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To discuss why the retail customer experience matters, even when your customers are locked into buying from you, we need to back up a step or two: When you’re a retailer, there are two possible commercial relationships you can have with your customers.

Scenario 1: Your customer has no actual need to buy what you’re selling (although she may buy it anyway). Scenario 1 is your retail reality when you’re selling:

  • An item that, although perhaps lovely or delicious, is intrinsically unnecessary: a trinket or a chocolate bar, for example.
  • An item that your customer could buy any time: There’s no urgent reason to buy it from you, right now (a new pair of shoes when the last pair is still perfectly fine).
  • An item that your customer can get just as easily online (and perhaps with a wider selection to choose from, a more hassle-free returns procedure, and possibly an unfair tax advantage).

Scenario 2: Your customer more or less has to buy what you’re selling. Scenario 2 is your situation when you’re selling:

  • An item that’s become an emergency due to timing: supplies from Staples for something the customer needs to complete tonight (homework or a bound report), supplies from Michaels Arts & Crafts for a project the customer’s community group is expecting to work on that afternoon.
  • An item the customer truly needs, and can only, realistically speaking, get from you: For example, you’re the pharmacy the customer’s doctor called the prescription in to.

In retail scenario 1, the customer experience is the entire point of, and the entire hope for, your enterprise. If your customer doesn’t have a fabulous, pleasing-to-the-senses-and-psyche experience, she’s not coming back to your store. (Or, even more likely these days, when socially generated content predisposes customers to act or not act, she won’t even show up the first time). I think the value of the retail customer experience here is obvious: This is the classic "a man without a smile shouldn’t become a merchant" scenario. 

In retail scenario 2, the scenario where your customer has to buy from you, the experience isn’t, commercially speaking, everything, (and for this reason, it is often neglected): Your customer has to pick up her prescription whether you’re nice to her or not.

So, be happy for whatever successful moves have landed you in a situation where the customer is required to buy your product (picking the right corner to locate your pharmacy, for example).

But don’t stop there. Because a captive customer can quickly become a rebellious customer. Instead of resting on your commercial laurels, consider your customer’s need, her captive-customer status, as your retail jumping-off place. The  opportunity here comes in your ability to transform the situation from a must-have to a want-to-have. For example, to continue with the pharmacy example: What if my nearest chain drugstore weren’t an evil-smelling dump with couldn’t-care-less employees everywhere from the front counter to the window dressers? If they had caring, motivated employees, a clean parking lot, and intuitively stocked shelves, they could turn this necessary shopping evil into a shopping opportunity for the customer, and therefore an increased share of basket opportunity for the merchant.

Umpqua Bank, one of the great customer-focused banks, uses this theory of turning branch banking from necessary evil to desired experience. And by doing so, they outshine their competition.

In an interview I did recently with Umpqua Regional VP Michele Livingston, she explained how Umpqua strives to turn a typically blah errand into something their customers want to do. Umpqua does this by making their branches hip: uniquely designed, with WiFi, free coffee and of course, extraordinarily customer-focused employees.

Note that the hassle of changing a bank account is significant. Most of a bank’s customers aren’t going to jump ship on any given day, no matter how shabbily they might be treated. But superior service and a superior customer experience, Umpqua finds, results not just in happier customers, but in better financial results for the bank, due to the useful additional services the bank is able to assist their customers with. The more the customers enjoy the experience, the more natural it is for them to converse with bank employees about consolidating their IRAs, doing estate planning, etc.

Even with more or less locked in customers, a little retail love goes a long way.

Come meet Micah and our other great retail educators at this year's Retail Customer Experience Executive Summit! Registration is now open.

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