Sometimes, Self-Service Is All the Interaction Needed
Remember the Looney Tunes cartoon with Pepe Le Pew and the little black cat? Poor Pepe struggles with an inability to pick up on the cues that his beloved really just doesn’t want to be bothered. She prefers to remain alone, solo, all by herself — you get the picture. To go about her business as she pleases.
Much has been made of retailers wanting to free associates from the cash wrap to interact with customers. The theory is that by creating a relationship between associates and shoppers, sales will increase. However, there is evidence that, in fact, in various circumstances just the opposite can occur.
A study last year by the Coleman Fung Institute at the University of California, Berkley, considered two situations. In the first, liquor stores in Sweden converted from full-service to self service format. Researchers found that not only did those stores offer a wider variety of products in the aftermath of the switch, but also that sales rose, particularly of products with difficult-to-pronounce names:
“Products with difficult-to-pronounce names might experience such a sales increase because consumers may fear being misunderstood or appearing unsophisticated if they mispronounce a name when ordering from a sales clerk; once a store introduces a self-service format and eliminates the need to pronounce a name, consumers may become more comfortable pursuing an otherwise mildly embarrassing or frustrating transaction.”
In other words, having sales staff on hand, being personable and forming relationships with customers might, in some cases, have a detrimental impact on sales, as the customer does not want to appear ignorant. That suggestion is supported by the revenue figures: The market share of products with difficult-to-pronounce names increased 8.4% in stores that switched to self-service.
The second environment studied was that of a pizzeria that had just added Web-based ordering to its phone and counter-service offerings. The researchers found in this case that customers’ purchases of more complex items increased, and orders of higher calorie foods also rose:
“The increase in high calorie items might be driven by a desire to avoid negative social judgment of their eating habits, while the increase in the complexity might be driven by a desire to avoid negative social judgment by appearing difficult or unconventional.”
The average order was found to be 14% more complicated, and have, in general, 3% more calories.
Overall, the researchers come to a conclusion that psychologists have recognized for a long time: People avoid social interactions that they perceive to be uncomfortable. While the online pizza orderers may have wanted to exercise more control over accuracy, the report’s authors found that to be a contributing, but not sole, factor in the increase of more complex (and caloric) selections. Rather, individuals change their behavior to put forth a positive image, often to avoid being embarrassed.
For retailers, “forcing” a relationship on those who are uninterested may have the same negative consequences as not engaging a more social customer. So, the next time you push your associates to interact with customers, consider the potential repercussions. While improved interaction provides plenty of benefits, don’t be blind to the potential negative effects. Don’t confuse improved with increased.
All of which underscore the importance of knowing your customer really, really well. Because if you’ve got a little black cat as a customer, the last thing you want to be is an over-attentive skunk.