Retail isn’t rocket science, but …

While retail isn’t rocket science, it requires its own kind of very smart, even brilliant, people … those who can analyze situations that are gray, rather than black and white, and involve complex people relationships.

Fifty-three years ago, I had my first summer job as a stockboy at Macy’s. That was when Macy’s was just a New York store and not a national brand. Like the rest of you, I think and hope I have advanced in the field and accumulated enough retailing stories to fill a book.

What I hope makes these stories worth retelling over the next few months are the lessons they provide about competing and serving the customer well in our dynamic world called retailing. The stories experienced, lessons learned and fundamental truths seem even more relevant and important today in our world of fierce competition.

More Than Gas
Whenever possible, I support local businesses, especially in my neighborhood. One morning about five years ago, I was very low on gas shortly after leaving home. I headed into the nearby gas station and was going to pay at the pump with a credit card.

Much to my chagrin, I had forgotten to take my credit cards and could count only about $7 in cash. So as not to be left completely penniless, I put in $6 of gas and went inside to pay.

The station owner looked at me strangely and asked me why I put in so little gas. I told him the truth and he replied something like this: “ I know who you are, and you are in here often…put in as much gas as you want and pay me the next time you come by.”

I did and I did, and have now made it a rule to fill up there whenever I can. I even buy from his convenience store inside and am willing to pay somewhat higher prices for both the gas and other products.

I filled up with more than gas that day. I filled up with a good feeling inside instead of feeling foolish. This feeling propelled me into being a loyal customer.

The Timeless Lesson: Low price is forgotten long before the way a customer is made to feel. Stores, especially small independent ones, should make delighting the customer a major part of their competitive strategy.

The lesson is hardly new. It would be scary if it were viewed as revolutionary. But are we taking it seriously and do we need to be reminded about it in a time when we are suffering from endless and unprofitable price competition?

Delighting our customers leads to emotional connections and customer loyalty. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about price, but it does mean we don’t have to worry about it so much and as the only thing customers want.

Strategic Approach
A strategic approach for delighting customers should encompass the following:

  • Start by hiring people who like people and who do not have to be trained or reminded to be nice to customers. Nordstrom’s has long followed the practice of hiring for attitude and training for skill.
  • Make a list of nice things you can do for customers that will help create emotional connections. Be sure to include your staff in making this list, and make sure they understand your goal and feel part of achieving it.
  • Be generous as well as reasonable in deciding what you will do to delight customers. If it breaks a store to give a customer a flower on Valentine’s Day or a free cup of coffee on a blistering cold morning, then the store has deeper problems this column can’t address.
  • Be really “daring” and ask customers what else your store can do for them.
  • Make sure that you, as management, are a role model for how other staff should treat customers.
  • Tell customers how you are going to delight them, such as putting up a sign announcing free full service for senior citizens at a gas station.

Maybe it is not enough to shout it out to customers that your store is there to delight them. Then again, it may now be so rare that they say “Wow!” and return again and again.

Steve Flaster is a retailer, adjunct professor of advertising and marketing at Michigan State University, speaker and consultant. You can reach him via email.