Alex’s blog: where has the customer experience gone?

6 min read
September 03, 2020

Much has been written about the difference between shopping online and in store, with the benefits of being in store heavily trading on the personal experience you receive and often the ability to see, feel and, sometimes even, smell your purchase. So, a few weeks ago I took a deep breath to try out the ‘shopping experience’ post lockdown. 

I wish I hadn’t. I came away from the whole ‘experience’ feeling stressed, dejected and wondering why I had bothered as I had what can only be described as a miserable experience. Naturally I wondered if it was just me, so I dove into our data to see whether my experience was typical and it’s clear looking at complaints we’ve received here at Resolver that I’m far from alone. 

As I write this, complaints to shops had topped 18,000 since June – when they were in the main allowed to reopen. That’s 18,000 individual stories largely relating to customer service and product issues. I wonder if this should be taken as a salutary warning by high street retailers that while us consumers are being encouraged to ‘shop and spend;’ to help our economy and to keep our well-loved shops in survival mode, so much more has to be done to rethink and redesign the ‘new normal’ shopping experience.

Safety first?

My first observations on the beginnings of my shopping ‘expedition’ – and it did turn out to be one – were that very few of my fellow consumers were sticking to the one-way system in the shopping centre. I found myself surrounded by people simply ignoring the ‘safety’ measures in place – and no one there to enforce – or even ask – them to stick to the rules. 

This is interesting when you consider the complaints we’re receiving about shopping in-store, or in larger malls and centres. We highlighted in July that complaints about face masks were increasing at a rate of knots – and specifically for shops, this remains the case, with around 500 last month alone – the highest month so far.

Meanwhile, complaints about social distancing in shops – or rather a lack of it – appear to have tempered since the days of early lockdown, when those still-open essential shops were perhaps struggling to get to grips with rules enforced on them almost immediately. But given what we know now, it still strikes me that with around 1,900 complaints to shops referencing social distancing since June, the lack of compliance remains a concern.

Where’s the customer experience gone?

My first attempt to get inside a shop was at an Apple store. I was met with two elaborate queues outside, manned by what at best can be described as domineering staff members demanding an answer from everyone as to what they wanted. And while this may be entirely practical, doesn’t this go against everything the Apple experience stands for? The ‘browsing experience’ is gone and you can now only enter the store when you have stated a specific need and accompanied by a staff member. 

Next stop, John Lewis. An entirely different experience where while the door was still manned the staff were pleasant, and entering was far less hassle. The problems with the experience were encountered once inside. Finding a staff member in the electrical department was like a game of hide and seek and forget the British staple of a queue, it was a case of every person for themselves. 

When I eventually got served I was met with an unknowledgeable staff member, who really did nothing for me apart from to open a locked cabinet. I got what I wanted, but it left me wondering how John Lewis – so celebrated for service – could be this poor? But also fearing for retail in general, as this was a poor experience on a very quiet day, what happens as demand increases? 

Delving into the stats customer service in shops contributed to almost a third of the 18,000 complaints since June in its own right. When more than 5,000 of them were specifically incited by customer service issues you can’t help but feel that the customer’s walk-in shopping experience is simply not up to scratch.

An excuse to focus on sales over service?

I hate to say it but one thing I disliked most about my day at the shops was just how transactional it was. With the experience being less than desirable it really made me then hone in on the price of the product, in a way I perhaps wouldn’t have, if the experience had been better. 

Firstly, Apple decided that my request to buy one earphone, not the standard two, was a ‘service’ issue not a buying one. Curious. Even more curious when you considered there was no queue to ‘buy’ but there was over an hour wait for the service queue, sound familiar? Obviously, no one could tell me if the item was even in stock before I committed to wasting more than an hour of my life simply to find out. If I’d gone online I’d have this worked out in seconds, so I’m left wondering why staff couldn’t check that query in a matter of moments?

I didn’t have an hour, and needed to buy the item there and then, so I grudgingly agreed to join the shorter ‘buying’ queue. Once I was ‘cleared’ to be served, I was told the price of the item I wanted is more than I’d seen elsewhere but could be price matched. After another wait, that offer turned out to be false and I was left with choosing to pay more after fighting to get there in the first place (the cynical part of me feels they were hoping this would be the result) or leave wondering why I’d bothered. I left.

Are retailers being innovative enough?

There was one area I wanted to visit in a store, and that was the beauty counter. Typically, it is probably one of the main reasons I would choose to go into a store every time over shopping online, the ability to try on that new shade or smell the latest perfume cannot be matched. It’s particularly important from a consumer rights perspective because you’re not automatically entitled to a refund (as you are with shopping online), unless the item is broken or develops a fault. So it’s fair to say that the shopper is left to take the ‘risk’ to buy. 

I was keen to see how John Lewis had decided to tackle this knowing that restrictions now exist. Sadly it would appear that it hadn’t. The layout of the store was the same, there were no staff or information posters suggesting any innovative ways you could still try before you buy in a Covid-safe way. 

Now, maybe I’m being unfair and it is early days, but bricks and mortar retail must innovate if it is to compete. Add to that the 6,000 plus complaint to Resolver about product issues and I’d say people really need to be able to try before they buy. 

My takeaways

The ‘hassles’ of shopping in-store right now are perhaps the tip of the iceberg compared to the problems, and situations, that millions of people have found themselves in during this uncertain year. But given that we’re being encouraged to ‘shop and spend’ to keep some sense of normality, there seems to be little thought of the consumer position.

The in-store shopping experience needs much more consideration for the consumer experience if there is a hope that we can genuinely return to even a new normal. I understand that retailers are struggling to get to grips with all the new rules but they need to quickly move on from a compliance focus to how to re-invent the in-store experience otherwise I really do worry for their future. 

Even if some of what we enjoyed before can’t necessarily come back for the foreseeable, the fundamentals of safety, customer service and fair pricing should be with us as ‘standard’ as both consumers and staff navigate the trickier issues of limits to how many can shop, and what we can shop for safely. 

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