BrainTrust Query: Time and Choices

Discussion
Nov 11, 2011

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article from Views on the World of Shoppers, Retailers and Brands, the blog of TNS Retail and Shopper.

Among the teachings of Joe Girard, identified by The Guinness Book of World Records as “The World’s Greatest Salesman,” are focusing on the customers’ time and their choices — both of which are regularly ignored by today’s retail staffs.

One subject in his book, “How to Close Every Sale,” was that “The Prospect’s [Customer’s] Time is Valuable.”

Mr. Girard writes, “Every sales person has had it drilled into his or her skull that time is money and should be valued accordingly. So I won’t give you another lecture on time management. Instead, I’ll emphasize instead the importance of also realizing the value of your prospect’s [customer’s] time.”

Joe Girard’s perspective here is exactly the same as my own principle that, “The faster you sell, the more you will sell!” No real salesperson would ever be confused about this issue, and yet it is diametrically opposed to standard retailer desire to get the shopper to spend more time in their stores. As one senior shopper “expert” with one of the major brands told me, “We want the shopper to spend time carefully considering our merchandise.” Both the retailer’s view, and the supplier’s, have the air of thoughtful consideration of the shopper and the sales process, but both are actually sales termites. They steadily erode the performance of the store and brand by impeding rapid selections of merchandise.

The other closely-related subject in the book was Joe Girard’s “Choices of Three” perspective:

“Over the years, I have discovered that the more choices presented to prospects [shoppers,] the more difficult it becomes for them to make up their minds. While I don’t have concrete evidence backed by formal research, I have observed that when people have to choose from more than three choices, they have a hard time determining which to pick. … I recommend offering a maximum of three.”

This principle reinforces what we say about focusing on the top sellers. You can only use Joe Girard’s selling principles selectively in the store if you expect them to be effective. If you use them widely, you are trying to “sell more than three,” and your efforts, no matter how good, will be diluted severely and simply become more “noise” in the shopping environment. Fortunately, you can be pretty sure that your competition is churning out a lot of noise. This is your opportunity to provide selective selling to just a few items (a few dozen for a 40,000 item store, but a literal few — 3 — for a few dozen items in a brand or category.)

The skills Mr. Girard discusses were likely lost as retail migrated over the last century from ‘active, personal selling’ — in which a salesperson guides and expedites the purchase by a customer — to ‘passive selling,’ or the self-service environments that dominate retail today. But in many ways, the thinking of people like Joe Girard are right at the cutting edge of real selling, even in the self-service world.

Discussion Questions: How can largely self-service retailers incorporate some ’active selling’ techniques into their selling environments? Does retail need to rethink its approach to valuing the customer’s time as well as encouraging a few choices among the many offered?

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10 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Time and Choices"

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Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

I can’t think of a post I’ve disagreed with more than this. “Sales termites?” The world of profitable retail isn’t convenience store stop ‘n shop. High-end, luxury retailers, Nordstrom and a host of clients I work with know that selling takes time and energy to bring the customers choices down to two or three.

It takes training of sales skills, people skills and engaged employees.

Ed Dunn
Guest
5 years 5 months ago

Can this strategy really apply to product categories with various specifications such as digital cameras and flat-panel displays?

What are the factors that make the three product lines different from each other to make a choice? Color? Flavor? Size? This strategy appears to assume that products have little differentiation from each other.

I am inclined to believe that if a customer cannot choose between more than three items, then the retailer did not categorize the products properly or place the product in proper context.

Dennis Serbu
Guest
Dennis Serbu
5 years 5 months ago

We are talking about a self service environment in today’s retail reality. There is little to no selling staff on the floor of most grocery stores. In many to most hard goods stores, the support function isn’t much better. As a general rule, I would agree with Dr. Sorensen that the selection should be moderated. Is three the magic number? Maybe. It could be slightly more.

Categorizing products would help. As an example, most Salty Snack sections are set by vendor. We drive customers through the gates of hell to make a subcategory selection up and down 60 feet of space to decide on a Tortilla chip. This does not encourage fast shopping, nor does it encourage profitability. It does not reflect the availability of selection in which the retailer has invested retailer dollars.

