Retail Customer Experience: The Retail Power of Suggestion

Discussion
Apr 03, 2009

By James Bickers, Editor

Through a special arrangement,
presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current
article from Retail Customer Experience, a daily news portal devoted
to helping retailers differentiate the shopping experience.

Just down the road from my house is a great,
locally owned, independent comic book shop that used to be one of my frequent
haunts. Recently I’ve gone back in to reconnect with a hobby that I once
loved.

The owner, an unassuming and quiet fellow
named Doug, is there virtually all of the time. He has a deep love for
and knowledge of his product, and is always happy to make suggestions about
what to read next, based on what you’ve previously enjoyed.

Doug does something else that I didn’t notice
at first, a powerful little trick of language: When he’s handing you your
purchase and change, he leaves you with a phrase that, for lack of a better
term, is a command to come back.

He doesn’t say, "Come see us again!" or "Thanks,
please come again!" or any of the common parting shots. No, he says,
confidently, "You’ll be back" or
"You’ll enjoy" or "You’ll come back for more soon!"

It’s a tiny semantic difference, but a major
psychological one. Like I said, I didn’t notice this at first – but
when I bought the first volume of "Queen and Country" and Doug
said "You’ll enjoy that, and be back soon for number two," I
immediately formed a mental picture of myself doing exactly that. About
a week later, that’s precisely what I did.

Notice the level of specificity in his parting
shot. He planted the seed for my next purchase by spelling it out for me.
It’s not some nebulous idea of future business; it’s a description of a
specific product that I’m going to buy in the coming days.

Visualization is one of the cornerstones
of any flavor of self-improvement; it works because the human brain is
so incredibly good at taking the things it sees and carrying out the next
steps needed to make them real. This is precisely why Doug’s method is
so powerful – it paints the brain a picture of the customer’s next
visit, the next purchase, the next satisfying experience.

Fortune favors the brave, and business goes
to the bold. A timid plea of "please, come back and see us" reaches
out for pity, and sometimes that works. Much more effective is a simple
and direct statement of what value the customer received, why they will
want to receive it again, and what they will come back for.

Discussion Question: What do you think about
the "power of suggestion" at retail, especially around product
endorsements and goodbyes? Have you experienced any similar winning suggestive
practices by sales associates at retail? Is there a downside to suggestive
selling strategies?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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18 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: The Retail Power of Suggestion"


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Gene Detroyer
Guest
13 years 1 month ago
This is more than the power of suggestion. This is the power of connection. Our comic book proprietor has a great advantage in using this tact because he knows his business intimately and can judge his customers precisely. As a retailer gets bigger, the ability to sincerely connect gets much tougher. It gets tougher but not impossible. Bob Phibbs’ shoe store training experience which is all about connection is not unlike the manager at Stuart Weitzman. Every once in a while she sends my wife a handwritten note saying they have a pair of shoes they just got in that my wife would like. Most of the time that note leads to a visit and sometimes a sale. The downside to a suggestive selling strategy is that the suggestion comes out sounding aggressive or is outright wrong. If it is, it will have just the opposite effect as being sincere and being right on. The customer will view the retailer as self-serving and will make no emotional or comfortable connection with that retailer or salesperson.… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
Guest
13 years 1 month ago

Love it; someone giving thought to what they should say as customers leave. Reminds me of my old sales training in footwear when I was in college. After you were all done and the order was paid for you’d go out from behind the counter and say something like, “Now let me show you your next pair.” It worked enough of the time that we stayed with it for many years.

Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
13 years 1 month ago

The power of suggestion can be applied to many facets of our lives and interactions with others. And while the comic book store owner drops a subtle form of suggestion, the fact that this writer enjoyed the product (and perhaps the service), was probably the biggest factors in his return. Had the product and service been poor, the owner’s remarks would probably have been interpreted more as arrogant.

