Retail Perception Gaps: What You Think Your Customers Want vs. What They Actually Want


How well do you know your customers?

If you were given a pop quiz about what makes them tick, do you think you’d pass with flying colors? Here at Vend, we want to make sure that you do. So to help you get to know your customers a whole lot better, we’ve outlined some common misconceptions that retailers have about shoppers and what you can do to set things straight.

Because as much as businesses would like to think that they know their customers well, studies have shown that there’s a disconnect between companies’ perceptions and the realities of consumers. Check them out below and see if any of them exist in your business:


Businesses: Shoppers aren’t complaining, so they must be satisfied.

Customers: Just because we’re not complaining doesn’t mean we’re satisfied.

One of the biggest assumptions businesses make is that dissatisfied customers will always (or often) air their concerns. However, according to Salesforce’s, “not even 25% of customers complain” when they encounter a problem, because it’s too much of a hassle and they “think that company won’t care or won’t fix the problem.”

Not only that, but these noncomplainers are also “20% less loyal and tell a median of three people bad things about your business.”


So how do you address this issue? The first step is to drop the assumption that you’re doing okay just because your support line isn’t ringing off the hook. Be more proactive about spotting your store’s shortcomings so you can work on improving them.

As our Retail Tips Generator puts it, you need to walk around your store and look at everything as if you are your own worst enemy. You’ll see a lot of things you need to do better.

Next, make it easy for customers to voice their complaints. Remember, one of the top reasons people don’t bother complaining is because they see it as a hassle. Break down that barrier by opening more avenues for support.

Go beyond the typical support hotline and make sure you’ve covered all your customer service bases, including social media, live chat, and community support.

People also avoid complaining because they think the company won’t do anything about their issues, anyway. Address this by showing customers that you’re attending to their concerns and by following up.

Let’s say a shopper complains that they couldn’t find a particular item in your store. Instead of just “making a note of it,” go above and beyond to get the product into the hands of your customer. Show them that you’re working to find their merchandise and after you fix their problem, follow up to make sure everything’s okay.

Showing customers that you’re open to feedback and you’re proactive about addressing their needs makes them feel satisfied and comfortable about communicating with you.


Businesses: Great in-store experiences = beautiful displays, cool store features, and technology.

Customers: Great in-store experiences = superb customer service, easy-to-find products, and fair prices.

A European study on retail store environments and perception found that there’s a gap between how retailers and customers view in-store experiences. The researchers surveyed various retailers and 252 consumers to get their input on what it means to have a good in-store experience.

According to the study, while retailers talked about using “more advanced techniques in order to create compelling in-store experiences,” customers actually cared more about “traditional values such as the behavior of the personnel, a satisfactory selection of products and a layout that facilitates the store visit.”

This indicates that while retailers seem to think customers will flock to their stores if they fill it with cool things like interactive displays, product demos and attractive designs, customers find friendly staff, great product selections, and unexpected discounts more compelling.

Don’t get us wrong, retail innovations are very important. Just because customers are more appreciative of traditional factors doesn’t mean they don’t value your forward-thinking efforts.

The best way to address this gap is to make sure that you’ve covered all the fundamental needs of customers before adopting all the hot new trends in the market. Do you have enough merchandise? Are your associates trained, knowledgeable, and helpful enough?  Answer these questions and pay attention to the basics first, and then work on enhancing shopper experience.

Also, be sure that what you do in your store ties in with the essential needs of your shoppers.  Whenever you roll out something new in your shop—whether it’s an attractive fixture, a touch-screen device, or any cool store feature—see to it that it actually helps customers get the products, services, or information they need.

Ask yourself, “Will this really make my customers’ lives easier or is it just here for the cool factor?” If it’s the latter, you may want to rethink you strategy.


Businesses: When it comes to customer service, the faster the better.

Customers: Fast is good, but we actually care more about the attitude of the staff and the quality of service.

A lot of companies focus on speed, and for good reason: People are busy, so the quicker we get things done, the better, right? Well, in customer service, this may not be the case.

Research has shown that service quality always outranks speed.

In a study conducted for one of their banking clients, Gallup consultants found that “customer perceptions of the tellers’ courtesy and their apparent willingness to help were far more important than speed of service in generating customer engagement. Customers who gave the bank high ratings on those “people” attributes were nine times more likely to be fully engaged.”

And compared to speed, product knowledge and associate sincerity played bigger roles in engaging customers.

In addition, the Customer Experience Impact Report by RightNow found that when shoppers were asked why they stopped doing business with a company, slow customer service came in only second to rude staff, indicating that customers value attitude and quality more than speed.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fix your customers’ problems quickly, as long as you don’t sacrifice service quality for it. If you need to take time reassuring a caller or getting to the bottom of an issue, then by all means do it.

Focus on providing value, be thorough, and engage with shoppers. Customers can tell if a company is genuinely working to help them or if they’re just trying to get them out the door as quickly as possible.

Consider Zappos, a company that makes it to the top of customer satisfaction lists time and time again. Aside from its lenient return policies, Zappos continues to be one of the top players in the customer service space because of its dedication to shoppers.

At one point, a member of Zappos’ Customer Loyalty Team spent 10 hours on the phone with a customer, and according to the company, the employee was just following protocol.

“Zappos’s first core value is deliver wow through service,” the company said in a statement to the Huffington Post, adding, “we feel that allowing our team members the ability to stay on the phone with a customer for as long as they need is a crucial means of fulfilling this value.”


Businesses: Customer service is the top reason people interact with brands on social media.

Customers: Customer service counts, but we interact with brands on social media mainly for the deals, rewards, and exclusive content.

Research by Pivot found that there is a big divide between the perception of marketers and customers when it comes to the use of social media. According to the company,

When Social Consumers were asked what they want from Social engagement, their desires were clear: deals, special content and rewards based on their engagement. Customer service ranks dead last in their responses. When Social Marketers were asked the same question, they indicated customer service as the benefit they felt Social Consumers wanted most.


Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean that customer service via social media isn’t valuable. It’s just not the main reason that people use it. So while it’s essential that your community manager is on standby to answer questions and attend to customer concerns, don’t let that be their only job.

Make sure that they’re out there providing great content, offering exclusive deals, and rewarding your brand’s fans and followers.


Bridging the gap

The perception gaps we mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other incorrect assumptions that retailers make about their customers. How can you get to the bottom of them all? Four words: Communicate with your customers.

Aside from implementing our earlier recommendation about opening up more avenues for support, find ways to get your customers talking. Here a few suggestions:

Surveys – Send your customers surveys to evaluate products, customer service, and overall satisfaction. But take things a step further by following up, sharing the results, and showing customers that you’re actually doing something to address their feedback.

Events – Round up your customers for a fun event and just listen to what they have to say. It’s a great way to build a community and gain insights.

Social listening – What are people posting on your wall?  Are they tweeting any requests or feedback? Listen, respond, and take action.

Using in-store analytics tools can also bridge the gap between customer and merchant perceptions. Wondering if you need to add more cool stuff in your shop?  Want to know if that new store layout is really adding value and converting customers? Observe shopper behavior and traffic flow to find out.

Vend Tip

Vend can help you do this with Swarm, an in-store analytics tool that can provide insights on customers who walk in, walk by, convert, and more.  Check out Swarm here.

Weigh in

Have you ever assumed something about your customers only to find out that it wasn’t the case? Tell us about it. Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Image: “iceberg painting 2” by Philippe Put, Pivot

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.

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