Retail’s Forgotten Basics

Progressive Grocer, April 2011 Issue

“Shopping is an addiction”, as they say and ”shopping is cheaper than seeing a psychiatrist” !! Whatever be the level of truth in these statements, what is significant nevertheless, is that the activity of shopping can have elements that go beyond appealing to the physical body, to appeal to the mind ….. and maybe the soul as well. It is only when an experience creates ‘joy, pleasure and exhilaration’ at the physical, mental and/or emotional levels, that one gets addicted to it and gets drawn to it repeatedly ….. be it alcohol, love, reading or whatever.

The enjoyment and pleasure of shopping must have always been there (from the days of bartering probably) even if mainly due to the more basic sense of satisfaction at having ‘acquired’ something in a transactional activity. The ‘melas and haats’, however, would have provided an ‘experience and ambience’, a concept that gets much talked about today.

The art of this ‘experience’ creation sometimes gets diluted in the movement from rural to ‘urban modern trade’ in India. Most of the 20th century, or even till more recently, the last few decades of the 20th century, saw an Indian population living in scarcity and deprivation. Whatever little quantity or range one bought, the ‘pleasure and enjoyment’ that the mere transactional activity of shopping and ‘acquiring’ brought, was still there, at times enhanced by just roaming around in the market place and window shopping. It was in the 90s that options of merchandise and places offering a ‘modern’ shopping experience started increasing in numbers.

The period before 90s had limited options and so called ‘modern’ food stores were few and far between. The Neighbourhood grocer was omnipresent and would serve all basic requirements of the household. The local market had meat and vegetable stores which stocked our regular requirements and one would never actually buy in bulk (the shopping cart was non existent). Everything was purchased fresh and more frequently ….. was it that frequent interaction which brought in a lot of familiarity and hence comfort and therefore repeat visits to these shops !? Even if it was a very simple and routine experience and just fulfillment of basic needs, one was quite regular and ‘loyal’ to one’s grocer, vegetable or meat shop. Was it due to lack of options and competition !? Some of these questions have infact acquired increased significance in today’s environment.

Competition has increased with the mushrooming of food, vegetable and grocery stores of the mega, super and hyper formats ….. all synonyms of relevant adjectives have been utilized to describe the new stores that are coming up quite so frequently. Needless to say, ambience, space and hygiene have definitely seen a mega revolution from the neighbourhood grocer days. What I see missing in these hyper marts is, however, a simple genuine welcoming smile and greeting that our local vegetable shop guy used to beam at us, registering somewhere in the subconscious, leading us back to him as if he was The Pied Piper !!

You can argue that since we had no option then, even if he did not give a smiling welcome, we would still have ended up going back to him. Maybe partly true, but on the other side, is it that stress caused due competitive options available to consumers, takes away the smile on the faces of all employees at these stores !? This is not an overstatement.

In the last 48 hours, we travelled to 5 Top Modern format food stores in Delhi, to test some of these hypotheses first hand. By the way, a smile is only used as a symbolic representation of the larger point that we are trying to make here. For reasons of confidentiality we will not name any of the stores here.

At none of the stores did anyone greet, smile at or welcome us. We just stood around, deliberately looking lost, waiting to see if anyone approached us asking ‘How may I help you !?’ We know most of these stores have a ‘self help’ format, but our presence was quite conspicuous, as we had ‘we are lost’ written large on our faces and in such circumstances help should have been forthcoming even in a self help store !!

Smile, greet, ask a closed ended question like ‘How may I help you ?’ are, we know the first few steps taught in any basic sales training course, even those offered by hundreds of sales trainers who have also mushroomed to cater to the retail boom. Why then are even these basics missing ?? I am sure senior managers know this is important and would have not left this point out from the training modules. Rest of the ingredients that go into customer value/experience creation are of a much more evolved nature, answering questions like ‘what the customer really wants’ & ‘what adds most value to the customer’. 

In the context of basic orientation though, somewhere, sensitization, awakening, realization, internalization, motivation, acceptance and commensurate action are missing ….. There is no surprise then, that ‘addiction’ and hence ‘repeat visits’ and loyalty to a store may not be guaranteed.

