Why is Sephora paying associates to leave shoppers alone?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/arinahabich
Nov 25, 2019
Tom Ryan

In at least some European markets, Sephora offers shoppers two basket options: a red one indicating “I would like to be assisted” and a black one indicating “I would like to shop on my own.” 

News of the beauty chain’s move went viral in early November after a Sephora shopper traveling from Seattle tweeted an image of the colored basket options and wrote, “There is a fellow introvert on the Sephora customer experience team who deserves A RAISE RIGHT NOW.”

Replies to the tweet were nearly unanimously positive. Many fumed about being asked multiple times if they need help in stores such as Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret’s, Best Buy, Apple and Home Depot. The benefit of avoiding awkward encounters with sales associates was also cited. Many wanted to ask for help when they needed it rather than be prompted.

Wrote Leah Prinzivalli for Allure magazine, “The color-coded system saves everyone time; certainly, Sephora would rather its employees spend more time with the people who actually want help, instead of approaching customers who will wave them away. But more importantly for shoppers, it could help them avoid an anxiety-producing experience with a store employee.”

Online, many consumers shop and conduct extensive research on their own, and may be bringing those behaviors to the store. For The Goods, Terry Nguyen, wrote, “When most things can be bought from home with the push of a button, the reason shoppers bother to come into stores becomes all the more important for brands to understand and accommodate.”

Innisfree, a Korean beauty store, provides a similar basket-for-assistance option. 

Some of the replies to the tweet commiserated with associates who must follow a “one ask rule” required by management. A few addressed the challenges of knowing when a customer needs help. Wrote one Twitter user, “I work at Ulta. We can never win! Whenever we’re overly friendly, people get mad at us. When we don’t ask as much, the next day we see a negative survey saying no one in the store was there to help. What the heck are we supposed to do?”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Has online shopping changed shopper expectations for in-store engagement? What do you think of Sephora’s basket-assistance system?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"What happens if I grab a black don’t-help-me basket and then I decide I want help? Do I run to change baskets?"
"From a consumer perspective, it empowers both consumers. Although we all know there are seldom just two choices."
"How many shoppers know whether they need help upon entering a store? Most probably have a need/question that arises in their mind as they peruse the store."

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22 Comments on "Why is Sephora paying associates to leave shoppers alone?"


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Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Let’s introduce something else to make shopping more complicated. I get it, some people don’t like to be bothered when they shop but store associates are supposed to help shoppers, it’s their job. Most customers understand that and at least appreciate being acknowledged. If they don’t want help then they say so, if they want help later they ask.

I’ve been in furniture stores that have offered “Just looking!” buttons, and that made sense. But we’re talking about Sephora here, a store that practically screams “You’re here to try new things and we’re here to help!” What happens if I grab a black don’t-help-me basket and then I decide I want help? Do I run to change baskets? Will associates ignore me because that’s what my choice of basket is telling them? It’s hard enough to be a retail associate these days without your own company potentially throwing you under the bus.

Jeffrey McNulty
BrainTrust

Hi Georganne, I proposed the same question about the red/black basket “anchoring system” they are implementing. I am wondering if this concern will be worked out through their growing pains, updated consumer feedback, surveys, exit interviews, etc.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

It will be interesting to hear how it works out!

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

I have mixed feelings about this approach at Sephora. On one hand, I think store shoppers will definitely migrate to the idea, which is obviously good for encouraging people to visit their stores. I also think shoppers will believe they got what they wanted from that experience. However, if sales associates are truly capable, knowledgeable and empowered, shoppers will miss out on the valuable assistance these associates could have provided. And of course, the retailer will miss out on the opportunity to help develop more satisfied customers, even if they don’t know what they are missing.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

The reason this problem exists in the first place is no one at the C-level believes in training employees anymore. Therefore new hires and seasoned associates bring their bad/nonexistent customer service and retail sales skills onto their sales floor. It’s no wonder people don’t want to be helped when they are greeted with stupid questions like, “can I help you?“ How you train coaches how they’ll play. These baskets are only a symptom of how so few retailers understand training as the linchpin of being a successful retailer.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

There’s no doubt that shopper expectations have been evolving. But the challenge for retailers is to somehow figure out what any given shopper may want – this can be very difficult to do. I think Sephora’s basket assist program is a simple, practical solution to understanding the level of engagement their shoppers actually want. This example also shows that you don’t always need some shiny new tech to solve a problem.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

There is nothing more annoying than unwanted help except maybe no help at all. It is a fine line to walk but I believe Sephora is on the mark with the colored basket approach. This puts the customer in control of their journey and isn’t that what this is all about?

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust

It hugely depends on the product categories. If I am at place like Home Depot, I’d like to be assisted — just considering the sheer size, range of SKUs and, most importantly, the knowledge level of the shopper for the categories, which is pretty low.

On the other hand, clothing, apparel, makeup, etc. are intimate categories where lot of window shopping happens. A store associate, more often than not, feels like intrusion.

Kudos to Sephora for recognizing that and coming up with a practical solution.

