It is Thursday lunchtime and Sharon, our proverbial shop assistant, makes her move on Fiona, a customer striding at speed towards toward the jeans section. Remembering her staff training, Sharon delivers her sales pitch on the latest coloured denim styles. But Fiona does not have time for this and leaves the shop harried and empty-handed. Sharon's error? She mistook a Focused Fulfiller for a Pleasure Seeker.
This may sound like psycho-babble, but new research has identified that retailers are losing sales through not only failing to interact with customers, but also failing to identify the right type of customers.
About £4.2 billion of potential sales each year are missed by UK businesses because of this, according to Jason Kemp, managing director of consultancy Envision Retail. The company examined the shopping habits of more than 2,000 fashion customers in a global survey of consumer behaviour.
"Irrespective of geography and type of outlet, it is apparent that for sales assistants, managing all the other daily tasks in a store takes precedence over interaction with customers," says Kemp. "But it is not just a matter of approaching more people - staff need to be trained to recognise customers who really do want assistance, otherwise they run the risk of killing a potential sale."
The research shows that on average, sales staff interact with 7% of customers entering a store. Increasing this figure by 4% (an achievable amount for a busy sales assistant) would boost sales by 2%, according to Kemp. Targeting customers according to type would add a further 5% to sales, resulting in a total 7% uplift.
Following the research, Envision identified five shopping personalities, each requiring a different sales approach. The list comprises Pleasure Seekers, Product Groupies, Focused Fulfillers, General Browsers and Time Killers.
Luckily for UK retailers, Europe has the highest percentage of Pleasure Seekers - shoppers with post-payday money burning a hole in their pocket, who want to treat themselves but have no product in mind. European shoppers in general are 60% more likely to buy when they interact with staff than their global counterparts.
So how should a shop assistant react to a Pleasure Seeker? Kemp says staff should always approach Pleasure Seekers, Product Groupies and General Browsers. They should take the time to introduce clothing ranges, colours and styles, inform them of special offers and suggest add-on products.
"Pleasure Seekers want to know what's hot and what they're going to look like in it. Adding on sales to this group is easy - they don't care if they walk out with a T-shirt or a pair of boots," he says.
Conversely, shop assistants should leave Focused Fulfillers to their own devices or risk losing a sale. "Because they have such a clear idea of not only the product they want but also what they want from a shopping experience, the possibility of a sale becomes quite fragile," says Kemp, warning that unwelcome interaction could irritate the customer into leaving the store.
However, are sales assistants really geared up to act as pseudo-psychologists? "It's not detailed psychological stuff and people are really fascinated by people-watching," says Kemp. He adds that the characteristics of each group are fairly easy to spot. For example, Focused Fulfillers walk quickly and directly to a particular section.
So what do those on the ground make of this theory? Drapers Footwear Sales Assistant of the Year Angela Shier, from Arnotts department store in Dublin, believes you cannot judge a book by a cover when it comes to customers. She says: "You don't know by looking if a customer is just a browser. They might just come in for one item to see what you're like, then come back and spend more money the next time."
She believes you should approach every customer. "Normally, if a customer comes in, I'll make eye contact and if she's looking at a stand, I'll ask if she wants help," she says. "You know after the first interaction what type of shopper she is. If she says 'I'm only looking', I'll leave her alone but let her know I'm there."
Simon Fowler is director of customer services at John Lewis, a retailer much lauded for its attentive treatment of its shoppers. He agrees with Kemp on the dangers of assistants being overly keen.
Fowler says: "Intuition plays a big part in delivering great service. It is worth bearing in mind that while customer acknowledgement is vital, it must be handled in the right way.
"Where a customer is just browsing and not giving any signs they need active assistance, then a smile, a nod or a simple 'hello' is all that's needed. It will be clear when a customer has finished browsing and needs more active help and this is the moment for more direct conversation."
John Lewis Partnership trains its staff to follow a three-stage ABC process when approaching customers, comprising Acknowledgement, Build and Close.
"The acknowledgement is critical," says Fowler. "When done well, it helps a customer feel comfortable and at ease, placing them in the right frame of mind to enjoy their shopping experience."
Techniques such as this and Envision's customer categorisation method are necessary for large multiple retailers with thousands of staff to train, but can also be used by independents, according to Kemp. He recommends setting staff in smaller shops a task to recognise exactly who is in the store at any one time, for example whether there is a General Browser perusing a rail, a Pleasure Seeker in the changing room or a Product Groupie looking for a wedding outfit.
As well as making the initial customer approach, store assistants should encourage shoppers to try on garments in order to win sales. Envision's research shows that encouraging customers to use a well-serviced and fitted-out changing room can boost sales by 5%, because there is a 90% conversion rate for customers who spend more than 20 minutes in a fitting room.
Once in the changing rooms, the customer categorisation rules apply. "Focused Fulfillers will need very little help in the fitting room apart from when they've got the wrong size, whereas Pleasure Seekers can be hugely influenced in terms of add-ons," says Kemp.
In an age of prevalent pop psychology, shop staff should already be equipped with the tools to analyse customers. If they can do this correctly, it will be the shop owners who will be seeking pleasure from an increased bottom line.
CAN YOU IDENTIFY THESE SHOPPER TYPES?
Behaviour: View shopping as a leisure activity. They do not know what they are going to buy when they enter the shop.
How to spot: General browsers tend to move at a moderate pace, occasionally stopping to interact with a product.
Conversion rate: 8%
Behaviour: Filling time in lunch break or waiting for a partner to finish shopping.
How to spot: They move at speed with little or no interaction with product.
Conversion rate: 0%
Behaviour: Have a clear idea of the group of products they are looking for.
How to spot: They move quickly to a specific section when entering a store.
Conversion rate: 32%
Behaviour: May have previously seen and evaluated a product or are making a direct replacement of existing product.
How to spot: They move directly to one specific product or product group.
Conversion rate: 89%
Behaviour: Keen to spend their money, but have no clear idea as to which product they want.
How to spot: Flock around pay day. They go through many sections of a store, touching many products.
Conversion rate: 48%.