Personal Selling a Lost Retail Art

Discussion
Jul 21, 2009
Al McClain

By Al McClain

At last week’s
IIR Shopper Insights conference, Herb Sorensen, Global Scientific Director
of TNS Sorensen and RetailWire BrainTrust
panelist, posited that personal selling at retail is nearly a lost art.
As Dr. Sorensen tells it, retailing began as personal selling, with one
salesperson selling something to one customer. But, about 100 years ago,
the "massification" of retail drove huge increases in efficiency via
division of labor and retailers and customers alike benefited.

However, shopping
is really so much about the mental aspect that goes on outside the store
as the process begins with a wish that leads to a want, which leads to
a “need” and ends with a purchase. As mass retailing developed, stores
began to look and act alike. Retailers tried to keep shoppers “prisoner” by
encouraging them to follow a certain path and attempted to keep them
in the store longer; they made items harder to find and provided less
and less help in making shopping choices. So, while prices dropped, shoppers
became increasingly frustrated with the actual shopping experience.

Meanwhile,
the “massification” of advertising developed as we went from roadsides
signs to billboards to radio to TV. For years, advertisers could reach
most potential shoppers via TV, essentially doing pre-selling, before
the shopper ever reached the store, so self-service at store-level wasn’t
as big of a priority. In 1995, for example, advertisers could run three
national TV commercials and reach 80 percent of women 18-49 years old.
By 2000, with the fragmentation of media choices, it took 92 commercials
to reach the same percentage of that group. So, as audiences have scattered,
large advertisers such as Procter & Gamble have identified the need
to reach shoppers in stores.

Now, we really
have personalized interaction with shoppers again at store-level, but
it’s driven by technology. Amazon is making more and more relevant offers
to web shoppers, devices such as Video Cart are advertising to shoppers
while they shop, consumers are carrying the internet around with them
via smart phones, and marketers are increasingly texting shoppers to
make them offers based on their location.

So, where do
we go from here? The other aspect is the proliferation of messages reaching
consumers. In days gone by, shoppers might stand at the general store
counter and talk over the merits of one item with the shop owner for
a few minutes. Nowadays, consumers are bombarded with advertising messages
of all types nearly 24/7. Could it be they long for the personal touch
again?

Discussion Questions:
Do consumers long for a personal touch from retailers? Or is technology
providing a satisfactorily replacement? Are there certain types
of retailers, local grocers, clothing boutiques, etc., that would benefit
most from developing a personal selling approach?

[Author’s
Commentary] Sometimes, in a world gone mad with messaging, the simplest
solution can be the best. Dr. Sorensen has worked with an independent
grocer, having them put signs around the store (about 50) showing that
some key items are “top sellers” and has seen sales of those items soar.

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25 Comments on "Personal Selling a Lost Retail Art"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I would argue or add that it isn’t only in retail, it is everywhere. No one sells anything from the product on the shelves, to themselves as an exceptional place to work, to themselves as a great employee.

The trick is, with diminished budgets, the filters to keep unmotivated people off the floor are gone and warm bodies are welcomed. That means anyone who is personable usually moves on because they don’t like a slacker culture.

I have clients up in the double digits right now because of the sales training system we’ve put in place. That’s the only way to stand out and be profitable.

Beyond that, Americans need to stop bashing selling as “pushy” or we will find ourselves as similar and prepacked as the Hannah Montana t-shirt in cello wrap about to be marked down. I also wrote about the dangers of merchandising like the mass merchants yesterday.

Phil Rubin
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
Herb is right about personal selling being a lost art and that is indeed a result of “massification” and why Amazon has done so well. Amazon makes it personal like no other retailer except for some relatively small and nimble specialty stores and perhaps Nordstrom in the department store world. Customers are increasingly conscious of most-common denominator (really least common denominator) mass marketing and will increasingly respond to more relevant sales messages, whether delivered by a sales person or via technology. Sadly, as we discussed a few weeks ago, “wow” at retail is really just exemplary service, a good data point in support of personal(ized) selling be a lost art. Retail management deserves a big amount of the blame here. The stores that do the best job of personal service and selling are those where management is visible, on the floor, working with customers and sales people to ensure that the experience for the customers is as good as it can (and should) be. This is why the specialty stores, especially those locally owned and… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I agree with Herb Sorensen on this topic. In today’s high tech world the demand for high touch continues. The rise of social networks, which are used to keep in touch with family and friends, is evidence that personalized connectivity is still sought by consumers.

