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In the age of online shopping, where do IRL salespeople fit in?

Customers want help. They also want to be left alone.

A clerk behind the counter in a bookstore puts a customer’s purchases in a shopping bag.
Today, there are more avenues than ever for shoppers to interact with a brand, either virtually or in person.
Getty Images/Hero Images

The introverts of the world recently rallied around a viral photo on Twitter of a Europe-based Sephora store. The photo was of two shopping basket options: a red basket to convey the customer needs assistance or a black one to show that they’re fine being left alone.

The replies were flooded with shoppers who thought the baskets were an ingenious customer service idea and the solution to awkward encounters with salespeople. “I hope this person is the CEO now,” one Twitter user said. Others tagged companies like Lush Cosmetics and Victoria’s Secret, which they felt had trained employees to be overly gregarious or even intrusive.

Sephora declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokeswoman said the basket initiative is only available in Europe (sorry Americans!).

The idea that there are two distinct types of real-world retail customers — those who do and those who emphatically do not want to interact with salespeople — seems to be heightened by the age of online shopping.

When most things can be bought from home with the push of a button, the reason shoppers bother to come into stores becomes all the more important for brands to understand and accommodate. Retail workers, who are also contending with top-down mandates about greeting customers and the desire to make commission, need to determine if their assistance is unwelcome or expressly desired.

According to JRNI’s 2019 Modern Consumer report, which surveyed 2,000 shoppers from the US and UK, 67 percent of modern shoppers still enjoy the in-store experience. Yet, only 44 percent of customers feel as though a store can satisfactorily explain its products and services; a majority of shoppers prefer online shopping because of access to detailed product information.

The retail world is scrambling to adapt to these changing desires by revamping store models to be more experiential and engaging as mall foot traffic declines. Still, human interaction in brick-and-mortar stores can be shockingly limited, thanks to technology like self-checkout machines and in-store pickup.

The enthusiasm behind Sephora’s basket initiative pinpoints another aspect of traditional retail customers are now shirking: human service, and whether it still meaningfully suits their needs.

“Amazon has changed our world and how we like to shop,” said Annette Franz, the CEO of customer experience consulting firm CX Journey. “Customers expect to grab what they need and check out, so when they’re approached multiple times by a sales rep, it’s uncomfortable for some.”

Of course, not all modern customers are uncomfortable with human interaction. There are more avenues than ever for shoppers to interact with a brand, either virtually or in person. For a brand like Sephora, a percentage of loyal shoppers crave that in-store help.

“It’s not a shopping experience everyone wants, but some people enter a Sephora to get help finding a new foundation or an eyeshadow palette,” Franz said. “Some customers need that nudge. Maybe they were shopping for one item but are open to walking out with four other things.”

Franz believes stores succeed when they can anticipate consumer needs and wants, and in 2019, that sometimes includes wanting to be left alone.

Amy Barrett had tagged Lush Cosmetics in her response to the Sephora basket photo, asking them to consider a solution like this. “Sincerely, a customer with anxiety who uses your products to calm my mind, but can’t shop in store because it’s an accessibility nightmare,” she wrote in a tweet that received more than 1,000 likes.

Barrett, an editorial assistant based in England, told me via Twitter message that retailers should always have in mind accessibility for customers with physical or mental illnesses. “Lots of the replies to my tweet have shown that people with anxiety struggle to go into Lush stores,” she added.

It’s a delicate balance for retailers. “Sales reps should approach customers, but even with experiential stores, there are boundaries they have to recognize,” Franz said. That’s a customer service development tied to stores’ business strategy as they look to better understand modern-day customers.

Nowadays, shoppers prefer intentional interactions, she added, not just sporadic check-ins. (JRNI’s report found that 57 percent of customers would want to schedule appointments with in-store staff if there was an option to do so.)

Some point to Apple as the pioneer of experiential retail, with its uncluttered design and Genius Bar tech experts that even CEO Steve Jobs was originally skeptical of. As Henry Grabar wrote in Slate, the Genius Bar created “this sense that company employees are trying to help you, not sell you something,” placing the “emphasis on empathy and vibes in the service of sales.”

The interior of Glossier’s New York flagship store.
In Glossier’s New York flagship store, salespeople are “editors” equipped with iPads.

This concept is emulated in beauty brand Glossier’s New York flagship store, where sales reps are called “editors” who walk around the “showroom” carrying iPads and offering personal product recommendations. Similarly, customer interaction at women’s clothing store Reformation is limited yet intentional: Guests use in-store iPads to select items and reserve a dressing room.

At Sephora, associates still linger on the floor, introducing shoppers to an array of products that fit their skin type or beauty routine. It’s unclear why Sephora chose to launch this basket initiative in European stores rather than in North America, but it isn’t the first beauty brand to do so.

South Korean beauty brand Innisfree similarly offers a two-basket option in its Korea-based stores. The idea was first implemented by staff in September 2016 in one of its independently owned stores.

“The customers loved the idea, and they were getting the help they needed without explaining their needs,” marketing director Wonny Han wrote to me in an email. “This really boosted up the sales, customer efficiency, and productivity.”

By December of that year, Innisfree decided to formally introduce the baskets to its franchise stores nationwide and saw positive feedback from customers who felt that it was “not pushing sales but respecting customers,” Han added.

It’s much easier, however, for smaller stores like Innisfree to pivot their customer experience strategy. Bigger, traditional chain stores have been hit hardest by the retail apocalypse, with once-successful stores like Sears, Toys R Us, and Barney’s filing for bankruptcy.

“Retailers were only starting to realize these changes within the past five years, working to develop strategies to compete with Amazon and online shopping,” Franz said.

What customers expect from a tech store worker will be different than what they need from a beauty employee, but regardless, their interaction should always be valuable and effective, said Kate Leggett, a principal analyst at Forrester Research who specializes in customer service and relations.

“It’s less about product, especially when you’ve got a lot of products that aren’t very different,” she said. “It’s about engaging a customer to a brand and anticipating, as well as addressing any problems they might have.”

People, even the introverts, haven’t evolved to dislike human contact while shopping. They simply want to make the most of their time and energy, and a badgering sales rep presents quite the opposite experience.

Not all retailers can have a direct-to-consumer brand aesthetic like Glossier or develop a reverent user fanbase like Apple, but Sephora’s basket initiative suggests that maybe stores don’t always have to come up with a wildly innovative idea. The solution for better service could be as simple as giving customers a choice.

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