What does it take for stores to satisfy their pickiest customers?

Photo: RetailWire
Jun 22, 2021

New university research finds hard-to-please, or “picky”, customers demonstrating shopping tendencies beyond just looking for the “best” option.

Previous research has found that about 40 percent of people say they have family or friends they would consider picky, suggesting the trait is common, according to a press release promoting the new findings. Not much research, however, has been done when it comes to defining pickiness or investigating how it influences customer behavior.

“In marketing, we call customers who want the absolute best version of a product ‘maximizers,’” said Margaret Meloy, department chair and professor of marketing at Penn State. “But with picky customers, the best is more idiosyncratic. For them, it might not be about getting the best quality, but getting the precise version of a product they have in their head — a shirt in a very precise shade of black, for example. We wanted to explore this a bit more.”

The Penn State researchers conducted a series of studies to create a scale for measuring shopper pickiness. They undertook additional studies to examine the possible consequences of pickiness.

People who scored higher on the picky shopper scale tended to have a small window of what they consider acceptable, which the researchers described as “having a small latitude of acceptance and a wide latitude for rejection.” Pickiness was also found to be a “general personality trait,” i.e., individuals fussy when shopping for clothes were similarly so when shopping for groceries.

Among the suggestions for retailers, robust promotional strategies, like a free gift with purchase, faced a high risk of failure with picky shoppers. The psychological cost of taking possession of freebies was found to be a source of irritation for picky shoppers.

Promoting products by saying how popular they are with other people also likely won’t resonate with picky customers since they do not tend to change their opinions based on an item’s popularity. Customization, however, was found to potentially offer appeal since picky shoppers can align the products to satisfy their idiosyncratic preferences.

“If a company knows they have a lot of picky customers, they may need to change the way they reward salespeople or dedicate specific salespeople to their pickiest customers,” said Prof. Meloy.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What advice would you have for sales associates dealing with picky customers? What typical sales approaches tend to fall flat with such customers?

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"Which kind of 'picky' customer are we talking about?"

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16 Comments on "What does it take for stores to satisfy their pickiest customers?"

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David Naumann

Sales associates may need to spend more time with customers that are very selective (picky) to help them select the product that is exactly what they are seeking. Having visibility to product availability across the enterprise may help them “save the sale.” One of the biggest misses for sales associates when dealing with selective customers is trying to encourage them that a product is “good enough.” It is better to do whatever you need to do to help these customers find the perfect product, which will increase their brand loyalty.

Al McClain

There is selective, there is picky, and there is difficult. Customization and spending more time with the first two types may work, but if a customer is just picky because they are difficult, retailers are best to cut their losses. A small percentage of customers can’t be pleased, no matter what. Best to devote time and resources to those who are winnable and let the unwinnable shop at the competition. They won’t be happy there either.

Dick Seesel

Which kind of “picky” customer are we talking about? The so-called “platinum” customer who demands attention but drives the most profit because of loyalty to a store and less focus on price? This shopper demands (and probably deserves) the highest level of personalized customer service, and the deepest understanding of his/her product preferences.

The other kind of “picky” customer is the one who simply craves attention without an intent to buy. This shopper can hamper productivity, based on the time spent by sales associates without a profitable outcome. It’s tough for retailers to concede, but some customers might be more trouble than they’re worth.

Venky Ramesh

I have known a few maximizers. They are known for thoroughly researching every aspect of the product they want to purchase – from product features to benefits, competitors, where to buy, what price to pay, etc. Salespeople need to have the instinct to be able to identify a maximizer and spare them the usual pitch (“I have the same one at home”). Maximizers can see through such tactics and feel annoyed.

Carol Spieckerman
Carol Spieckerman
President, Spieckerman Retail
1 year 1 month ago

It seems simplistic to label a customer as “picky” when that customer’s preferences and pet peeves may only apply to certain situations, categories or products. It’s interesting that “…a shirt in a very precise shade of black” was mentioned. When looking for black t-shirts or shirts, I have go-to brands (and retailers) that I know sell a “true black” that won’t fade over time. When it comes to other colors, overall quality matters more (or doesn’t, depending on the usage occasion). No amount of discounting or store associate cajoling would alter this preference. I wonder if the data would label me as “picky” based on my shades-of-black scrutiny? If so, I could receive more attention than the situation warranted.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Marketers must take care in dealing with so called picky customers. Remember the 80/20 rule. Picky customers represent the tail of the customer spectrum and efforts to convert such customers need to be evaluated in terms of the cost to do so, as well as the potential impact on the rest of the curve.

I wouldn’t necessarily fire picky customers, but at the same time I would not engage in target marketing to this segment unless the above concerns are addressed.

Melissa Minkow

I wonder if online shopping has created shifted more shoppers towards the “picky” psychographic. The best e-commerce sites are set up to facilitate and indulge picky shoppers by allowing them to filter to the tiniest details of what they’re looking for. Sales associates would be best armed against picky customers by being highly educated on all the product specs, much like Lululemon sales associates. When sales associates are thoroughly educated on an item’s capabilities, they can speak to the details that matter to this type of customer.

