Retail technology has convenience going for it, but when was the last time a merchant did something unselfish for you? Like shelter you from the rain, or shield you from potholes?
At a time when shoppers may be more likely to encounter potholes than service employees, more retailers are offering customer value in wholly abstract ways. Take Domino’s Pizza, which in an effort to ensure smooth delivery, is filling potholes in its “Paving for Pizza” campaign. It’s one of several examples of retailers redefining the shopper experience.
They need to. The escalation of technology-enabled self-service in retail is diminishing opportunities for shoppers to personally interact with retail employees, and that is beginning to change what shoppers value in their experience. Forrester recently predicted that retailers will reserve employee engagement for more complex situations that require “diagnosis and empathy.”
All of which suggests we reconsider what customers really expect from service. Instead of the old go-to of value-added, which just raises shopper expectations for more unrequested “stuff,” some retailers are considering empathy-added services. The premise is that some of the most memorable experiences are based on acts of kindness and generosity, not necessarily something of financial value.
Chip Bell, the author whose best-selling books include Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles, describes it as value-unique service—an out-of-the-ordinary gesture or sensory experience that instills in the shopper an “appropriate but unexpected positive memory.” Often, he said, employees are behind these moments.
“When service people are asked to give more, they think, ‘I’m already doing the best I can,’ ” Bell wrote in an email. “But if asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies. And when employees get to create, not just perform, they feel prized.”
In return, he said, shoppers are richly stirred.
Three Unique Needs
Stirring up a shopper’s emotional loyalty takes creativity, but it doesn’t have to be overthought. The Domino’s campaign is pretty straightforward. Potholes are a nuisance to drivers. Pizzas are delivered by cars. Smooth roads make for happier Domino’s customers.
All of these concepts align with the three characteristics required to create value-unique services, Bell said:
- It has to be unexpected. Mints are standard, but sweepstakes are inspired. At the Hotel Monaco in Chicago, guests will find a range of surprise treats on their pillows, from Pixy Stix candies to lottery tickets.
- It has to be simple. This means knowing what the shopper values. A good example is taking care of a task that is difficult for the customer but easy for the sales team, such as programming the radio stations in a customer’s new car based on the trade-in.
- It has to fit with the brand. However, retailers shouldn’t assume price or product determines need. Atlanta-based Miller Brothers may be an upscale men’s clothing store, but its owners recognized many of its best customers bring kids and grandkids, Bell said. They placed a gumball machine at the store entrance with a bowl of pennies, and all generations are happy.
Need An Umbrella — Or A Purrrfect Shopping Companion?
Bell shared other examples. At the First Watch Restaurant in Overland Park, Kansas, the manager bought a bunch of umbrellas for customers faced with unexpected rain. He attached his business card to each umbrella and placed them at the front door alongside a sign that read: “If you need an umbrella, please take one. If you bring it back, we’ll give you a free cup of coffee.” Almost every borrowed umbrella was returned.
Value-unique service does not require a big investment, however, as long as it’s unexpected, simple and fitting. At Nicholson-Hardie, a nursery and garden center in Dallas, two large calico cats, known by their business cards as The Rat Pack, can be found lounging about, Bell said. Some merchants, such as Dep’s Fine Wine and Spirits in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, and Oconee Cellar in Greensboro, Georgia, have invited customers to taste and rank specially blended spirits. The highest-ranking were sold exclusively at their stores and numbered, and the co-creators sometimes got first dibs at purchase.
Then there’s the cost-intensive effort by Domino’s Pizza, which is collaborating with municipalities to help repair roads that affect its customers (so far, it’s working in Bartonville, Texas; Milford, Delaware; Athens, Georgia; and Burbank, California). Shoppers who want their roads paved and their pizzas intact can enter their zip code for consideration at pavingforpizza.com.
Domino’s customers no longer have to deal with employees when ordering, but they can if they want, simply by phoning in their orders. Regardless, Domino’s and the other merchants, by volunteering to help their customers out in unrequested and therefore unexpected ways, are elevating what they represent in their customers’ lives.
That fills a pretty big hole.