Stores need to create a sense of belonging for customers

Discussion
Apr 10, 2015

Through a special arrangement, what follows is an excerpt of an article from Drug Store News.

As my son and I visited colleges over the past year, it occurred to me that the process he was going through was not dissimilar to how consumers may approach the selection of their preferred retail setting.

The criteria

For my son, the wish list around his desired university was deeply contemplated. The checklist included a highly specific blend of academic desires, class size, teaching staff credentials, student population and demographics, distance from home, physical location parameters, social activities available, sport opportunities, and more. (Of course, financial metrics and graduation rates were very high on my list!)

Similarly, shoppers are creating their own wish list of sorts. Not unlike selecting a university, there are countless options, each with pros and cons. Rather than academic offerings, shoppers desire to align with services or niche products. They look at the friendliness of the staff and their knowledge and accessibility. Consideration may be given to the types of customers that the store caters to. Certainly distance, physical location, and "extras" are all part of the equation and hold weight toward the final decision. And customers also make their decision based on financial metrics: value.

The visits

When I made my college choice, I had a very short list of universities, referred to some outdated printed information, and physically visited the handful I was considering. For my son, the search began on the internet. Researching campuses online and virtually touring each became a nightly routine. Comparing it to his list of criteria, my son must have "visited" well over 150 possibilities.

Why shouldn’t today’s shoppers have the same opportunity? I’ve yet to see a retail website provide a virtual walk-through and easy-to-digest facts about the operation that would permit a potential customer to get acquainted before their physical visit. But paramount in this approach would be assurance that the online world mirrored the in-person experience.

The choice

Narrowing the field of eight was an interesting process as the intangibles became far more important. I believe the same is true of the decision made by shoppers. After all, there were positives about every school that my son was considering and I believe that each would have delivered an education that met his expectations. Similarly, product assortment, prices and other tangibles offer few differences among retailers. The real uniqueness stems from the softer side of the operation and the intangibles.

For Harrison, my son, it was a "sense of belonging." When he could effectively and confidently place himself at the university he ultimately selected, he simply knew that it was right. Stores should likewise strive to deliver the right combination of tangible and intangible factors so their customers have a true sense of belonging.

What’s the key to creating a “sense of belonging” for shoppers at retail? What lessons does today’s university selection process offer for stores?

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14 Comments on "Stores need to create a sense of belonging for customers"

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Bob Phibbs
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Based on my experience in many retail stores whether mass market, mid-tier or luxury, if “the online world mirrored the in-person experience” I would be ignored, at checkout asked if I had a coupon and checked if I had signed my Visa card on the back.

I would suggest that with 90 percent of retail business still done in brick-and-mortar locations, there is a lot more pressing work to do to correct the obvious faults in the physical location before an idealized, sterilized and computer-enhanced virtual world is presented online.

I would further suggest that very, very few brands can and will create a “sense of belonging” like Apple, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Lululemon have as they are part of a lifestyle their customers already enjoy.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

First, I’m not sure that “shoppers desire to align with services or niche products”, although we don’t shop at stores that turn us off either. No, wait, Walmart is the largest retailer in the world and gets consistently lower marks for customer satisfaction (see this month’s Consumer Reports, for example). Selecting a university is fundamentally different from selecting a store—the consequences for a poor choice can be dramatic, both financially and emotionally. The consequences for choosing a poor store—you leave.

Ron Margulis
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

One word answer—Wegmans. Wegmans has mastered the art of engaging customers and getting them to feel like part of their community. I had a conversation with a client recently who insisted that Wegmans is threatened by Whole foods and Trader Joe’s. He then admitted his sister is a dedicated Wegmans shopper. I would have pointed out this statement challenges his premise, but he is a client so I let it slide.

We went through the university search process last year and the found that the more selective colleges actually had better “customer engagement” than their less selective counterparts. I would have thought they’d be a bit more snobby and uninviting, but they were the ones that contacted us consistently and were the quickest to answer our questions. Now that our daughter is in school, however, it’s a different story.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

A sense of belonging and acceptance has to be high on the list. Belonging and acceptance starts with your first visit and how you are greeted while “touring” the retail location. If you are made to feel comfortable and at ease, you have created a start to a bond with that retailer. All of this assuming the store has the merchandise you want and need. This has to continue each visit made to the retailer. If not, all bets are off.

Dave Wendland
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Perhaps this article in today’s Retail Customer Experience identifies one of the intangibles that could fuel shopper loyalty—making shopping easier. If you’ve ever shopped your local Ace Hardware store and compared the experience to a big box, I’d say you may have experienced your sense of belonging.

