Wharton’s Thomas Robertson and Paula Courtney from Verde Group talk about a new study showing how retailers benefit by delivering a great customer experience.

Retailers must create “wow” shopping experiences if they want to satisfy customers and keep them coming back, according to a recent study from Wharton’s Baker Retailing Center and The Verde Group, a global customer experience consultancy.

The survey-based study found that retailers can increase shopper repurchase intent by nearly 60% by consistently delivering a great experience, whether in-store or online. What defines a “wow” depends on the shopper and type of store, but hassle-free customer support is at the top of the list.

Thomas Robertson, a marketing professor who is director of the Baker Retailing Center, said the report offers some good news for an industry bombarded by negative stories about store closures, bankruptcies, and the so-called retail apocalypse.

“This study was all about taking a positive outlook on the retail shopping experience, and to find ways that retailers could enhance that experience and benefit consumers,” he said.

‘Surprise and Delight’

The Verde Group surveyed 9,400 consumers and found that what consistently “surprised and delighted” them was exceptionally great service, said CEO Paula Courtney. That great service can be as heroic as a sales associate going above and beyond to help a customer find just the right item, or as mundane as a clean, well-organized store.

“Whether you’re a specialty retailer or a big box or category killer or a mass merchandiser, whatever your value proposition is, the essence of that value proposition [and] delivering on it seemed to be the No. 1 thing that defined greatness and ‘wow’ for consumers,” Courtney said.

Some of the highest-ranked customer “wows” are:

  • Fast, free shipping
  • Easy returns
  • Problem-free shopping
  • Well-stocked inventory
  • A great app or website for online shopping
  • Attention to detail in packaging

Interestingly, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t made shoppers any less demanding — or forgiving. If they encounter supply chain problems, staffing issues, and other obstacles that create friction, they simply shop somewhere else.

“What we learned, which is surprising, is that consumers are not giving retailers a hall pass for the pandemic,” Courtney said.

She said retailers need to keep investing in their stores, in their staff, and in great shopper experiences, despite the hardships created by the pandemic. “I absolutely believe that now is not the time to shirk away from delivering ‘wow,’ or delivering on the basics, because customers are more demanding than ever.”

“Consumers are not giving retailers a hall pass for the pandemic.” –Paula Courtney

A Missed Opportunity

Robertson believes well-trained sales associates are a big part of a successful retail strategy. But those jobs have been slashed in large numbers, replaced by online chatbots, or nothing at all. Customers are left frustrated and feeling the friction, he said.

“I think a major opportunity that is being missed that could help retailers deliver ‘wow’ experiences would be to value professional sales associates,” Robertson noted, adding that he isn’t sure whether those jobs will rebound after the pandemic.

“It really depends on how you’re going to define your business,” he said. A dearth of sales help may be functional for low-cost retailers. “But for others, I think you’d better bring them back. Because otherwise, the in-store experience is going to continue to deteriorate.”

“There are winners, there are losers, and things are changing.”  –Thomas Robertson

Robertson also dismissed concerns that retail is dying. It’s one of the largest employers in the United States and a major contributor to the gross domestic product. Data show that sales have been rebounding significantly since last year’s pandemic-related plunge.

“There are winners, there are losers, and things are changing,” he said. “There’s a lot of innovation out there.”

E-commerce is teeming with new ideas, such as shopping shows that are now live-streamed on social media platforms like Instagram. Malls are downsizing and reconfiguring physical space more economically. Online retailers are opening stores, offline retailers are getting better at digital, and everyone is trying to adapt.

“If you’re a sophisticated retailer, you realize that and don’t cling to the past,” Robertson said. “You move on to the future, which is always a challenge for any legacy company in any industry.”

Listen to an interview with Thomas Robertson and Paula Courtney at the top of this page.