No shoes, no service, no sale

The tech-savvy generation and their time-pressured parents are rapidly adapting (and perhaps outpacing) retailers with their need for a frictionless customer experience. Customers are demanding a shopping experience that is intuitively seamless, fast, authentic and personalized. It's true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression—and the proof is that customers are flocking to one brand while breaking up with the retailer who can't deliver on expectations. So how do retailers address these increasing customer demands? I went shoe shopping for a healthy dose of eye-opening perspective.

My shopping trip was well before March Madness®. It was pre-basketball and back-to-school season—September Madness. My three boys, with their ever-growing feet, needed new basketball shoes. Because size was important, we decided to make a trip to the mall to ensure we had a convenient selection of size, color and style (or so I thought). My three sons are 11, 10 and 9 years old (and yes, I know, my wife is a saint!).

The boys had done their investigative homework online—comparing prices, color options and which shoes their favorite athlete endorses. Once I had their wish lists in hand, "Mr. Retail" kicked in. (That’s what my wife affectionately calls me when I insult her retail intelligence.) Once I mapped our course to conquer our shoe mission, the boys loaded into the minivan.

As we made our 10-mile journey to the mall, we waited in traffic, waited for an open parking space, dodged in and out of crowds of people and, an hour later, we made it to the store. But I didn't know that the hardest part was still ahead of me. The store was packed with people waiting to be serviced by an obvious disproportionate number of sales associates for the number of customers. The atmosphere was frenzied, so the boys played on their smart phone while my wife and I tried to find what resembled a line or some type of order.

Forty-five minutes later, it was our turn. We were ready, even armed with online research. The exhausted sales associate (the store had been open for two hours) asked us what shoes we wanted and I proudly handed him the printed pages as if to say, I’m a professional retailer. He seemed impressed at first, but he quickly handed them back to me and said they didn’t have any of the shoes. "How can this be?" I asked.

It turns out that two shoes were released that morning, and the third was only available at their flagship store. Great, who picked the non-flagship store? Oh, that was Mr. Retail, my wife reminded me. The associate moved on to another customer without offering to order them online, check another store or at least tell us when they were expecting the next shipment.

Frustrated, my oldest son said, "I told you we should have just ordered them online, they always have sizes available and it’s easier." My wife and I let out a long sigh. We were half crazed by spending three hours to get nowhere and didn’t have the time or patience to hunt down three pairs of shoes. But it did get better—eye opening actually. We noticed our boys huddled together taking action into their own hands. Who could blame them? Their dreams of being NBA superstars had just been crushed by a lousy shopping experience.

However, to my surprise, they weren’t crushed at all. They were tech-savvy consumers who were working around the friction that comes from a disconnected shopping experience to get what they wanted. The only thing left was method of payment, and they had that figured out too—a few passwords here and there and two of the shoes were being shipped next day and it was free!

My youngest son (perhaps the most disappointed of them all because his shoes were at the flagship store) found the exact shoe down the hall at another shoe store. He looked them up online, called the store and had them placed on hold. Not bad for a 9 year old. Together, they spent less than 10 minutes buying their shoes from three different retailers.

One thing was for sure. The store we were standing in didn’t sell us a single pair. All three were bought from their competitors. What took three hours only took my boys 10 minutes to locate the shoes, have them shipped next day and buy a pair on our way out of the mall. As we left the store, my middle son, in his usual sarcastic tone said, “No shoes, no service, no sale.” He couldn’t have been more accurate.

As a retailer, I cringed, knowing the future is now. Our shopping experience might have been acceptable five years ago, but not today. Ultimately, based on their experience, my boys voted this retailer off their list of stores they would go to for shoes. They’ve become loyal to another retailer that carries the same brands and selection without the friction. In fact, when we signed up for their loyalty card, each of my sons gave their email address. Now they receive personalized emails and updates on NBA basketball news, shoes and the latest athletic gear. What young boy wouldn’t love that?

Retailers need to plan and prioritize to bring alignment to their entire organization with a long-term and mindful strategy. Technology infrastructure isn’t cheap, and changing employees' mindsets is difficult to implement. Retailers need an awaking within their various channels. The competition isn’t within the organization, it’s outside among their competitors.

To avoid delivering experiences like our shoe shopping misadventure, retailers have to align product assortment, systems, marketing and messaging to be consistent across all channels. Sales plans and employee incentives should be based on the success of all channels combined to further ensure employee’s that it’s one ecosystem working together, providing the ultimate frictionless customer experience for maximum growth in all channels.

As my son so keenly pointed out, "No shoes, no service, no sale." Without dedicating the planning to this integration, retail brands will continue losing sales to subpar customer experiences. The brands that blend their channels and systems for an easy shopping experience are the ones that will continue to bring in store traffic and increased sales across all channels.

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