Personally, I think it’s worth the investment to deliver something different at retail (I like the earlier reference to Wegman’s—an excellent example of a retailer that delivers on the promise!).

Shep Hyken
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Remember Cheers (the TV show about the bar)? Where “everybody knows your name.” Greet people. If you know the customer’s name, use it. If you don’t and you are helping them, introduce yourself and if they give you their name, use it. Build some sense of rapport.

Customers will become loyal to you when you show that you’re loyal to (and care about) them.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Trader Joe’s delivers this experience. Its relatively quirky set of house brands creates a kind of “just us insiders” sense of belonging between the brand and customers.

Michael P. Schall
Guest
Michael P. Schall
2 years 8 months ago
After visiting many hundred retail stores (grocery, natural, club and mass) in the past few years, there are a few things that stand out to me as creating a sense of belonging. First is the first personal experience. Depending on the format, that may happen in different departments, but a lot of times it starts in produce. That’s the first point of contact (generally speaking, grocery retail) and where knowledgeable and friendly folks are found. Then there’s the “theater factor”—store merchandising, the comfortable feel a shopper gets when surrounded by assortment, aroma and other sensory inputs. Obviously this varies from format to format. Undeniably, these are all parts of the feel and satisfaction during the shopping experience. Finally, like a great cup of coffee at the end of a meal (which often provides the lasting memory of the dining experience) it’s the personal experience again. A genuine thank you or heartfelt send-off is endearing to our customers. We want them to feel good when they get there, feel better when they shop and feel appreciated… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Shoppers need to be welcomed as the first step in the consumer experience. That can include elements of the experience that take place well before the physical store visit. The question to ask is, “What is compelling the shopper to shop my store versus another store?” We talk about loyalty a lot these days, however when you think of a store, there is a brand being represented. There has to be some level of enthusiasm in the minds of the shopper to drive them to that particular store. If there is no enthusiasm, then location is the only drive … and perhaps price, of course. We can all think of retail examples that exhibit a welcoming sense of belonging atmosphere to shoppers.

Bottom line, interact with shoppers at the store level. It pays dividends in so many ways: It drives revenue by finding the products they need, keep security in check because they know they’re being watched and creates a sense of belonging by welcoming them into the store.

J. Kent Smith
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Intuitive association, consistent trip fulfillment, personalization (especially by way of smart apps) and … drum roll … helping out when the customer is in a bind. Nothing is more alienating than standing behind a rule that prevents staff from doing the right thing, and nothing is more powerful than being there when they need help.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Guest
Naomi K. Shapiro
2 years 8 months ago

MIchael Schall said it all in his comments above. I had a eureka moment when he talked about the produce department as the first point of contact—there should be MUCH MORE welcoming, question answering and pleasant customer service at this point to set the tone for the entire shopping experience. And if it’s true about groceries, it’s equally true for department, drug, shoe, etc., stores.

I don’t, however, think that university welcoming and retail welcoming processes are equatable.

Lee Kent
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

I read recently in a Gartner piece that “in a few years, 89% of businesses will compete mainly on customer experience.”

While that may not mean that every customer experience create a sense of belonging, it does mean that businesses need to be thinking more about what their customers want and expect from them.

What did stir some creative thinking from this article was the idea of presenting the brand, not just the products, during the online experience. Prepping the shopper for their in-store experience? Not sure what that looks like but I’m gonna add it to my customer experience jargon.

For my 2 cents.

Vahe Katros
Guest
2 years 8 months ago
When I read this I thought of a set of notes I made at the Touche-Ross conference on Electronic Shopping in 1988. The speaker, the great retail mind Walter Salmon, was discussing the results of an electronic shopping pilot in Florida and making all kinds of amazing predictions that all came true regarding the yet-to-be-birthed consumer Internet. Dr. Salmon passed away last month, but these notes speak to shopping attributes back then. Here’s one of the announcements on his passing. These are the notes in their exact form passed from floppy drive to cloud storage. Enjoy! Attributes – what do customers want from retailers? Some are important, some are of declining importance. 1. Everyday low prices (fast selling leading brand name products) on the others they just have to be everyday fair prices 2. Complete assortments (differs according to merchandise line) – for frequently purchased low risk merchandise, complete assortment means one stop shopping, for categories such as food, health and beauty, alcohol, pharma and low priced commodity merchandise. For other types of merchandise, higher… Read more »
Mark Price
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

A sense of belonging ties directly to customer experience. Specific segments of customers (often the most brand loyal) are motivated by a combination of products that fit their needs at a fair price and motivated sales associates who can solve their problems quickly in a friendly manner.

In addition, some stores are inherently “cold” in their design. I often find those stores tend to have cold associates as well—perhaps one reflects back on the other…

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