Max Goldberg
Guest
13 years 1 month ago

The power of suggestion is all around retail, from product sampling to clustering products that offer a meal solution. One of the keys to Doug’s success is his knowledge of the products he is selling. That knowledge builds trust with consumers and trust allows his suggestions to become sales. How many employees at most retail stores inspire trust? And how often, when you find an employee that you trust, do you take their advice and make a purchase?

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
13 years 1 month ago

The comic book guy’s communication works because it is sincere, and arises from a place of knowing both his product and the individual customer’s taste. It is personal and therefore does not come across as trite. Yes, retail needs more of this wherever possible.

On the other hand most pat phrases that come down from “the higher ups” and are used robotically on every customer in line do not work. A cashier asking “did you find everything OK today?” in the checkout line is immediately flummoxed when a customer says, “well, actually no, your store seems to be out of x, and y, and apparently you no longer carry z at all.”

Joel Rubinson
Guest
13 years 1 month ago

The word “priming” is a bit more contemporary (written about in Blink as well as more serious books) but is highly related. There are many ways to prime people. At the ARf conference, Dr. Drew Westen asked people to memorize six words and then asked the audience to call out a brand of laundry detergent. Everyone said “Tide” (although it only has a 40% or so market share). The reason is that the words that were memorized include “ocean” and “moon.”

Extrapolating this, it is possible that a sweepstakes related to American Idol by the CSD shelf could prime people to buy Coke even if coke is not part of the sweepstakes! Why might priming work? Because most purchases are low commitment behavior where there is still a high percent of shoppers who are deciding at shelf, based on simple heuristics. Having said that, I’m not sure that words at checkout will affect trip planning a week later (not sure what the half-life of priming is).

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
13 years 1 month ago
The power of suggestion is powerful and it’s probably the considered the ‘icing on the cake’ when it comes to a complete customer interaction, but to me it sounds like this retailer starts with ‘the power of suggestion’ as soon as you walk in the door. Picturing Apu from the Simpsons saying ‘Thank you come again’ over and over again is not what they are talking about here. I have seen cashiers (at grocery stores nonetheless) offer sincere thank yous and sincere goodbyes and enthusiastic welcome backs. If the experience was sterling before getting to the cash, those messages work. But if I’m having a crappy day, and your staff made it even crappier, how will I respond to a bubbly teenage cashier asking me to come back? I really like asking questions instead of making statements. Did you find everything you were looking for today (I know, sounds sterile but it does cause the customer to actually think of a response and may start a conversation that will lead to sales or perhaps a… Read more »
Steven Collinsworth
Guest
13 years 1 month ago

Fantastic! A business person who dares you to actually return! But, the business, the owner(s) and manager(s), and its employees must be so confident in their ability to provide the best service and experience possible that they can make this statement.

Please don’t misunderstand my statement here. It is the customer’s perception which drives the customer’s reality. We can all agree upon one thing. That is the employees out there who act as if the customer is a nuisance to be dispatched quickly.

It would be impossible and facetious to have this shop owner be in charge of customer service in every company in the world. Maybe we can all learn and advertise his success. And, isn’t this the best form of advertising any business could possible hope for; “word of mouth” from those who have experienced it?

Marge Laney
Guest
13 years 1 month ago
Bingo! This is dead on and something we train all the time, and it is effective in many areas of the retail customer experience. For instance, when a customer is in the fitting room and interacts with the sales associate we know that they buy three times as much as customers who merely browse the sales floor. The apparel retailer who’s service strategy drives customers to the fitting room, gives each customer a way to access service from the fitting room, and trains the associates to encourage every customer to call “when” not “if” they need something enjoys the bottom line benefits of a well executed fitting room strategy. The word “when” lets the customer know the sales associate expects them to call them and gives them permission to do so! A huge problem from the customer’s point of view is that sales associates often seem busy and unapproachable. As a matter of fact, most customers just assume the sales associates don’t care. Giving the customer little “we appreciate you and we are here to… Read more »
Mark Baum
Guest
Mark Baum
13 years 1 month ago

This is a great example of behavioral economics principles being put to work. Research has shown that conversion rates can be affected by seemingly subtle presentation factors. Retailers should always incorporate elements of the consumer’s decision-making process into the development of sales and marketing strategies.