There is much we can do to make the shopping experience faster and ease shopper frustration.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

How does one create sales urgency in today’s retail environment when the untrained sales staff is behind the register waiting for the customer to come to them?

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
5 years 5 months ago
There are two issues here, and I’m not sure they’re as closely related as Mr. Sorensen suggests. Let’s take the second issue first, the issue of choices. This is a matter of determining the right breadth of assortment. My observation has long been that most retailers, both large and small, offer too much assortment, primarily out of a fear that a customer might not find what they want. There are two serious implications. The first is that a lot of cash gets tied up in inventory that invariably turns slower than it should. The second is that merchandise loses its distinctiveness, nothing stands out, and it all becomes a collection of stuff. This lessens the perceived value of the merchandise, and the store itself, which leads to a culture of discounting and markdowns. Customers look to retailers to perform an important culling process. From the vast array of choices in a wholesale marketplace, customers look to retailers to sort through the noise and clutter and narrow the choices down to the very best, the most desirable with the greatest inherent value. This is the essential service that retailers perform that adds value to the customer. In many cases, this is… Read more »
Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
5 years 5 months ago

If you’ve ever taken a shopping list from a spouse into a supercenter and tried to find 10 SKUs that you aren’t familiar with, you know about the “paradox of choice.” For fast moving consumer goods, I think that for most retailers it comes down to having the 40,000 or so SKUs that they carry available via an easy-to-understand layout AND making the top 200 or so items highly visible so that people can “grab and go.”

Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust

I love the fact that not a single commenter here — so far — has agreed with Joe Girard, who of course was offering customers three cars out of hundreds of options. It shows a total disconnect between “selling” as any real salesman would use the term, and what retailers and their advisers think of as “selling.” It’s the classic, failed order-taking mentality.

I’ve built a solid fact based case for this perspective over the past 10 years — more massive data every few months. Although a few MAJOR brands see the light, retailers have been slow to even be interested. I have focused on how to serve shoppers better, not how to get more money from non-sales activities. And by the way, that includes a large share of “new media” heading into the stores. Tragically, few even understand what the problem is before racing to the fore with solutions.

It is a case of the blind leading the blind, and the ditch will be crowded into the foreseeable future. 😉 [I think I have said that clearly enough!]

Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust

Let me add that Al McClain has captured the essence of the issue perfectly. Kudos from me to Al. 😉

Mark Price
BrainTrust

Retailers who are relying on customers to identify the merchandise they wish to purchase must rely on merchandising and product placement to help customers winnow down the options to a reduced quantity for purchase.

The famous “jam study” showed that customers actually purchase less when given more choices. Lacking the live intermediary (the trained sales associate), the store must find some way to help consumers narrow their choices.

The answer is merchandising — digital and physical signage, as well as product placement in logical groupings to save consumers time. The new digital signage is too often used as an advertising vehicle, with removes its greatest benefit, to be an engaging method of helping customers understand the potential product solutions and the needs they best fit.

While this approach will never replace the trained skillful sales associate, merchandising is a key solution to consumer confusion, frustration and lack of retention that we see so often in our commoditized retail environment.

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
5 years 5 months ago
Ted is correct that the author is combining two unrelated issues: time and choice. Regarding choice: In a more self-service retail environment the effective retailer must utilize merchandising and messaging (pre-visit and in-store) to guide the customer to a few compelling choices against the backdrop of perceived plenty. In the more high-touch luxury environment, it is even more critical for the retailer to present a curated selection of the brand’s breadth and connect these choices to the unique style and temperament of each client. Regarding time: This varies by product/category. For self-service environments, the better the perception the customer has of the retailer’s respect for their time the better. However, even then dwell time is important as the customer moves between product categories. If each touch point feels efficient, the customer is more likely to dwell longer and connect to more products, hopefully driving more purchase decisions. For luxury shopping, the sales professional’s responsibility is to assess the client’s temperament and create the right dwell time for their unique needs. As always, no one answer fits all situations. Start from the customer’s point of view, and create the appropriate level of choice and time from there.
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