Report: Retail Customer Service Stinks

With holiday shopping in full swing, consumers may find that retailers’ customer service leaves much to be desired, according to new research. The Retail Service Quality Index, to be released tomorrow (Tuesday) by consulting firm The SALT & Pepper Group, pegs service at only 48.2 out of 100.

The index measured 1,027 interactions in 73 different retail stores over a four-month period. The data gatherers measured 39 separate kinds of service, from the store greeting, merchandise returns or exchanges, and how associates interact to solve customer problems.

A significant part of the poor score was due to what associates did not do, rather than what they did. The results showed that in more than a quarter of interactions measured, employees failed to see a service opportunity that was at hand, or ignored the customer at the time of expected interaction. For example, only 53 percent offered a store greeting, while the store closing announcements at the end of the day only occurred in 40 percent of cases that were measured.

Associates performed poorly when they were expected to exercise greater observation and engagement skills. Specifically, they had trouble seizing opportunities to demonstrate customer service when it required identifying and responding to indirect signals (1.3 out of 10) or handling multiple shoppers on the sales floor (4 out of 10).

“Associates started to struggle in situations where customers needed advice,” said Rick Miller, consulting analyst at The SALT & Pepper Group. “Most of them really weren’t comfortable asking questions to get the information they needed. I don’t know if it was that they didn’t want to or just weren’t really sure how to do it.”

The companies surveyed include department stores like Macy’s and JC Penney, hardware stores like Home Depot and Ace Hardware, luxury retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Men Store, and others. The results showed that the best customer service providers were electronics retailers and hardware/home improvement retailers. The laggards were the office supply retailers.

Still, many associates demonstrated strong performance in a number of basic categories. “Average wait time” received a score of nearly 9.0 out of 10, while “cleanliness of store floor” received more than 9 out of 10. Retailers also received a score of 7.3 on displaying product knowledge, and 6.2 in knowledge of product pricing.