Do you know how your customers are shopping?

By Linda Kuster | Guest Column

Much of what we hear about the state of retail is how physical locations are shutting down. In the Corridor, we have witnessed a number of retailers closing their stores. The perception might be that retail is heading online, but the reality is that there continues to be a net increase in retail locations.

However, retail is changing as it becomes an omni-channel world for many companies. Direct online brands are opening physical locations, brick-and-mortar stores are starting online platforms, and companies that once sold primarily through distributors are adding direct-to-consumer channels. The key to success is understanding and maximizing the customer experience.

Evaluating your online store

In your online environment, you can capture and analyze a universe of data that’s more reliable than customer recall. You can learn:

  • What channels are bringing people to your site?
  • Typical paths through your site that result in a purchase or sign-up
  • Which pages have high drop-off rates
  • What content people are downloading
  • Re-entry pages for past or lapsed customers

Beyond analyzing website visitor data, it can be helpful to conduct usability testing. Identifying and resolving issues with navigation, messaging or content can make a big difference in results. Start by looking at e-commerce sites of competitors to see what you like and dislike about their sites.

If you don’t have the budget to hire a professional firm for assistance, sitting down with customers who have visited your site and people who have not can be eye-opening. Ask some to move through your site however they wish and give others specific tasks, such as comparing products or making a purchase. Record their movements with video recorders for later analysis. Take advantage of being in the room with customers and prospects and ask them why they took certain actions, what they noticed, what they were confused about and how they felt while navigating your site.

Understanding your in-store customer

Because today’s consumer can shop anywhere and anytime, your physical store must satisfy specific needs to draw traffic and generate return visits. Do you understand what your customer wants and how the in-store experience feels to them? Do you know how customers interact with your merchandise, the store environment, the staff and their smartphones? Are they looking for product they have pulled up on their phones? Are they checking competitors’ prices? Are they shopping alone or coming with a partner or friends?

Ways to gain insights on your in-store experience include:

  • Hiring secret shoppers to shop in your store and having them evaluate and record their experiences immediately upon leaving
  • Hosting a brief (no more than five questions) survey next to your checkout and inviting people to complete one. Offer to enter them in a monthly drawing for a $100 gift card for their participation. Make sure your questions are unbiased and revealing
  • Holding one-on-one interviews with frequent customers and occasional customers to better understand why and when they choose to shop with you
  • If you have in-store cameras, watching footage to see how shoppers navigate through your store and interact with product merchandising and staff
  • Having staff engage in a team session where they talk about their observations of customers in store and insights they have gained while helping them


Get personal

No matter what the purchase channel, consumers want and expect personalization. Whether you sell high-end cars or own a hair salon, understanding your retail customers’ expectations, needs and psychology when interacting with your brand in all your channels will maximize loyalty and revenue. Whether that means investing in software that can personalize their visit on your website, keeping track of purchase preferences in store or investing in market research, the more customer data you gather and utilize, the more personal and relevant your service can be.  •

Linda Kuster is president at Vernon Research Group, based in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at (319) 364-7278, ext. 7104 or