POV: Tone Down the Sales Pitch

SAN FRANCISCO If you want your marketing initiatives to seduce retail shoppers into becoming loyal customers, the first thing to consider is to stop annoying them so much.

Accenture recently asked consumers for their most irritating experiences at the neighborhood mall (“Act Now! Customers Are Limited,” May 2007). Researchers found cross-selling ranked among the top three annoyances.

In fact, cross-selling was rated more annoying, in terms of frequency, than rudeness. Cross-selling placed third overall, after getting too little or too much attention, respectively. (Difficulty with returns was fourth; rudeness ranked fifth.)

The Accenture report goes on to explain the consequences of being annoying to people, even if it is inadvertent. The report even suggests that one way for retail brands to increase market share is to study the annoyances of shopping at competitors’ stores and then give dissatisfied customers a better choice.

It sounds like a small problem for a few ham-handed, outdated companies, you say?

To understand how many actual customers and how much money are at stake, Accenture has two stats for you to ponder. About three-quarters of the 1,300 people surveyed in December 2006 said that annoyances have prompted them to walk away without making a planned purchase of $50 or more. Seventy percent of consumers said they are “likely” or “very likely” to defect from a favorite store to a competitor if the competitor does not annoy them and their preferred place does not eliminate the annoyance.

In addition to cross-selling pressure, the most common annoyances the respondents cite are: too much attention, not enough helpful attention, rude treatment and difficulty with returns.

When it comes to cross-selling and too much attention, it is hard to avoid the irony. Some marketing efforts, it seems, are actually driving many customers out of stores and straight into the arms of a rival. Put another way, retail brands with massive marketing budgets are primping in front of the mirror with one hand while shooting themselves in the foot with the other.

It’s time for the industry to realize that when customers say they don’t want a boatload of accessories for the new outfit or gadget they’ve picked out, they mean it. Or when you try to sell someone a warranty for a car or a washing machine, it sounds like you are telling him or her that your product is so poorly made that they need to buy insurance to fix it. Sure, for many marketers, it can be hard to let a paying customer get away without trying to cross-sell them everything—a bird in the hand and all that. But it would be better to chill out. People may be too polite to say it to the young sales clerk who is just doing what the boss told her, but they want marketers to get out of their faces with the sales pitches.

Upstart retailers with good manners and those with a nose for opportunity are waiting in the wings to snag those shoppers. Many of them reside on the Internet.

Netflix and Amazon immediately come to mind. Others are Barnes & Noble, Hallmark and Bath & Body Works, the three top-rated retail chains in “Getting It Right at Retail,” a survey by Carlson Marketing and the Peppers & Roger Group.

Wal-Mart, AutoZone and Macy’s came out at the bottom of the list. Released July 9, the survey tallied nearly 1,200 customers last fall about the relationship they have with retail chains.

Accenture calls the annoyance problem “a revenue leak in retailers’ business models. Retailers are at risk of eroding their core in the pursuit of growth,” according to survey authors Janet l. Hoffman and Eric M. Lowitt.

If you aren’t already convinced, look at the situation by income levels.

During at least one of their last four visits to a store, 89 percent of people who earned less than $50,000 said they experienced one of the annoyances listed in the study. For those with incomes exceeding $50,000, it jumps to 94-95 percent who got ticked off when they shopped, according to Accenture.

Interestingly, the cross-selling annoyance is most irritating to the more tolerant lower income group while it is less important to the higher income set.

The vast number of retailers seeking to capture the dollars of Americans of moderate means need to add some restraint to their retail marketing strategy. If not, the only part of those customers that they will see will be their backs as they exit the store empty-handed.