With regard to supermarkets, the primary rationale for self-checkout has been labor savings. However, for every staffed checkout not staffed in lieu of self-checkout, why not take half of the labor and put them into the aisles where they can interact with the consumers? Every service counter provides an opportunity for interaction beyond “what can I get for you?” However, how about staff stocking the shelves and managers roving the stores engaging customers, making product recommendations, and solving customer problems becoming the norm?

Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

Technology is a great addition to the retail shopping experience, but let’s never forget that our customers are human beings who long for personal interaction in every aspect of their life. Just watch how you can light up someone’s face simply by engaging them in a little conversation.

People long to talk, to be listened to, to be engaged in some form of dialogue. The retailers who understand this, and place highly trained staff on the sales floor who know how to communicate with customers always win. These staff don’t need to be selling superstars (but it does help), they just need to be warm, friendly, knowledgeable, helpful and available. We see it time and time again with our clients that when staff start talking more to customers, sales go up.

Max Goldberg
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

Consumers long for a personal touch when they need information that will enable them to make a decision and/or speed up the shopping experience. In many instances, technology is providing a replacement and will continue to do so with the proliferation of smart phones and access to the Internet.

I watched as house guest shopped at Guitar Center yesterday for a new guitar. She told the salesman the type of guitar she wanted and the maximum price. Within 2 minutes she was presented with 3 good choices. The salesperson’s knowledge sped up our shopping trip and created a positive shopping experience. With the information garnered in the store, we returned home, checked the guitars on the Internet and made a purchase decision. The Internet facilitated a quick price check and consumer recommendations. Today or tomorrow we will return to Guitar Center to complete the purchase.

This seems like the perfect melding of personal touch and technology.

Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
11 years 9 months ago

What a great article! It’s tough to know the difference between what people say they want and what they really want. While it can be argued that people don’t buy from companies, they buy from people, the success of Amazon and discount retailers could prove otherwise.

In the end I think it really comes down to a retailer choosing to be something special and unique, and attracting the kinds of clients that would appreciate that.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 9 months ago

I think the art of personal selling is basically an art of retailing. As for technology helping out, see my post under the Self Checkout discussion.

We need to look at retailing associates as the face of the business. How do we want our brand represented? Trader Joe’s asks that question every single day and they execute on it every single day. Think about how much bigger transactions would be if your people were actually selling on the floor instead of directing traffic, or filling shelves or mopping up spills. I told one on my clients to get the cashiers to suggest batteries to each and every customer that comes through the register. Email me for an artful response….

Doug Fleener
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I don’t know if it is a lost art, but rather the art has changed. Today’s consumer is more knowledgeable and more informed than ever before. In days gone by, consumers may have gone to a store to see the newest fashions or products, but now they do it with the click of a finger.

Because this consumer has so many more options, that one-on-one connection is more important than ever before. They want to be engaged by salespeople who add value and help connect them with products in the way the consumer wants it. And that last part is key. Not the way the retailer wants to engage, but rather the way the customer wants.

Retailers who can do this while leveraging technology and other resources will be successful. This morning I’m talking to a chain of retail managers whose number one job is to ensure this takes place in every store with every customer. It’s not easy but the payoff is there.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

All most consumers want is a price and get me in and get me out. They have proved it by looking at who is getting most of the sales. Be it in retail or hospitality. Please don’t talk to me I do not have time. Those shoppers will continue to buy that way and go where they get the service they pay for.

Yes it is the 80% out there but they really only generate 20% of the profit. When you build a relationship with that other 20%, you will fill the first class seats and have people who may not buy as much from you right now but if you have a relationship they will give you all of their business when they do buy.

David Biernbaum
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

A CEO in a major retail chain recently told me that having an ample supply of well-informed employees is cost prohibitive. Therefore, this retail chain is going to deploy informative signs in the store to help answer consumer questions. Are you as touched as I was to hear such good news?

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
11 years 9 months ago

I think two things are true:

1. The Customer Decides How They Get Sold: Whether you use people to sell in a personal and engaged manner or technology to facilitate the sale, should depend wholly on what your customer prefers. I think sometimes we feel guilty about de-personalizing the sales process but if our customers are more satisfied using technology, so be it. Frankly, I’ve dealt with lots of bank tellers who I wished were ATMs.

