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Customers converge: Seeking a uniform retail experience across segments

With a few exceptions, shoppers expect a similar online and in-store customer experience across categories.

Retailers strive to differentiate themselves in the minds of consumers by offering a better customer experience than their direct competitors. Accenture’s latest global survey1 of more than 10,000 consumers suggests they may be setting the bar too low. The bottom line: Whether shopping for hammers or high heels, consumer retail expectations are beginning to converge.

Shoppers want similar service levels, everywhere

With a few exceptions, shoppers expect a similar online and in-store customer experience across categories. Take shopping via smartphone: Roughly equal percentages of shoppers in all segments said they used their smartphones more frequently this year than last to find the items they wanted. Similar results emerged regarding smartphone shopping expectations for next year, while the spread was slightly greater regarding the ease with which shoppers could purchase items using their mobile devices. The latter result likely reflects the different capabilities of retailers across the segments.

This tightening of results is a recent phenomenon: in some segments such as apparel, the percentages of customers seeking enhanced mobile services have grown at double-digit rates from last year, effectively leveling results across segments. Other shifts have been even more dramatic. The number of health and beauty aid (HBA) customers seeking to check product availability online prior to going to the store nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016, bringing the segment in line with apparel retailer leaders on this question.

In some cases, the range between high and low rankings is only a few percentage points. For instance, only three points separate the segments with the greatest consumer demand for in-store ability to credit coupons and discounts automatically (apparel and discount stores) from the lowest (grocery stores). In fact, for most of these findings, the low end of the spectrum involved grocery stores and in some cases, HBA retailers, perhaps due to the unique products and services offered (e.g., produce, prescriptions). But even here, customer expectations are rising.

While customers seek comparable service levels across retail segments, retailers themselves appear to be dropping the ball when it comes to enabling these capabilities. For example, half of all department store customers “can’t wait” to receive real-time promotions via their mobile phones, but fewer than one in ten stores offer them. While this mismatch represents a challenge for slow-moving retailers, it’s an opportunity for innovative players.

However, a number of large gaps in customer expectations still exist, particularly in fulfillment. And perhaps the biggest segment gap exposed by the survey involved the percentages of customers who are shopping online to purchase items. Nearly 30 percentage points separated the segment with the most customers doing so (apparel) from the one with the fewest (groceries). This gap probably reflects the apparel retailers’ lead in enabling online shopping and the special considerations attached to food.

The survey asked participants to rate different customer experience ideas as “cool,” “neutral” or “creepy,” and once again, answers across retail segments were remarkably similar. The coolest idea involved automatically discounting items for loyalty points and discounts at the checkout counter. Other mostly cool ideas involved having websites optimized by device and receiving “refill” reminders online. A wider spread exists regarding the attractiveness of receiving promotional offers via smartphone for goods while in the store, separating department store shoppers (“cool”) from those at grocery and HBA retailers (not as cool). Services that consumers considered “creepy” include sales associate who know the customer’s online wish list and retailers that display feedback left by a consumer’s friends on the products they are considering. In general, consumers consider it especially creepy for a retailer to use their social media posts in making purchase recommendations.

1The study surveyed consumers shopping at home improvement, apparel, grocery, and health and beauty aid (HBA) retailers, and those frequenting department stores and discount, mass merchant and hypermarket chains.