Better Service for Our Customers
by Matthew Ho

The first tenet of retail is to make it "easy to shop." Matthew Ho has an interesting point of view from the front lines in travel retail. (ed.)

Hello! Dear Colleagues

I have recently read a book about delivering better customer service in retail shops. The book's title is "Why We Buy - The Science of Shopping" written by Paco Underhill. Many ideas the author mentioned in his book are very interesting and are worth our attention. I would like to share what I found applicable at our store with you. I hope you enjoy the points he made.

Shoppers and Human Beings

Everyday we meet shoppers at our store. They are travelling from different countries with different ethnic backgrounds. They step into our store perhaps with different purposes, too. Some are looking for things they want to buy; others are just browsing aimlessly to kill time. However, one thing all shoppers have in common is that they are human beings. You must be laughing now! Of course, they have two eyes, two arms and two legs and they look 100% human when we see them entering our store. Mr. Underhill, however, reminds us of the fact that shoppers (human beings) have certain physical and anatomical abilities, tendencies, limitations and needs that retailers have to understand and respond to. In other words, the basic senses of shoppers determine where they go, what they see and how they respond when they are in our store. As a result, we must be organized and prepared to let shoppers see merchandise and signs clearly, reach objects easily, and walk through our store comfortably.

Ideal Merchandise and Signage Display

Let's begin with the merchandise and signage display that affects how shoppers see and reach things in the store. We know we should put as many items as possible on the shelves. But, how do we know if shoppers can see the things we put on the shelves? Mr. Underhill studied what average shoppers see on the shelves in a supermarket. He found that merchandise displayed from about a human's eye level down to about knee level can be seen clearly by average shoppers. Products on the top and at the bottom of the shelves are most likely missed. In reality, we cannot only display items in the suggested ideal zone since we feature thousands of items in our assortment. Nevertheless, perhaps we should put extra stocks or large items on the top or at the bottom of the shelf and display the rest in the ideal zone so that each item has a chance to be seen by shoppers.

This displaying rule also applies to placing signs throughout our store. Customers will not bother to look high up or bend themselves down to ground level to see what's written on a sign regardless of how delicately the signs are created.

Space on the Cash Register Desk for Shoppers' Comforts

Another point Mr.Underhill makes is for us is to keep the cash register desk as clear as possible. Do not attempt to crowd this area with merchandise. The reason is that shoppers usually have their belongings with them when they shop - handbags, purchases from other stores or from another section at the same store, and cameras for tourists. We should ensure that there is sufficient space for customers to rest their belongs on the desk while they try to find their money from their pockets or bags to pay, or wait for the change. It may sound all too much like common sense for us, but the point here is to ensure customers can shop physically comfortably and leisurely.

Timing for Greeting Customers

In our selling skills manual, we are advised to talk to customers by asking questions or introducing our store. Having a conversation with a customer is a way to let them know that they are being looked after and not being ignored. In fact, the more contact we have with customers, the more likely they will buy things from us. Also, security experts say that the most effective way to discourage shoplifting is to have store staff acknowledge the presence of every shopper by greeting them occasionally. However, the question here is - when do we greet customers?

Mr. Understill suggests that we should delay our action until the shoppers have adjusted themselves from the outside environment to our shop environment. This is what he calls the 'Twilight Zone." If we say " Hello, can I help you?" to the customer at the moment they step in, they most often will reply "No, thanks. Just browsing." The best time to greet a customer is after they have walked into the store, see the shop and begin to touch merchandise. The timing of greeting customers depends on our sound judgement of the situation - not too late, not too early.

Basket Magic in the Store

As mentioned earlier, ensuring that customers can shop comfortably and practically is our main objective. Another point Mr.Underhill suggests is to do the customer a favor - by offering a basket while they shop. Although we are not told to do that, most of us do, perhaps because of our thoughtfulness when we see shoppers holding three or four items in their arms. The practical reason for us to do that however, is to free up the customer's hands so that they can reach out and touch more merchandise. "In retail, the easiest way to make more money is to sell more to your existing customer base." said Mr.Underhill. Offering customers a basket is a useful method to sell more, and to avoid forcing customers to choose between items when their arms are full. We just don't want them to choose, but rather, to put everything they can in our basket. It sounds crafty, but it's meant to make the shopping experience more comfortable and easy.

Customer Sampling and Experiencing Our Merchandise

Shoppers' basic senses begin to work while they shop. We should let the customer touch, smell, and taste our merchandise. Specifically, we can bring a sample of chocolate to a customer who seems interested in the product. We may invite customers to try on our T-shirts when they look unsure of the sizes. Some customers are passive while shopping, so we take an initiative to get their sense involved. Even though they may shop for their friends or relatives, just let them experience the merchandise and have them feel good about it. In three out of five cases, they eventually check out with the products they have experienced.

Customer's Waiting Time at the Till

Our interaction with customers at the till is vital. Needless to say, we should be very attentive and courteous when customers are paying for their purchase. However, the till area is the place where customers summarize their shopping experience with us and often they are in a line up or otherwise waiting. Here, we should try very hard to be prompt and efficient and not keep customers waiting too long - customers usually form their impressions of service in a store from their experience at checkout. In the worst cases, impatient customers just drop their merchandise and leave the shop.

What can we do to make the checkout comfortable and easy, especially when we are very busy? 1) We can acknowledge the shopper is waiting thereby demonstrating respect for their time, and ask for their patience; 2) We can politely advise a customer that the wait will be finite and controlled, for example by saying, " I'll be with you in two minutes"; 3) We can provide for a more interesting brief delay by having interesting signage or material near the till area to let the shopper read while waiting. Signage such as new promotions, company news, product information, or staff profiles seem to work well. The third suggestion is perhaps the best as research shows that people who are kept waiting feel the waiting time is less if they are engaged in reading. (I have to apologize to the person who is responsible for making signage for our store as his/her workload may increase after our manager sees this suggestion.) Ideally, we must show respect for the customer's time and genuinely appreciate the customer's patience. We also must sincerely thank them for their patronage.

Your Feedback and Ideas

Ok, that's all for the writing. Any suggestions? Write them down and drop them into the communication box at our staff room or book an appointment to talk with our manager. (He always likes to chat.) If you are interested in Mr.Underhill's book, you can check it out at the local library or order it from Barnes and Noble through the book cover below. Just remember that we must always try our best to ensure our customers can shop comfortably and pleasantly at our store.

Why We Buy:
The Science of Shopping

by Paco Underhill
Simon & Schuster Trade
April 2000

Matthew Ho was born in Hong Kong and immigrated with his parents to Edmonton, Alberta in 1992. He graduated from the University of Alberta in 2001 with a B.A. in Economics. He has worked for The Nuance Group, a world leader in Travel Retail, since May 2001 in the capacity of sales associate. Matthew joined The Nuance Group for a career in retail, and he chose Banff, Alberta, Canada as a starting place to use his language skills (he speaks Chinese, Japanese and English) and enjoy the international tourist destination. His email address is: .

Thank you Bruce Marpole, Manager of The Spirit of the North in Banff, Alberta, Canada for sharing Matthew's article with us. (ed.)

Many more articles on Customer Service in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Matthew Ho. All rights reserved.

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