2. There’s no in between: If you make the decision to emphasize personal selling in your store, then your people better add value to the customers experience. Let me rephrase that–your people should BE the experience.

The problem with too many retailers is that their caught in the middle. They have neither great sales technology nor great sales people. It’s the worst possible place to be.

If you’re going to sell then sell and be remarkable at it.

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
Unfortunately, sell is a four letter word in the lexicon of the typical brick and mortar retailer. I hear it over and over that the sales associates don’t want to appear pushy and over-bearing. I think it’s an excuse to not take the time and money to select and train properly. It’s easy to hire stock people and cashiers, it’s quite another to select and train knowledgeable sales people. Being friendly is fine and necessary, but the best have an aptitude for selling. Al points out that the sheer number of consumers and choices seemingly makes personal selling difficult at best. This is where customer-facing service technology is most useful. The best technologies facilitate personal contact at the customer’s discretion. Data supports the fact that consumers hold personal connections in high regard and reward those retailers with their loyalty. Retailer’s often misread this and view in-store service technology as a barrier between them and their customers. The idea they need to embrace is consistent execution of these customer facing access technologies with actionable feedback across… Read more »
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
11 years 9 months ago
Herb hit the nail on the head and with every challenge an opportunity is created. Consumers are looking for that personal selling experience. Just look at Trader Joe’s. They pay their employees well and provide a wonderful work environment. In return you find that employees are very responsive to customer needs and passionate about the products they offer. Another wonderful example of exceptional customer experience is Stew Leonard’s, a small, but growing grocer in the Northeast. A huge rock in the front of the store says it all. Rule one – The customer is always right, rule two if the customer is wrong reread rule one. Not only do they compete against Stop & Shop, and other much larger retailers, but they thrive because of their approach. Finally, look outside grocery at the Mitchell’s and Richards two clothing stores run by the Mitchell family and where “Hug your Customer” is their #1 focus. Every retailer and manufacturer executive should add this book to their summer reading list. These are exciting times and retail has a… Read more »
vic gallese
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I think Herb is spot on in the right environment. Many of us are time-strapped and for commodity items just need clear signage (often lacking), wide aisles and fast checkout.

For other purchases: electronics, fashion clothing, certain sporting goods, and cosmetics we definitely need and appreciate knowledgeable (often lacking) assistance.

It’s detail and persistence to sort out and sustain but well worth it for those who take it passionately.

Anne Bieler
Guest
Anne Bieler
11 years 9 months ago

A personal selling approach that meets the shoppers expectations is the key to building long-term loyalty. Understanding what the shopper wants, locating it, and purchasing it all need to be part of a seamless experience.

As retail stores have become mass merchants with supercenters and huge selections, the shopper finds navigation difficult, assistance in locating items frustrating and wait times a fact of life. It is ironic that online shopping with Amazon is more personal than we experience at many brick and mortar retail locations.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
11 years 9 months ago
I’m sorry, “Personal Selling…” I don’t know what that is. Only half kidding, but as many others have indicated, it is the high-tech (i.e. online) retailers who now seem to have a leg up as they provide research tools for consumers. Consumers seem much more comfortable with a two step shopping experience for larger purchases. They conduct research on features and price online, then go into the store and buy it from the retailer willing to dispose of the old product. For smaller purchases or feature-rich products, in-store help may be a key factor in directing consumers to a particular brand. Someone recommending their favorite soup is likely to drive the purchase decision based on their enthusiasm. For feature-rich products (think cell phones), an intelligent teenager is helpful. In one case the online research seems to be overkill and cannot answer the “good taste” question. In the other case, the consumer is overwhelmed with numerous tradeoffs and simply abdicates the decision. I think the big challenge is that just having people available is not enough.… Read more »
Chuck Palmer
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
Consumers have always and will always respond to a personal touch. The best indie stores and Best Buy and the Apple stores have something in common. Authenticity. They know their stuff and how to sell it. This conversation of course is dependent upon which retailer we’re talking about and in which shopping mode an individual consumer is in. People are multi-valient. We each have different values and motivations depending on, in this instance, the scale and importance of the purchase. Does Mom need a personal touch to buy milk? She does if her kids are perhaps allergic to dairy. She’ll go to Whole Foods and ask someone. Odds are the people on the floor know what to tell her because they hire engaged staff and train them. Does a small business owner need the personal touch to buy a computer? Probably not, since he can do all the rational comparisons online, but will he go to Best Buy to make the actual purchase? Yep. He wants to touch the thing and be reassured he’s making… Read more »
John Nardi
Guest
John Nardi
11 years 9 months ago

The real challenge for retailers is to balance development of a customer-centric “In-Store Experience” with the investment in labor and finding the right employees that can be successful implementing this strategy. Sharing management’s vision of “how we want to serve our customers” is essential, but must be underpinned by an investment in skill and knowledge training.