Kathleen Fischer
Guest

The growth of digital – both online and mobile – is driving demand for enhanced engagement and personalization in the store, but this doesn’t always mean they want more interaction with an associate. In a recent consumer survey, more than half the consumers said they would choose a store with an automated pick-up process or automated returns process over one not offering these service options. Customers want better service, but on their terms, and often using technology as a means of getting more personalized service. I think Sephora’s basket-assistance system is brilliant while being so simple. What an easy way to help tailor the assistance offered by sales associates to those customers who actually need/want it.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Hey, I like the option! Nothing’s going to be perfect when the public is involved, but I like the effort!

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I like the two basket system for two reasons. One, most of the time I don’t want or need assistance. This saves the clerk from asking me and from me having to say I don’t. Two, it allows the staff to concentrate their efforts on those that do want help.

Heidi Sax
BrainTrust

How many shoppers know whether they need help upon entering a store? Most probably have a need/question that arises in their mind as they peruse the store. Is it really the best idea to have notified your sales associates not to assist someone whose needs may have changed? Does the shopper have to realize they need to swap basket colors if they change their mind? Why can’t we train sales associates to read body language and unspoken cues from shoppers? Or simply hand out baskets when people’s hands are full? This would give shoppers are opportunity to ask for assistance without pressuring them with unwanted engagement.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

I’m not sure I’m in favor of color-coding shoppers. I’d install wireless call buttons on the hand-baskets instead. When a shopper has a question he or she can just ping and the nearest mobile-equipped staffer can step up.

A little training refinement might help too. How about changing the greeting script to: “Welcome. Let me know if you need anything.” That flips the shopper response from “No thanks” to “Yes I will.”

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Well, it’s an interesting idea, but I hesitate to call it a good one. Too many people will take the wrong basket — unaware the coding even exists — and complain about the results.

But is it necessary to even try this? I’ve been in Sephora many times and had no trouble with either (1) finding help when I needed it, or (2) simply saying “no” when I didn’t. Indeed, given the small purchases (I would think) people typically make there, I’m wondering how many people even pick up a basket in the first place.

Jasmine Glasheen
BrainTrust

Look, I’ve been advocating for changes that allow shoppers who want to be left alone to be left alone for quite some time. For folks like me, too much intensive, targeted “customer service” (i.e. aggressive enthusiasm) is a deterrent.

I love a brand that gets this and is willing to let me shop on my own terms.

Chuck Palmer
BrainTrust

Is this a response to a problem Sephora has made for itself? It seems like a dumb response to a nuanced issue, but operationally, it must be difficult to manage teams for the broad variety of consumer attitudes. I may be showing my age bias.

From a consumer perspective, it empowers both consumers. Although we all know there are seldom just two choices. And even if a consumer chooses neither, it signals that Sephora is being thoughtful about how consumers feel in their stores.

The numbers may not signal that introverts are a statistically significant group to warrant special treatment, but sending a message that a company cares about their customers resonates with many, many more.

Jeffrey McNulty
BrainTrust
There is a strong dichotomy that exists in this scenario. There are some shoppers who prefer to shop unassisted while there are numerous shoppers who wish to receive assistance. Sephora is attempting to recreate the shopping environment surrounding customer service. They are executing a strategic initiative utilizing anchors (baskets) that can create a “slippery slope” for its customers. Can this modus operandi create a healthy balance for their customer’s differing preferences? As with any new program, there are always going to be growing pains. I completely understand what they are attempting to achieve i.e. red basket means I would like assistance and black basket means that I prefer to be left alone. However, the retail sector has always been anchored in providing exemplary customer service. Some questions that I have are: What type of policies is Sephora implementing to ensure all associates/leaders are properly trained to use proper discernment when evaluating customers? If I grab a red basket and change my mind about service, do I need to switch to the black basket or vice… Read more »
Shikha Jain
BrainTrust

Another great example about putting the consumer first. Creating personalized and customized shopping through self-selection is how to increase engagement and shoppers that are satisfied with the experience.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I like the two basket system for two reasons. One, most of the time I don’t want or need assistance. This saves the clerk from asking me and from me having to say I don’t. Second, it allows the staff to concentrate their efforts on those that do.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Polarizing subject given the number of downvotes on some comments. I personally think the results will speak for itself via data: first step, measure how many people pick the “leave me alone basket” versus the regular basket. If the percentage is high, that means you have an issue with the store associate being over aggressive in the first place. If it is a small percentage, you are simply catering to shoppers who either know what they want, or prefer to shop undisturbed till checkout, and just keep offering the basket. I am pretty sure if I am holding a “do not disturb basket” and I need help and call on an associate, staffers are trained to respond. This is frankly a better way to focus the associates on customers who does want help versus those who want to be left alone.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

Online shopping, coupled with the wealth of information at shoppers’ fingertips (smart phones), has made consumers more self-sufficient and less dependent on store associates for assistance. Many consumers feel that for many purchase decisions, they have just as much and often times more information than store associates. Personally, I like the concept of using the basket or a pin to let store associates know not to approach you for help. On the flip-side, that means that there should be more associates available for those that want help.

Raj Sangha
Guest

Well done Sephora for putting the choice in the hands of the consumer! But are they missing a trick by not having a meeter-greeter or a point of human interaction to at least welcome customers coming in-store?

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"What happens if I grab a black don’t-help-me basket and then I decide I want help? Do I run to change baskets?"
"From a consumer perspective, it empowers both consumers. Although we all know there are seldom just two choices."
"How many shoppers know whether they need help upon entering a store? Most probably have a need/question that arises in their mind as they peruse the store."

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