New Study Reveals Sales Staff Driving Shopper Defections

The phrase “sales help” may prove to be an oxymoron in many corners of retail. A recent study found that front-line sales staff are actually winding up to be more of a hindrance than a help for many consumers.

The Retail Customer Dissatisfaction Study, conducted by The Verde Group and the Baker Retail Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, show that sales staff are the single biggest detriment to the shopping experience, resulting in more lost business and negative word of mouth than any other shopping problem. The study also estimated that the defections caused by a lack of sales help or a poor associate experience ultimately results in a 6% loss of business for retailers.

Compiled from 1,000 American consumers surveyed by phone in March 2007, the research found that one in four Americans who experience problems when they shop are ignored by sales staff, receiving not so much as a smile, greeting, or even eye contact. This turns 3% of consumers away from the retailer permanently and is the number one problem customers are likely to share with others—increasing detrimental viral impact.

“It’s odd that retailers are hiring associates who avoid customer contact,” says Paula Courtney, President of the Verde Group. She suggests that part of the problem could be that associates are charged with too many distracting tasks, such as restocking shelves. “Are you asking too many tasks of them? Where’s the priority? Are you rewarding for A but hoping for B?”

The most critical retail shopping issue of all, not being able to find a salesperson for assistance, is experienced by 33% of all consumers who reported a problem. Many shoppers are so annoyed by the lack of assistance that they won’t go back to the store at all. This, in turn, results in negative word-of-mouth, and a whopping 50% of shoppers said they have chosen not to visit a particular business because of someone else’s poor experience- this is not counting their own.


Courtney suggests retailers look to other industries for examples on strategies for dealing with dissatisfied customers. For example, she pointed to the telecommunications industry, where customers who call into a call center for service are often routed to a “save desk” if they are threatening to leave due to a problem or are reporting a problem that puts them at risk for defection. For retailers, the comparable strategy might be for in-store reps to ask customers “did you experience any difficulty or, “What could we have done differently to improve your experience today?” at the end of the purchase transaction.

Other key findings of the study:

·         25% of those surveyed said they found sales people, but it made little difference since the store employee ignored them;

·         Long checkout lines, over-solicitous and insincere sales people, and being ignored by sales staff alienate the shopper and make retailers lose big bucks;

·         22% reported aggravation with product stock-outs;

·         The average number of problems experienced per consumer were highest among those 18 to 29 years old;

·         Stores specializing in a particular type of merchandise (category killers), such as electronics, home improvement or office supplies, account for the largest proportion of shopping trips and drew the most complaints and lowest shopper loyalty.

Based on the findings, the team at Verde Group and the Baker Retail Initiative at Wharton has identified the four core competencies salespeople must have in order to drive loyalty and keep customers coming back for more:

·         Educator- explains product, makes recommendations, and tells the customer where items can be found.

·         Engager- approaches the customer, smiles, makes eye contact, and helps the customer no matter what else they are busy doing.

·         Expeditor- sensitive to the customer’s time constraints and helps them speed through long checkout lines.

·         Authentic- lets customers browse on their own if they want and is genuinely interested in helping, regardless of whether a sale is made or not.

The Verde Group and the Baker Retail Initiative at Wharton are also developing a customer experience measurement systems, which is expected to be introduced later this year.

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