Employees that can initiate a dialogue with customers and help them solve the problem that they came into the store to solve, catapults category sales results, increases customer loyalty, and provides a distinct competitive differentiation. Complement this with an integrated web education strategy and perhaps some in-store digital signage delivering education (vs. promotion) and you have a way to meet customers at THEIR point-of-decision!

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

The combination of self-shop and self-checkout says we can make a retail purchase without even talking to a store associate. This is a hard way for any store to be different than the competition. Too many times when I shop, the store personnel know even less than I do about the product. Many have trouble even locating an item in their store.

Some shoppers want real assistance and will simply shop elsewhere. Some forms of retail will always do better with a trained and informed associate. But no one is happy with associate who knows nothing, does not care to be there and would prefer to spend their time talking to other employees in another language.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

One glance at the comments here makes it abundantly clear that retailers have dropped the ball. Customers will spend more and will be more loyal to retailers that make things easier for them. I strongly recommend that retail executives accompany a young mother with a 2-year-old kid in tow into their stores on a shopping trip. Things would seem a lot different than they do from the corner office.

John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
11 years 9 months ago

Absolutely! It is hard for me to understand why this is not a bigger issue in the industry. The winners in the tough economy will excel here.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
Many excellent comments here, however, I know I have not adequately represented what I mean by the term “personal selling” here. There is a nut kernel that I will take another stab at. And for this purpose, it may be helpful, Mr. Retailer, to think of yourself as the Patrick Swayze ghost, trying to sell something to a shopper in the aisle. So here you are, hovering wraith-like in the air of the aisle, and a shopper has just turned in the aisle. As much as you might like, you, as a spectral “person,” can’t engage them in conversation. So how and what are you going to personally “sell” them? I suggest that you begin by looking at all the merchandise around you, and I recommend that you undertake to sell them what they are most likely to buy. And just what is that thing they are most likely to buy? Simple: IT IS WHAT MOST OTHER PEOPLE COMING DOWN THIS AISLE BUY!!! You can find out what that is by simply looking at your… Read more »
michael bigley
Guest
michael bigley
11 years 9 months ago

Ever visit an Apple Store? Their success is built around this personal selling: in-store training, technicians, personal shopping (free). You can even schedule a business consultation if you want to use Apple products in your business (we are an all-Mac shop and this is handy). They handle it masterfully without making the walk-in customer feel left out. Their engagement is before, during and after the sale. I think the after-the-sale features are the real marketing genius. Buyer + Participant = Advocate.

William Passodelis
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I hate to be pessimistic but America and many parts of the world have empowered Walmart because they have decided on a primary factor in purchase–Price, Price, Price!

Also, you get what you pay for.

There certainly are wonderful houses of retail of various types that DO indeed offer great personal service and selling but that comes with a cost. It also exists in a specific culture.

The above poster who mentioned the “middle market” also was right–too many retailers are stuck between price and service, and doing a poor job with both. Eventually these retailers will make a decision and move one way or the other, or they will become extinct.

As wonderful as personal selling, service, and personal attention are, I am afraid those choices will remain the exception rather than the norm, and even become more rare.

Ken Yee
Guest
Ken Yee
11 years 9 months ago
No doubt, technology has diminished personal selling. You have detailed web sites with spec sheets where you can compare different products easily. You also have forums and reviews. Another problem is that personal selling is often a sham, in my opinion. Go into any retailer and the rep on the floor will try to sell you anything. Rarely will they say something is bad or you should choose something else, or go to a different retailer to fit your need. It’s all about selling to make profit and commission. Every consumer knows that’s part of business, but at least they can formulate their own opinion without having to rely on a sales rep misleading them or constantly try to push extra product on them. Anyone here who says they enjoy hearing clerks asking them about “upsizing your combo,” “would you like a belt or tie with that?” “How about these additional features for your car?” would be lying. Go into an electronics store and ZERO sales clerks will ask about your budget or what features… Read more »
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