Using the power of suggestion to “plant a seed” is basically a no-risk proposition. Prof. Dan Ariely of MIT has written extensively on the topic and, as he notes, companies can begin to drive up conversion rates by designing and testing new “suggestive” models fast and frequently.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
13 years 1 month ago

Charismatic people feel their power and use it confidently. Companies can do the same thing. Customers want to feel welcomed, served, and inspired. The best practice of chatting with customers has been adopted in many places–remember that Walmart has greeters!–and should find its way into more retail stores, moving forward.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
13 years 1 month ago

Compare what’s being related here to your experience the last time you were in ANY chain/big box/corporate retailer and you immediately understand the incredible opportunity for creative and energetic entrepreneurs to carve out their niche and develop a fanatically loyal following. I was called recently by a reporter who wanted to know if there was any future for smaller, independent specialty retailers. My reply…ABSOLUTELY!

David Rich
Guest
David Rich
13 years 1 month ago

Authentic & Genuine is the magic fairy dust here. I think it comes down to the saying “it is not what you say, but how you say it.” I find this time and time again in my experience from a professional and personal standpoint. In this case “Doug” really meant it. This was not a line he read about in a Psych 101 book. Being real always wins…even in retail.

Ken Yee
Guest
Ken Yee
13 years 1 month ago

Not a fan. Interesting read, but in practice, I wonder how effective suggestive lines are with consumers.

Personally, I see those kind of lines on the arrogant side. I like clerks and store workers to be silent unless I ask for assistance. No “thank you, come again.” No “may I help you” the first step I take in the store. No nothing.

Having a cashier say something like “you’ll be back for more” is irritating and something a greedy storeowner thinks about–but dares not say–except for some workers who say what they think.

Carol Spieckerman
Guest
Carol Spieckerman
13 years 1 month ago

Clever as the goodbye command is, in these days of remorseless returns, inviting customers “back” can have its perils!

Seriously though, I think that confident, definitive statements (vs. pleas) are always most effective. They key is having the parting shots delivered by someone who is credible (or even better, aspirational) to the customer.

As for “Did you find everything you need?” that’s an official pet peeve now as my answer of “no” has been met with “I’m sorry” twice recently, and “bummer” once before (with no additional questions or action). I didn’t come in for solace, I came in to buy!

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
13 years 1 month ago

A couple points here: First, the key for all retailers is to keep trying various techniques for effective customer communication. Will suggestive statements psychologically impact future customer behaviors? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. To dismiss this as a “trick” is shortsighted. To rely upon the technique to be the solution is naïve. The sales associate must be able to determine appropriate ways to greet, interact with, and end each interaction, based on the experience with each customer.

Which brings me to my second point. Retailers must, even in difficult economic times, invest in leadership development and effective staff hiring and development efforts – including the psychology of communication and human interaction. None of this is easy either for the managers or for the associates. It must be hired for, developed, encouraged and rewarded. And then, watch the magic happen. You will go try it now, won’t you? (How was that for the power of suggestion?)

Christopher P. Ramey
Guest
13 years 1 month ago

One of the differences between a clerk and a professional salesperson is the ability to tease-out needs the customer didn’t know existed. Suggestion is one step toward professional selling.

Susan Parker
Guest
Susan Parker
13 years 1 month ago

I completely agree with David Rich here. It’s about authenticity and reading your customer. The original exchange was genuine and well-intentioned. If I were working in a store with a customer like CPGman, I would not attempt to engage him because I would have read his body language and tone that clearly states not to interact with him.

In the author’s case, the store owner was not just completing a retail transaction, he was engaging with the customer. He had read his customer and could gauge with some certainty that he was reading this customer correctly.

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