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« The Resurgence of the Department Store: Guest Experience | Main | The Resurgence of the Department Store: Product Curation »

The Resurgence of the Department Store: A Culture of Customer Service

McEvoy Ranch at Ferry Building in San Francisco, California. Photo credit: Gensler

Over the past year Kathleen Jordan, a principal in Gensler’s New York office and leader in the firm’s Retail practice, undertook an investigation into the future of the department store. Her premise was simple: for years she’s been hearing and reading about the upcoming death of the department store, but so far it hasn’t happened. To learn more, she spoke with industry leaders, visited successful examples around the world, and read a lot of articles. The result is a set of distinct advantages she sees for department stores in today’s business and retail climate, and a set of bold strategies to regain the competitive advantages these stores once held. This is the third post in a six part blog series that conveys her findings.

To get the guest experience right, a culture where the customer comes first is key. Again, department stores have the advantage – they can use their scale to train staff, share best practices, and deliver service and experiences smaller specialty stores couldn’t dream of.

Get rid of commission

It starts with the staff. To deliver a great experience, you need to get your staff engaged with the success of the company, not with the individual sale. Partner with your employees to promote the success of the company as a whole, and promote a bigger-picture culture that promotes great service and experiences. John Lewis Partnership (JLP) has used its employee-owned structure to its advantage by putting strategy in the hands of its employees. They freely admit that they made some mistakes along the way, but overall they came out ahead by actualizing some daring policies that would have been vetoed if ownership answered to risk-averse shareholders. The result was unexpected strategies that the company embraced, and ultimately realized a dramatic rise in market share.

Ironically, the original goal for creating JLP’s partnership was the happiness of its employees. You don’t hear a lot of talk about happiness anymore, but others who have taken this approach have had similar success.

Employee of Candy Beach Shop on Board of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas. Photo credit: Kathleen Jordan

Invest in Training

Lojas Renner in Brazil established an “Enchantment Policy” as part of their corporate vision. They seek to exceed customer expectations, not just meet them. They invest 150 hours of training per capita per employee for staff training. The associates are the heroes, and collectively they have compiled more than 510 “stories of enchantment”, which chronicle the ways in which they (the associates) have enchanted the customers. The corporate culture mandate is to enchant the employees first, who then enchant the customers, who in turn will enchant the shareholders. Sounds simple enough. Employees are trained to think and act like owners and are rewarded as such.

By virtue of scale, department stores have the budgets and critical mass to invest in employee training and share best-practices between departments and locations. Use that power to invest in your staff, increasing both their ability to do their jobs well and their commitment to the brand culture and values. The floor associates provide the first (and typically, lasting) impression to arriving guests - train them to leverage that opportunity, empower them to create genuine connections, and create trust. Recruit for the attitude – you can train for the rest.

Dylan’s Candy Bar at Store at the Famer’s Market in Los Angeles, California: Photo Credit Irwin Miller

Have the confidence to be selfless

Sometimes, the best product for a customer is in a different department, or even a different store – or maybe they really need something else altogether. Being honest with the customer will pay dividends. Wholesalers in a multi-brand retail environment need to be prepared for the win some/lose some proposition of mobile commerce. The focus must shift to delivering value to the customer. The smart retailers will embrace this and work it to their advantage. Just like the woman who pledged to do all her shopping at Macy’s in A Miracle on 34th Street, customers will appreciate the referral, before they work their mobile device, because it shows the retailer puts the customer’s needs above their own. I’d even bet 10-to-1 that they’d end up buying it there because they felt good spending their money with that kind of culture. It seems that Target agrees with me, as they just announced that they will now enable customers to do price comparisons with Walmart right on their own website.

What If?

Ultimately, your brand culture drives both customer perception and the customer journey. This is reinforced, or not, through direct customer interaction with your sales associates. Make your culture a story to celebrate and one that every employee wants to tell – and then teach them how to tell it well. And make your spaces express a culture that always puts the customer first.

In summary, to take the first step, consider turning your “standard recipe” on its head. Make the fitting room experience oversized and more pleasant if you typically don’t. Integrate the online experience up front, allowing for in-store pick-up and returns. All these low-hanging fruit ideas are currently being adopted by the best in class retailers. Consider new layouts and amenities that make excellent customer service easy that also are among the first thing your customer sees, rather than cosmetic showcases or a sea of shoes.

Kathleen Jordan
Kathleen Jordan is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of our retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Kathleen has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.

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