Catalyst

Leave me alone!

Harish Bhat | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on March 09, 2017

I’m no shoplifter! Sales assistants must be trained to step in only when the customer needs their assistance

Consumers value privacy while shopping in stores

When I am browsing in a bookstore, I love my own space and hate being disturbed by the salesperson. In fact, I only visit bookstores where I am permitted to browse without any interruption whatsoever. Similarly, I don’t like a salesgirl following me around as soon as I enter a duty-free store at an airport. It makes me feel like a shoplifter, to have someone follow me around with such a keen eye, even as I am deciding which bottle of wine or single malt whisky to buy. My instinct at such moments is to turn around, and say, “Hey, I am just looking around, please leave me alone!”

The reasons why

I think many shoppers share my point of view. As consumers, we value our privacy while shopping. Retailers may assume that more interaction between their store staff and shoppers is always a good thing, but in many situations this can actually put off consumers and stop them from making a purchase.

What are the specific circumstances where consumers like to be left alone ?

Where a shopper has already decided what to buy – for instance, a loaf of bread or their regular brand of toothpaste or soap in a grocery supermarket – interaction with the sales staff has very little value. The shopper is often keen to complete the purchase quickly and leave, so any conversation by store staff is often perceived as an intrusion and waste of time. In such stores, shoppers will approach a salesperson themselves if they need help; for instance, to know where a particular brand is stocked. In fact, some studies show that if shoppers in such self-service grocery stores feel they are being constantly watched, they are less likely to make their intended purchases.

Shopping privacy also becomes very important when the product being purchased is in an “intimate” category. Such categories include facial or body hair removal products for women, condoms, adult diapers for incontinence, or sex products for either gender. Many consumers, particularly middle-class Indians, do not like speaking about such products, and are keen to conclude the purchase with the maximum possible privacy. A third situation in which consumers like being left alone is where interaction with sales staff can potentially cause any personal embarrassment. For instance, consumers who perceive themselves to be overweight may not want salespeople hovering around endlessly, while they are trying to fit into a new pair of jeans or other apparel. Similarly, many relatively affluent consumers who want to buy “cheap” or “budget” brands in some categories, but do not want to be seen doing so, prefer privacy while making these purchases. Then, of course, there are retail environments, such as book stores or cafés or restaurants, where one important element of the consumer value proposition is all about spending time by oneself, or with family or friends. Here again, we value being left to ourselves. No one likes being interrupted by an over-enthusiastic waiter during a cosy date, or indeed even in the midst of an important business conversation over dinner. In these places, the staff are actually trying to be nice by enquiring whether everything is going fine, but unfortunately they end up irritating the diners.

There are also many other situations where shoppers’ privacy is important. In today’s digital age, consumers generally do not want to be disturbed while they are checking their mobile phones in a store. Couples who are shopping together would like to be left to themselves while they are arguing about whether some item of furniture or jewellery is too expensive, and if so what their budgetary limit should be. Buyers of electronics products who have completed their search online, and made a decision, also want to be left on their own while they are playing with their desired gadget within the store before eventually making the purchase.

The opportunity

At the same time, all consumers who want privacy also want help to be available in the store, if they need it. Prof Carol Esmark of Mississippi State University, US, who has researched in-store privacy for several years now, summarises this best when she says in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review: “Shoppers want a certain level of privacy in a store, and they want to have control over that privacy. In other words, people generally prefer being left alone, but also want to be able to get help if and when they need it.” Her work makes for fascinating and instructive reading on this subject.

The challenge and opportunity that retailers face is to train their store staff to respect the privacy of shoppers, and yet intervene meaningfully to help with a purchase, when such intervention is called for. This requires careful observation and understanding of shoppers – knowing when to speak, and when to stay very silent, on the sidelines. In some store formats, it requires an instinctive identification of which shopper likes to be left alone, and who would like some assistance. In other formats, such as cafés and restaurants, this may require creation of small nooks and corners within the store, where consumers seeking total privacy can seat themselves. And in some categories, of course, online shopping may provide the required privacy.

When do you like to be left alone in a store ? Do write in, look forward to your views.

(Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. His new book, The Curious Marketer, has just been published. These are his personal views. bhatharish@hotmail.com)

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Published on March 09, 2017
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