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  • Jennifer Marks

People Who Need People

I saw something amazing during a recent visit to the Bed Bath & Beyond flagship store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood: store associates helping customers.

In three areas of the store (housewares, utility bedding and window), I saw a store employee walk a customer over to product and explain to them what they were looking at. And this was done without reading off of the packaging — a practice that in this era of self-service has come to represent customer assistance.

I’m not sure if it was a fluke, a new policy or a matter of people at that store being particularly well trained. It was certainly refreshing — and the fact that it was noteworthy is a rather sad commentary on the state of big-box retailing.

The retail industry and the plethora of firms that service it have developed all manner of tools to maximize efficiencies, measure return on investment, streamline this and optimize that. I would argue that the most under-utilized element in the store is the sales associate. In most big boxes, the term itself is a misnomer. Unless they are pinned down at checkout or customer service, most “sales” associates appear to serve as stock clerks. Yes, they are trained in the 10-foot rule (“Hello!) and may issue a “You finding everything you need?” as they rush on to straighten out the boxes on an endcap.

What the vast majority of them are not doing is selling anything.

They can — and should — be used for their original purpose, driving sales. Fred’s has apparently cottoned on to the idea. As part of its floor reconfiguration to drive customers into new “convenience centers” clustered around home categories, Fred’s plans to distribute one million circulars per week to customers while they are in the store. How? By turning greeters into sales drivers. The associate will personally hand a circular to the customer, point out key promotional items and direct them to the relevant area of the store. Company ceo Bruce Efird calls it “the secret sauce” behind the strategy.

If you really want a tutorial in how this kind of thing is properly done, visit an Anna’s Linens store. When a customer walks through the door, she is greeted with: “Welcome to Anna’s. What room can I help you decorate today?” Now, that shopper probably set out with just one or two items in mind, but Anna’s sales staff — and they truly live up to the name — plant the idea that the visit isn’t just about picking up a couple of things but fulfilling a décor vision.

There ought to be more of this kind of thing. And it’s particularly important in today’s omnichannel environment. If the customer has to refer to your website to discover which attributes distinguish a particular product, somebody’s falling down on the job.

Most importantly, there is the good old-fashioned matter of the human touch. As the recently departed teacher and writer Maya Angelou famously said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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