The three worst words in retail: “I don't know”

I was waiting in the queue for the till at a well-known national retailer when I overheard the following conversation taking place just in front of me:

Customer: “Do you have any more of these in stock?”

Staff member: “Sorry, I’m afraid we don’t”

Customer: “Oh, do you know when they’ll be back in stock?”

Staff member: “I don’t know exactly, we should have another delivery soon”

Customer: “, thanks.”

This exchange will sound familiar, but in my own experience is relatively rare. In many cases I have happily agreed to go for an alternative product suggested by a helpful shop assistant.

On reflection, though, I realised that the phrase “I don’t know” is becoming more dangerous for bricks-and-mortar retailers.

Before the ecommerce boom, more often than not this unnamed retailer might have got away with such a vague answer. Today, the customer’s most likely next course of action is to look up the item they wanted online and, if it’s available, buy it then and there.

If our retailer is lucky, the customer will have ordered directly from their website. However, that is no longer guaranteed with a product search on Google now effectively acting like a price comparison search.

What should be more concerning is the impact these disappointing shopping experiences will have on customers over the medium to long term. After the second or third time ordering goods online that they had attempted to buy in person, can we really blame them if their default thinking becomes “I’ll see what’s available online first”?

A good number of retailers have reacted to this threat, for example by providing in-store iPads so look up and order any out of stock items for collection or home delivery.

But the role of shop staff cannot be ignored either. Their role in delivering a level of customer service that is not easily replicable online is key to the future success of the high street. Plus, I doubt whether an ecommerce website will ever match an in-store colleague’s ability to charm and ‘upsell’ a delighted customer.

For retailers, it has never been more important to create a culture of accountability that makes “I don’t know” an unacceptable answer. They must support their teams in achieving this with efficient internal communications and by moving away from one-off training to refocus on continuous, on-the-job learning.

What are you doing to take “I don’t know” out of the retail lexicon?


Yapster Admin