of a motivated interest to serve, instead of a fear of protecting their own job security. Then give them an iPad.

Bob Amster

On the technology side, retailers can continue to suggest or influence purchases on mobile devices to those customers who have opted in to receiving such alerts. However, I believe that it would be a mistake for retailers to infer from the 95 percent statistic that they should not have associates ready to assist those customers that do ask for assistance. There are many instances during a shopping trip in which the customer will have a question, and it will be need to be answered by a courteous, knowledgeable sales associate (or über-techie).

Chris Buecker
There is a lot of retail technology offered which never pays off. I agree that retailers need to test in some of their stores first. Media Saturn, the European counterpart of Best Buy with $27 billion in revenue, for instance, has recently started their own retail tech hub in partnership with Plug&Play, the startup accelerator from Sunnyvale. By providing new young innovative companies a good platform, Media Saturn can already see and test which new technology could be an added value for them. Last week, for instance, they opened a pop-up store with no checkout required with a much cheaper solution than Amazon implemented in their Amazon Go store. Especially in a sector where products needs to be explained before purchase, associates must be trained much more than today to be more knowledgeable in order to satisfy the well-informed customer and to provide them better advice. So far, in most stores the level of associates is too low. However, it is a Catch-22: The retailer is under high margin pressure and the education of staff… Read more »
Art Suriano
I think technology is needed and it is essential for every retailer to be in the game with a fully functioning app for purchasing. And it’s okay to have an in-store app for navigation for those customers who wish to use it. But I challenge the results of this survey. I am in stores all the time, and I mean several times a week. Recently, I’ve read a statistic that states 85 percent of customers use their phones in-store before making a purchase. Yet when I shop, I don’t see it. In fact, I see customers of all ages still looking for and asking for help when they need it. And they’re asking humans — the problem is too many retailers have thinned out the in-store staff making it hard to find anyone. And often the person you’ve found isn’t trained. When I am watching customers, they are talking on their phone, usually texting but when I’m close enough to see what they’re doing, they are not looking up a product on their phone. Too… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel

The bigger question should be whether tech should intrude on shoppers or not — the survey would suggest not. If associates need technology to do their jobs well, the retailer needs to give them that technology. If tech exists to help shoppers with the questions they really have (as opposed to those we think they have), then that’s a reasonable avenue of investment. I’m beginning to think that people only want personalization and technology when they need it, not as a constant presence.

Zel Bianco

Technology is there to be used, but how many times have you been disappointed because you simply could not find the information you were looking for? A knowledgeable associate should always be available for a shopper to ask for help. One without the other can be extremely frustrating. Those that think that technology can replace helpful associates will miss them once they are gone. Shoppers do want to be left alone until they are ready to ask questions or need help. Associates at some retailers tend to approach shoppers too early.

David Katz

Shopping in a retail store is a social experience. There is tremendous value in leveraging a skilled, knowledgeable team of retail associates.

Great in-store experience is differentiated, in part, by this talent and social connection. Today’s “virtual” friends cannot replace true H2H (human-to-human) contact.

Kevin Graff

It’s safe to infer that 95 percent (maybe even 100 percent) don’t want to be waited on by someone who is pushy, uninformed and poorly-trained. There’s no
one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to providing a great shopping experience. However, caution is advised for one and all who believe that brick-and-mortar will survive by throwing technology in all shapes and forms onto the sales floor. Staff are more (not less) important than ever before. If retailers would invest as many resources into developing and managing their staff as they do technology, we likely wouldn’t be discussing this today.

Bob Phibbs

Talk about click bait. Geez. How come survey after survey over the past 20 years consistently say the number one thing customers hate is not being greeted? What customers may say on such a skewed survey and what they do are two totally different things. Who would answer “Do you want to be left alone while shopping?” other than by saying yes in the abstract? Retailers should take nothing from this survey unless they want to end up like Toys”R” Us or Claire’s.

David Weinand

Well, the associate experience has been so bad for so long, it doesn’t surprise me that the percentages are so high. As we’ve seen recently, smart retailers are finally investing in their associates — whether it is technology or training — and this should elevate their importance, not diminish it. Of course the emphasis is on “should.” As technology continues to permeate the retail shopping journey, there will be the continual need to adapt strategies to provide the optimal experience and the role of the associate will likely vary by retail format.

Ralph Jacobson

The in-store staff is still the last, great differentiator. Don’t let emotional consumer surveys sway your perspective. Consumers’ desires mentioned in surveys are not at all what their actions ultimately show. For instance, they say they want huge assortments, yet they only purchase the top 20 percent of SKUs in high SKU count stores. Similarly, shoppers may say they want to be left alone in stores, however real practice shows that they value the store staff who help them find their product in a DIY store or other mass merchant. The newest, most innovative AI technologies are helping both the store staff and the shopper actually interact with each other more. That’s the real surprise here.

Steve Montgomery

The survey (rightly or wrongly) indicates retail clerks are like many things in life; they only become important when needed.

