retail trends: what does personal customer service mean today?

by: Sarah Kneebone

Personalisation is everywhere in retail today.
The pressure is on for retailers to operate with a multi-faceted 'omni-channel mix' of different online and in-store approaches to enhance the customer's experience.
However, as digital personalisation grows at scale, are we forgetting to be personal on a human level in-store?

Up close and personal.

Nowadays, especially in the online space, we often feel like even the big brands know us well. We get served ads based on what we've searched for (or even talked about - Facebook is 100% listening to my conversations!), tailored marketing emails, recommendations for purchases based on our buying behaviour. The list goes on.

Today, it's relatively easy for online retailers to personalise the customer experience by using data from purchasing history and browsing behaviour, but what about within the walls of their physical storefronts? 


But what about in-store?

Bricks and mortar stores traditionally haven't been able to get as close to their customers as those who have an e-commerce presence (and even if your business does operate online, are you able to create a truly personal feel in-store?).

Back in the 'good old days', shoppers had their regular, local fruit and veg store, butcher, shoe shop and chemist. This was an inherently personal experience.

Now, people often opt for mega stores or choose to shop around. However, they still expect to feel understood; to be delivered relevance and to have warm, fuzzy experiences in-store. This is a key challenge for big brands operating at scale today.

"According to a recent report from Accenture, 75% of consumers are more likely to buy from a retailer that recognises them by name, recommends options based on past purchases or knows their preferences."

(Marketing Tech News)

Technology has a huge part to play in creating personal experiences in-store, whether that be in delivering real-time, customised offers at point of sale, or arming sales associates with mobile devices in order to look up shoppers' preferences. However, we can't completely replace humans with screens (let's not even go there with robot wives!).

retailer customer service

The retailer reality.

Apple commits to delivering this kind of human experience. The physical presence of their 'Genius Bar' and sales team has actually become one of their biggest selling points. Sephora keeps it personal by offering individual skin-care and makeup consultations in-store for those who need some help in choosing which products are right for them.

However, many retailers are falling behind customers' expectations. Salesforce recently reported: 

On the other hand, many of us can also relate to the over-zealous shoe store assistant when all we want is to secretly sniff the leather on a Manolo Blahnik (no? Just me?). In a supermarket, how many of us now choose to avoid human contact entirely by using the self-service checkout? Do you love it when the barista remembers your coffee order, or does it freak you out?

Personal customer service

What is the answer?

Ultimately, personal service can mean different things to different people, in different contexts.

Perhaps the answer to creating a great personal experience comes down to designing and tailoring it with relevance for your particular business, industry and customer base.

By integrating cutting edge technology with the irreplaceable authentic human interaction brands are much better placed to succeed.

"Don’t undervalue the importance of in-store sales associates. As self-checkout becomes more prevalent (and it will), let’s take those associates and put them to good use elsewhere in the store. The key is to determine where they can be of most help to shoppers and, as a result, can drive sales and profits for retailers."


Retailer giving customer service

Real shoppers told us.

We took this topic to our community of Aussies and New Zealanders in the context of chemists (we're not just food and drink/supermarket obsessed here at PLAY!), and this is what we found: 
  • Most of those surveyed say they feel ambivalent towards being approached by staff in chemists.

  • Those that DO like being approached by staff feel that the business and the individual genuinely care. Those that DON'T like being approached by staff feel awkward when it happens.

  • Three quarters have asked for recommendations from a chemist or pharmacy in the past.

  • For the most part, people are looking for staff to be polite and friendly as well as admitting when they don’t know something (for example where a product is or what it does).

  • People like to browse by themselves rather than being pestered unless they’re specifically looking for help. One of our community members stated: I like to look around and make my own decisions. If I need help I will always ask.”

  • A bad interaction is generally described as when a staff member is 'rude'.

  • Being nice, it turns out, is more of a priority than being knowledgeable. It’s best for staff to say when they don’t know something (much like when you give directions - best to say that you aren’t sure, rather than sending someone on a wild goose chase!)

Interestingly, not many people said that they simply want to avoid human interaction (just me then?!). Maybe I'd fit in better at the store featured in the picture below...

Different types of shoppers in retail.

Survey takeouts for manufacturers and retailers.

  • Pack information is your friend. It needs to clearly present the key information in order to help both the shopper and staff members. Remember, not all retailers have the rigorous training in place that is generally carried out in phone shops or technology stores, for example.

  • Sign post exactly who your product is for. Make your ideal customer clear in the messaging, so that the right people can identify your product on a crowded shelf.

  • When you think about creating a fantastic customer experience, remember that being human is more important than knowing it all! Whilst technology helps to increase personalisation in many ways, the old-fashioned art of being PERSONAL shouldn't be forgotten.


"As retailers become increasingly global, they mustn’t forget they’re selling to a diverse range of people that are seeking contextual, local, personalised experiences. Retailers must ramp up their efforts to provide such contextual, personalised shopping experiences. That way, they can truly connect with their customers and target their offerings more efficiently."

(Digital Pulse PWC)

Retail trends, a happy shopper

Over to you. 

Interested to learn more about retail trends (from automation to customer service)? Get in touch for a and request a copy of our 2020 Retail Technology Trends presentation by calling 02 8097 0200 or email any time.


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about the author

Sarah Kneebone

Sarah is PLAY’s go-to content writer with a passion for marrying creativity and communication with clever strategy. A former marketer with PLAY and for international brands such as QBE Insurance and General Motors, Sarah moved home to the UK to raise her little family and start a health coaching business. Luckily for us, she continues to share her talent for the written word with the team in Australia.

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