The proof of success of a customer interaction is when on the way out of the door of your store, the customer has a mindset of ‘I will come again’ or ‘I will tell others to come’ ….. both these can happen when experiences at the classical moments of truth create a subliminal ‘enjoyment and pleasure’, beyond immediate physical gratification of having bought a few things, no matter how good they are, in a transactional exchange activity. That is a measure of True Customer Value Creation.

The various formats available today, are, needless to say, taking care of essentials like space, layout, product range etc. etc., everything that can be bought out, but what is not being taken care of is ‘genuine care and love’ ….. that cannot be bought and the ones that actually come free ….. without which, like with your life partner, continuous life long relationship is not workable ….. you need to say ‘I love you’ to keep that spark alive even after years of togetherness !!

Needless to say, the customer then moves from one hyper store to another mega store. Loyalty (or customer addiction) cannot be bought through loyalty membership programmes as well.

My neighbourhood grocer never had a loyalty card. Loyalty points cannot be a ‘cause’ for customer loyalty. Success of a loyalty card, actually speaking, is an effect of something else, not the cause of customer retention, though you maybe able to hold them from exiting for a while. In terms of causality, I would rather look at a loyalty programme as a genuine ‘thank you’ reward to your long term customers, than a means to ‘bind’ them in.

It is extremely important to ‘addict’ (in a positive sense) your customers, through the experience offered. There are customers who come for various reasons and it will be worth our while to ‘map’ these (even the customer feedback surveys tend to be so inward focused as to not even ask her details of her profile, liking, preferences etc.) and create experiences even appealing to the senses of sight, taste, smell, touch and hearing ….. a holistic approach that needs to be followed for consumers and employees alike.

A gourmet visiting a food and grocery store can be given a surround experience so appealing to his sense and feeling of taste that he cannot help but get addicted. Same as someone who loves books, could spend hour after addictive hour at her favourite book shop, with an environment offering a quiet browsing facility.

This is not very different from the steps you would follow so diligently when on a date ….. to look the best, shave well, dab on the best perfume/after shave, be ever so willing to listen (or have her favourite music in the car) and take her to her favourite restaurant for her favourite cuisine to woo her to spend a life time with you …..

So simple and yet we do it so naturally in our personal lives, but become so rational and rigid in our professions ….. if only we could let the word ‘love’ slip into our business dictionary ….. Just Plain & Simple !!

J.P.Singh and Ravish Malhotra,

Justplainandsimple Consulting Pvt. Ltd.


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JPS Customer Value Academy

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4 thoughts on “Retail’s Forgotten Basics

  1. Nehal (UK)

    “treat your customer the way you would like to be treated” rocket science.

  2. Kannan N

    Excellent content. I would like to share some interaction I had with retailers when I was in Chennai. I lived in Indiranagar near the bhoothnath Mandir. There were a row of shops and almost 30% of them competing with each other. There was an elderly gentleman whose shop for general merchandize was heavily favoured. The reason was obvious, he used to remember at least 30% of our preferences after our first visit and was close to 80% after the second visit. He will start taking out provisions (both brand an quantity) on seeing the person. He will give informed suggestions on offers and will justify or negate, why buying the 200mg talcum is better/worser than buying the 75gm for each of his customers. It is SAD that I miss those personal attention now.

  3. Harsh Vardhan

    Great insight JP. Yes you are absolutely right on the way retailers treat their customers, as always. Not much seems to have changed. Lot of talk on customer experience by every retailer but one doesn’t see much happening on the shop floor. As for great experience I wonder what it takes a cafe like Hard Rock to be so much in tune with their customers. A little imagination and some genuine desire to engage your customer perhaps. I think our Indian retailers are still in the acquisition mode – let’s get more footfalls, the old guys will come back anyway. I don’t think they have realized the leaky bucket syndrome yet. There is enough data that shows that repeats drop off at an alarming rate. Old Kirana knew better. But then Pantaloonjee is no Guptajee, the next door friendly kirana. He has far too many corporate agenda to attend to except his customers. Just wondering when is the retail FDI stuff happening. We do need some serious international retailers here to get our guys moving.

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