Ignoring the difference between what people say and what they do, most people would like to shop without interference. The difficult issue for retailers is determining what constitutes interference for each person. Further complicating this is that when assistance is needed is situational. Those buying commonly purchased items may not need or want any help but those but those truly shopping may need a knowledgeable clerk’s guidance.

Cate Trotter
I would suspect that people tend to say they want to be left alone because experiences with staff generally aren’t up to scratch. Often these engagements can make customers feel like staff are being pushy or putting the pressure on for them to buy, when in reality maybe all they want is to know a price or get some more information. I’m sure we’ve all had to awkwardly make our excuses before when a sales assistant fixes you with an expectant eye. It’s no wonder that customers are looking at tech as a way of avoiding all of that and self-serving as much as possible. Equally, the more expensive the purchase, such as with tech or audio products, the more customers are likely to want some expert guidance. I think a lot of the issues could be fixed with better staff and customer service training. Also, there’s some great new tech ideas that can help staff with these interactions, such as Sprucebot which is background tech but helps staff to make sure they know all… Read more »
Joan Treistman

It’s always painful for me to answer the question “Did you find everything you were looking for?” It’s at the cash register and there are several people behind me. I don’t want to make people in line wait for someone to help me find what I didn’t. I’d prefer someone identifying themselves before I get to the cash register.

Here’s an idea for combining technology and in-person assistance: Have a text number posted that shoppers can use to call someone over when they need help. The posted number would identify the shopper’s location so that the staff member can quickly find the customer. And of course, only have people with knowledge come to the aid of shoppers.

Jennifer McDermott

“Being left alone” is quite subjective and the vague nature of the phrase probably resulted in such a high response. For example, I want to browse at my own leisure, but I want to be acknowledged. Sales staff need find the balance between intrusion and ignoring. The solution is more more about training than technology.

William Hogben

The amount of human attention shoppers want is based on the type of shopping. It takes real work — mental overhead — to interact with an associate no matter how helpful they are. It should come as no surprise that most people, most of the time, find it easier to be on their own. Sure, it might take a moment longer to find something or make a decision — but you’re doing it at your own pace without the social overhead of having a human helper.

Peter Luff

We should never underestimate the value that great associates bring to the shopping experience. They have the ability to take the ordinary and create the truly WOW experience! By nature, many are unsung heroes — they put the customer at center stage and stand outside the spotlight. Technology is a supporting tool, but there is an old adage: “people buy from people”!

Doug Garnett
4 years 10 months ago

I don’t think this is at all accurate. In part, no survey can capture the true subtlety of what help people want while shopping — because it’s entirely situational.

For me, I tend to want to take a first look on my own — get my bearings. Then, if I have questions, I absolutely want to work with someone from the store to help me.

In retail we are bombarded by so much research that’s misleading, it’s incredible.

But the research errors don’t seem to stop merely at help. The App question looks pretty odd — does the consumer have any idea what “personal recommendations” really are? That tech can’t deliver truly personal recommendations just select recommendations based on what algorithms decide.

That said, I do love the check out enabled associates wandering the Apple store. Of course, that works better at Apple where the average shopping cart has 1 or 2 items in it. A purchase of 20 clothing items at Macy’s should be done at a central station.

Retailers should treat this research with tremendous caution.

Craig Sundstrom

This discussion calls to mind the comment that consumers don’t really know what they want (“faster horses”?) in that people, for example, might want more info about products, and see that coming from some kind of e-source, but it could also come from a more knowledgeable sales associate (which the retailer would prefer because such would allow for upselling).

Of course there has to be followthrough. If a company “enables” its associates but has so few of them that they can’t be found, then nothing is accomplished.

Rebecca Fitts

Remember the movie “Pretty Woman”? Some people still want that experience — particularly at the luxury level. The key word is balance. If I have a store associate who knows what I bought in the past on a handheld device and can help me with a return before I get to the cash wrap, I’m all in.

Technology also has to work the majority of the time to be a positive experience. I am sure I am not the only one who’s needed someone to come over for assistance during self checkout. Right now I think the role of store associate or ambassador is more important than ever before and equipped with the right technology they are relevant and will remain relevant.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
4 years 10 months ago

I’d say the real takeaway from this survey is that the current state of the shopping experience at most retailers is well below what shoppers actually want. The 95% of shoppers that want to be left alone is a reflection of this poor experience in that shoppers assume store associates can’t help them based on previous experience. If you were to ask this question in a more limited way, say to Apple and REI store experiences only, I am sure the response would be quite different!

Retailers should look at the positive examples listed and determine what they need to implement in their store experience as a result. Technology isn’t the only answer — it’s how you use it to enhance the experience. It’s not the experience itself. Associates play a critical role in this equation and the smart retailer knows this and acts accordingly to ensure their associates are well-trained both in the technology and how to deliver a great customer experience on their own!

"Shopping in a retail store is a social experience. There is tremendous value in leveraging a skilled, knowledgeable team of retail associates. "
"“Being left alone” is quite subjective and the vague nature of the phrase probably resulted in such a high response."
"We should never underestimate the value that great associates bring to the shopping experience."

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