Mar 7, 2012

Last Impressions Matter

Walking through many stores is often a manifestation of the retailer's desire to create a positive impression from the point of entry to the store.  In many cases, that impression is excellent - a walk through Whole Foods or The Fresh Market is like a grocery fantasy land, complete with exotic smells and sounds to complement a visually enticing shopper experience.  No doubt many thousands of hours have gone into crafting these exceptional experiences, and a positive first impression.

Yet with many retailers, what is the last impression a shopper has?  The checkout.  Traditionally highlighted in research as the bane of most shopper's existence, it's a source of frustration and annoyance on busy days in particular.  There's a number of reasons why this is the case.  Let's face it - checkout is where reality dawns on shoppers.  All those wonderful ideas they've conceived about their meals or DIY projects or whatever they put in the cart come crashing down as the shopper faces the harsh economic reality that they have to pay for it and the realization that it probably cost more than they were expecting.  Add to this 'pain point' the checkout clerk, who in many cases is the most junior staffer or newest hire, and you have the potential for a really lousy last impression.  Putting a button on a checkout clerk saying 'How can I help you' or 'Customer First' does not make them an attuned salesperson or CS representative.

Indeed, most retailers now offer self checkout in an attempt to speed up the process and minimize the pain associated with waiting and dealing with a clerk.  And on most occasions where I've used said scanners and bag carousels, I've found the process equally time consuming and invariably requiring the assistance of the one person whose job is to oversee all of the self checkouts.  Apple are going further, testing self-checkout via mobile apps in selected stores as well as pre-ordering capability, to minimize wait times and free up staff.

Yet minimizing the exposure to the checkout clerk is not the answer, particularly in busy grocery stores where the shopper objective is to get people to fill their carts and self-checkout isn't practical.  Imbuing the clerk in the ethos of the retail brand and the practice of exceptional customer service is more than answering a few questions on the application form or reading the new hire handout.  Most clerks can recite fruit and veg codes, but not the vision for the retailer brand nor the values which they all supposedly share.  Few clerks ever receive formal training on handling customers effectively, efficiently, and positively.  Scenario training, role play, gaming - all are techniques which could educate and enlighten the checkout staff.  Investing in staff, particularly when they're often the lowest paid, is likely to pay greater dividends in terms of not just brand perceptions and that last impression of the customer but in terms of staff retention.  With staff turnover at retail typically 20-25% per year, any reduction in the implicit cost of getting new people has got to make economic sense.

The challenge for retail marketers is simple:  how can you make the last impression, as good as the first.  Dishearteningly, few have been up to the challenge so far.


  1. From entering the building to checkout, the experience now more than ever needs to reinforce the customer's connection to the retailer and their value. I may have been greeted upon my entrance, but the checkout process has the final say. This sets the stage for the next visit for sure. Good post!

  2. One of the many part-time jobs that I had as a teenager was as a grocery store clerk (the type of person that you reference). I agree that the customer service training that I received was limited. I looked at the job as an opportunity the hone my interaction skills and believe I was a good check out clerk.
    However, I am posting to note that there is an amplifier effect that I noticed. IF the line was long as a rush of folks all came into the store at the same time on their way home from work, AND any customer had a bad check-out experience (price could not be determined, sale item did not ring up on sale (or the customer grabbed the wrong item that was not on sale), difficulties with payment, etc.) --- THEN the dissatisfaction spread like a disease to the folks in line behind the bogged down transaction and across lines. The customer with a problem usually wanted to convey that the problem holding up the rest of the line was not his doing and would send signals both verbal and non-verbal eye rolls to the other customers. So even after this customer left—the mood was sour.

    1. Interesting point you raise about the 'social' dissatisfaction within the line during peak periods. Training will help, but so will ensuring the supervisor and others get stuck in and assuage the angering mob. Having a few product samples to pass around, even empathizing, must surely help. Funny, many do it at Xmas peak with a glass of eggnog or minced pie at some stores - why not on a busy Saturday outside the holidays?

  3. We have many grocery store clients that use our service to measure the customer's experience and to reward store employees for "doing it right". You are spot on when it comes to customer interaction training. Many retailers now use personality testing to determine if a potential employee has the skills to interact with people in general, but having the skill and using the skill are quite different. Using mystery shoppers on a regular bases helps our clients stay ahead of potential trends that may lead to a service level issue. The real benefit of mystery shopping is that if employees know a mystery shopping program is in place, and that its frequent enough so that the employees think anyone they come in contact with may be a secret shopper, combine with the fact that the company is using mystery shopping as a "reward" and not a "got ya" program, it all turns into a win win for everyone. We have tracked customer satisfaction scores for our clients before, during and after a mystery shopping program. The proof is in the results......

    Many companies also use customer surveys, which we also offer. Surveys are a great general tool but only measure the customer’s perception, not the facts. For example, a survey can’t tell you the exact amount of time the checkout transaction took, if the employee greeted you with a smile and eye contact, if the proper closing statement was used, and most importantly the specific name of each employee the customer came in contact with. Knowing all the above gives you everything you need to react to a specific opportunity with a specific employee.

    So, there are tools available to drive customer service trends. Interestingly enough we have uncovered a weak link in service levels isn’t always the sales clerk, it’s sometimes the training department or training material provided. Knowing where the problem is, is the first step in getting it corrected.


    1. Absolutely! The lack of training is often the root cause of the problem, together with the lack of a customer centric contingency plan by supervisors during peak hours. Combining active training with mystery shop programs like you suggest is an excellent way to reinforce 'good' service, especially if the MS program is ad hoc over an extended period (ie not just after the training only, but also a few weeks or months later, to see if the behavior has become instinctive).

  4. Great insights. The people in the organization that have the most customer interaction are the least trained. And, all these companies describe themselves as customer oriented. Appreciate the post.