Retailing 144: Human Contact — a Rare and Valuable Commodity
By Jay Townley
As online shopping grows, consumers, of course, will have fewer contacts with a live human being. But for those who play tennis — or the 15 million who may not play currently but are “interested” in playing, according to research by the Tennis Industry Association — it’s also a time to seek out contact and a relationship with a knowledgeable retail associate who can become a consultant and advisor about the tennis lifestyle.
Shoppers and customers are willing to pay more for what is fast becoming a rare and value-added attribute from physical stores — human contact!
We are witnessing a renaissance of sorts of personal customer service and human contact on retail sales floors, just as online is growing as a component of retail brands and we hear more about the end of so-called “pure-play” online retailers. Amazon is about to open its second brick-and-mortar bookstore and is rumored to be on the hunt to acquire a large retail brand in order to shift from being the nation’s largest pure-play to an omni-channel model that incorporates both physical and online retail components.
Walmart is once again at the bottom of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, as the nation’s largest retailer struggles to hang onto its sales associates by increasing wages and opening a reported 200 training and education centers around the country — while its online sales increase and it searches for its omni-channel balance point.
Retail Heart & Soul
But what these retailers and online tennis retailers don’t get is that real human sales associates are the heart and soul of retailing, and converting consumers in the form of shoppers to customers for life is all about the experience generated by human contact. As retailing author T. Scott Gross says, “Great sales are the result of great service.”
In his book, “When Customers Talk…Turning What They Tell You Into Sales,” based on a national survey of 100,000 customers, Gross lists what customers like most about the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. At the top of the list, with 41.4 percent, is knowledgeable/helpful salespeople, followed by courteous/friendly/caring staff at 27 percent. Then came low prices and product information at 18.3 percent, merchandise organized and easy to find at 8.8 percent, and fast checkout at 4.3 percent.
Some shoppers may place a high value on low prices, and tennis shops have to decide how their merchandise mix will best serve this group of consumers. However, product information and high-quality sales associates are obviously valued higher by more shoppers — and importantly, they offer a significant point of differentiation from low price, self-service and online competitors.
What this boils down to for specialty tennis retailers and tennis pro shops is holding onto and nurturing what may become harder and harder to find: real live, knowledgeable, helpful, courteous, friendly and caring sales associates.
If you already employ top-drawer customer-service professionals, then develop a plan to retain them while working with them to constantly recruit, educate and train others. Emphasize having fun while working at your tennis store and the real enjoyment and accomplishment of creating lifestyle solutions for customers and their families, which will make them clients for life.
If you’re looking for a higher level of sales associate, but feel you can’t afford them, then you need to rethink your business model to include a “hiring smart” program that utilizes online assessments to make sure the sales associates you employ are “naturals” who want to serve your customers and who you can educate about the tennis lifestyle and teach them the product knowledge they need to turn great customer service into great sales.
With great customer service, you’ll grow your tennis store’s reputation for delivering outstanding human contact and retail experiences — points of differentiation that have real value to consumers.
Jay Townley is a partner in the retail consulting firm Gluskin Townley Group (gluskintownleygroup.com).
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