Retailers: Customers Don’t Want a Relationship with You, They Want Relevance

10.08.12 / David Lemley

Retailers: focused on building relationships with the customer.

Customers: focused on relevance.

No amount of discounting, promotional activity, sweetening incentives in loyalty programs and streamlining the purchasing experience will cajole the customer into a relationship with a retail brand that isn’t relevant to them. Aren’t retailers working these angles with varying degrees of success these days? It’s obvious that customers are wary—and weary—of all the hype out there.

No retailer can buy friendship (please “like” my brand on Facebook and open a credit card account with me for advance notice of special sales, blah-blah-blah) or good will. Relationships are a two-way street. They’re built on core values and fundamentals that lead to trust. If a retailer’s core values don’t have meaning or heaven forbid!–ring hollow because they don’t deliver on their promises; or if those values don’t align with the customer’s, that retailer is not going to succeed. So let’s forget trying to cultivate relationships and instead focus on what needs to be done so that relationships will naturally happen.

Core values lived up to by every employee every day and in every customer interaction deliver on the brand promise. Now that’s relevant. Demonstrating respect for the customer and doing business ethically matters as much as it ever did. Actually: scratch that. It matters more than it ever did since there’s a routine breach of trust these days. Honesty, authenticity, transparency coupled with great service and empathy make customers sit up and take notice: these things, unlike a sea of merchandise, are in short supply. Add to this a constant effort to make the shopping experience responsive to trends and relevant to the way they want to shop and the customer will be positively giddy.

That is the power of relevance.

The beauty of achieving it is that it renders every competitor and comer irrelevant. Think about that for a moment. When customers are given a reason to believe—to enjoy shopping experiences with a specific retailer based on shared values and trust, there is no need or desire to shop elsewhere. Relevance leads to brand adoption: this retailer is an integral part of the customer’s life, what it offers is important and it occupies a space in the heart and mind that no other brand can dislodge and occupy. This retailer has been chosen due to compatibility and isn’t that the basis of all beautiful relationships?

So much for euphoria.

Now down to work. Research uncovers a great deal about the customer, their perceptions and what they find relevant. Finding out what matters most to customers, helps retailers to reposition if necessary or to reconfirm the core values that lead to trust. Then, they can tweak assortments and merchandise in a more meaningful way and streamline policies and procedures to improve shopping efficiencies. By catering to the way in which customers shop, by delighting them and surprising them with the unexpected, by curating assortments for a more local flavor, by appealing to the senses in a delicious way (ooh—let me count the ways): the retail experience can be elevated into a real treat rather than a same-old, like-every-other-retailer approach.

Too many retailers are developing strategies and tactics that have nothing to do with customer expectations. Corporate dictates and accounting-driven rather than customer-driven trends and merchant-based initiatives based directly on customer responses are the prevalent way of doing business and retailers wonder why they’re losing relevance? So, please, let the accountants and finance people do what they do best and let the C-suite involve buyers, visual merchandisers and employees from the sales floor to the back office focus on instilling and representing clear values consumers are aching for.

Don’ts and then Dos.

Caveat: please don’t imitate another retail operation. Rather than emulating the most successful retailer in the space (remember: there is only one Starbucks and no other coffee shop can steal the mindshare they own) it’s important to carve out a unique niche. Too many retailers are copying rather than being themselves. What clear value do they offer to consumers? Hmmmm, we can’t answer that question, either.

Too many retailers worry about the competition rather than addressing their own shortcomings and stumbling blocks to becoming relevant. Why not “do it right” and make competitors worry instead?

Too many worry about the loss of business to online e-tailers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, while significant and growing, online sales account for 8% of total retail sales in this country. While customers love the ease of shopping online, brick and mortar retailers are the ones keeping customers away—not the Internet.

That’s a shame. Customers would want to shop in retail stores more often and spend more of their money on purchases in physical environments if they were able to feel confident that the brand promise is consistently delivered on. That their values are mutually shared. That their trust will not be violated, for any reason, ever. That their needs and wants as customers will always be anticipated and catered to.

Dynamic environments filled with wonderfully curated and merchandised selections surprise and delight customers and literally fill all five of their senses making them eager for more. Retail can and should be a theater-like experience. Customers like to look at, touch and feel, try on and enjoy the atmosphere. They like to share it with friends. Enjoying the shopping experience: now that’s relevant!

In the end, the relevant retailer fulfills a yearning customers have. It gives them a sense of belonging as they share their favorite brand with other devotees. No other retailer matters. Impossible dream? No. Every retailer has the potential to achieve the ultimate relevance for their customers from start-ups, to emerging and mature operations.

All it takes is commitment, determination and a little hard work. Retailers need to ask themselves if they want to muddle along in the middle of the pack, irrelevant and in a slow decline or rise to superstardom? Question is: will they rise to this challenge?

I’ve thrown the gauntlet. Who will pick it up?

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