Georganne Bender
I’m not sure that store associates can handle picky customers all by themselves. I’m not talking about shoppers who are a chronic pain; that’s a different story. A lot more goes into making someone a picky shopper, and a lot of that has to do with the assortment the store carries and how the store is merchandised and maintained. You have probably heard me go off on the state of women’s apparel. When you don’t fit the preferred size or age the store model pickings are slim. Case in point: I am searching for a gown to wear to my son’s wedding in October. I’ve been to every website and searched in stores and I can’t find anything that I want to be seen in. Even the big retailers known for elegant apparel have been a wash – and their associates could not have been more accommodating or helpful. When in-store is a bust the go-to answer is always, “There is more online.” Right, but I’m not going to order the same expensive dress in… Read more »
Christine Russo

This is such a great topic and rarely presented in this context. This, this right here, is why retailers focus on cost of acquisition and customer lifetime value. Retailers are in the inevitable role of showing customers (picky or not), “what have you done for me lately.” The use of tech solutions plus human touch will secure these hard-earned customers. SMS messaging is a great way to nurture those hard-fought relationships.

1 year 1 month ago

I am a picky customer for most consumer things, especially clothes, books, etc. Pickiness depends on whether the item is essential (necessary) or very non-essential, and the supply of them. That’s partly why I strongly prefer to see the actual product in a store, not online.

Picky customers are most likely picky about price, though I have no evidence. Lower prices help, but not so low that it raises suspicions.

I agree that many stores and business should not spend much money or none attracting these customers. Some people (including me?) are just too picky for their own good.

Ananda Chakravarty

For the sales associate, none. Nod your head a few times and move on. The picky customer will drain time and resources without closing a sale. Trying to make a pitch or even suggesting a product will generate a barrage of criticism about the product or your service and an overall bad experience. For most sales reps, it’s not worth their time or morale to engage.

Thankfully, these types of customers are not frequent. Preferably, you’ll be able to focus on providing better services to customers who will pay and will not be as critical. In most cases, the picky customer really doesn’t need the associate’s help and can establish whether items are in their wheelhouse on their own.

1 year 1 month ago
First, you cannot be everything to everyone. Second, a retailer that tries (or implies) that they can satisfy every shopper’s desires is misleading. (There’s simply no way anyone from a Target to a Macy’s to a Best Buy, et al, can offer everything, period.) Third, within the context of a store’s actual purview, it is good to make sure associates know about all the ins and outs of the products which are theirs to sell, wisely and, to a point, expeditiously. Four, if a customer comes in asking for, say, a certain shade of green and thoughtful staff knows they simply don’t have it (and cant get it) they must simply say: sorry we don’t carry that. Five, to allow certain persnickety persons to ask and expect over and over is foolish. Especially when it is clear theirs likely no satisfying them even if you finally find something for them to buy. For theirs is so much more about something psychological and not physical. As even if you eventually find the shade of green they… Read more »
Shep Hyken

Picky does not always mean difficult. Difficult sometimes means picky. Regardless, the question is if the retailer is a good fit for the customer and vice-versa. A customer who buys custom shirts wants precision in the fit, color, etc. Does that make them difficult? I hardly think so. Perhaps we can call them discerning, but at the same time, a customer that knows what they want is an easier customer to sell (provided the retailer can provide what the customer is asking for).

Watching a great salesperson work is a “thing of beauty.” They know what questions to ask, when to make appropriate comments, and (this is important) when to stop talking. They see “picky” as a way of getting better information to know what they customer wants to purchase.

Craig Sundstrom

This is entirely — well, OK … very heavily — a cost/benefit issue: if the customer is likely to be a “big spender.”

The trick of course is separating those who will from the posers.

As a purely practical question, I wonder though for how many associates this is actually an issue. With staffing so sparse in all but the most expensive stores, it seems like giving individual attention — beyond some minimal level — is something associates don’t have the luxury to do …. however much they may want to.

Rachelle King

The best thing you can offer a picky shopper is customization and a good amount of patience. They may take longer to convert but when they buy, their purchase decisions are less constrained by price and are more likely to return if they believe that you “get” them.

It’s a sure fail to start suggesting to a picky shopper what worked for someone else or, to push limited-time deals. They are only concerned with what will work for them and don’t respond well to thinly-veiled, time-pressure tactics.

While it may not be possible to role out the red carpet for these shoppers in every store for every visit, retailers that can identify their “high touch” customers and cultivate those relations may be rewarded with high customer lifetime value (and well trained if not remarkably patient staff).

Robin Gaster

Perhaps companies should consider how many of those “picky” customers they can afford. These customers are expensive in time and resources, so they present a classic top line/bottom line contradiction. Expert retailers know that they want the right customers, not just any customers, for precisely that reason.

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