Skip to main content

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Retailers face a greater struggle now than ever before not just to attract customers to their bricks-and-mortar stores, but also to keep them there for longer and increase the chances of making a sale.

The same technology that makes it possible for consumers to shop online while on the go or at home, rather than having to rely solely on traditional stores, also makes it easier for consumers to be more efficient when they do decide to shop in a physical store. Anyone with an Internet connection can effectively pre-shop on one of the many sites that offer price comparisons, display store catalogs and highlight special deals. Armed with a smartphone, shoppers can do all of this while in the store to ensure they are in and out more quickly.

“New technologies have changed the dynamics of the shopping experience for many consumers and given them the tools to maximize their time,” said Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation. “In some cases, you have consumers who are so well-educated in the store’s selection that they actually know more than the person working there might.”

It’s not only that consumers have more technology on hand for shopping, but also that they have less time to shop in general. As Butler points out, it was more common several decades ago for families to have a single income earner, leaving time for the other adult in the household to run errands and shop at their leisure during the week.

But with more families having both parents work 9-to-5 jobs, there is less time for either of them to shop. Indeed, some households have seen their free time constrained further in recent years by the recession, as many workers have been forced to shoulder greater workloads and put in longer hours at the office.

From a consumer perspective, it might seem irrelevant whether you’re in the store for five minutes or 30, as long as you make a purchase, but from a retailer’s perspective, the longer you hang around, the more likely you are to buy additional products that you may have otherwise overlooked had you left the store sooner.

The great challenge for retailers going forward, then, will be to find ways to entice savvy shoppers to stay longer without feeling they wasted their time.

“If you get the customer to stay a few extra moments in the store and spend a little extra money, all while giving them what they wanted, then you’ve won,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, a marketing firm. “But if the customer leaves feeling they’ve wasted their time, then the retailer loses.”

For that reason, retailers must be especially creative in finding ways both to attract customers and encouraging them to stay and spend. MainStreet spoke with several retail experts about steps that stores can take (and in many cases already do take) to entice their customers to stick around longer.

Adding In-Store Demonstrations and Videos

Consumers may come to a store to shop, but as many retailers have found out, they’ll stay to learn.

“Years ago, department stores used to have working kitchens where customers could stand around and watch experts prepare dishes. Now, we’re seeing more stores do this kind of demonstrating,” Beemer said.

Williams-Sonoma (Stock Quote: WSM) frequently hosts cooking classes in stores, Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) advertises free workshops to teach people how to use their products and music shops like Guitar Center offer weekly recording lessons.

Smaller retailers can easily apply these same tactics to their businesses, whether it’s a hardware shop that has a local vender come in to talk about new tools and how to use them, or a small beauty supply shop that has a weekly event where a makeup artist comes in to show off store products. Butler argues that business owners can even just put a video of a lesson or demonstration on a TV in the store to create a learning environment.

Such visual demonstrations not only have the potential to boost the time a customer spends in the store, but according to Butler, they help “make customers feel a part of a community built around the store’s business,” a fact that may make them more likely to come back in the future.

Engaging Customers’ Five Senses

TheStreet Recommends

Part of the reason many consumers continue to shop in bricks-and-mortar stores rather than solely online is for the opportunity to physically interact with products, which makes it all the more important for stores to appeal to as many of the senses as possible.

“When stores offer a more sensorial experience, consumers are generally just happier being in that environment,” said Donna J. Sturgess, president of Buyology Inc., a research firm that studies marketing psychology.

With that in mind, she recommends a wide range of options for stores to consider: Add live music or play videos to entertain shoppers, spray light aromas in the store and offer free samples of foods to entice consumers, and let shoppers touch and interact with the products whenever possible.

As Sturgess notes, there is certainly such a thing as being “overloaded with sensory experiences,” something she says one might experience in a store like Bath & Body Works where the scent of candles can be so overwhelming it turns customers away. But underwhelming the senses can be almost as detrimental to keeping customers in the store.

Stocking the Store With Surprising Finds

To keep customers shopping, retailers must strive to design their stores in a way that confronts shoppers with items that pique their interest and keep them browsing the shelves.

“One of the things that really keeps people in stores longer are new and unexpected discoveries,” Sturgess said. “This is what transforms shopping into an experience and not just a transaction.”

Sturgess highlights stores like Urban Outfitters (Stock Quote: URBN) and CostCo (Stock Quote: COST) that are packed with a wide range of products intermingled with one another. For example, in Urban Outfitters, one might be browsing for pants one minute only to stumble upon a stack of new books that captures your attention.

Along the same lines, Beemer from America’s Research Group emphasizes the importance of signs placed throughout the store. Adding signs that advertise new seasonal products or special deals can be an effective way to direct consumers to other sections of the store.

“Everything within a good store signage program is intended to keep the customer in the store longer and to spend more money,” he said.

Improving Customer Service

As useful as each of the above steps may be to entice customers, none compare to the importance of having great customer service.

“The number one thing that keeps a customer in the store longer is having a representative to help them who is friendly and knowledgeable,” Beemer said.

However, the bar for quality customer service is arguably higher now than it’s ever been. It’s no longer enough for representatives to know the store’s selection or the basic specifications of a product -  consumers can find out much of that information on their own online or on the smartphones in their pockets. Sales representatives today must be experts on the products they sell and even on the industry as a whole, and should be able to provide insight that the shopper wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.

As an example, Beemer and others point to Apple, which has a special Genius Bar that features experts who handle tech support and offer sage opinions on your gadget needs as well.

“If the customer feels the representative is trustworthy and knowledgeable, they are more likely to ask for their opinion or advice and to stay in the store longer. If not, they may feel their time is wasted,” Beemer said.

Making the Most of Customer Downtime

As much as retailers may struggle to keep consumers in stores longer, they often seem to overlook the instances when customers have no choice but to hang around, whether it’s waiting for a prescription to be filled at a drugstore or for a pair of pants to be hemmed.

“There is an opportunity to engage customers while they wait for service and leverage that downtime, but that often seems to go overlooked,” Sturgess said.

She recommends display videos in checkout lines and other waiting areas that show how to use a product or perhaps highlight community programs the store is involved with. Likewise, representatives might take these opportunities to inform waiting customers about other promotions.

“If the customer doesn’t want to participate in this, that’s fine, but at least give them the option to do so,” she said.

Catching You on Your Way Out

Once customers do decide to leave the store, retailers have one last opportunity to keep them there a little while longer on their way out.

Some retailers, according to Beemer, have begun to offer coupons and discounts at the cash register along with the receipt, to encourage the customer to turn around and pick up an extra item or two.

“Stores won’t do this as much ahead of time because it’s not as effective at getting you to buy more… but when the salesperson gives you a 20% off coupon with your receipt, it might get you to go back and stay a little longer,” Beemer said.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the Credit Center.