Byline: Ira P. Schneiderman

NEW YORK--While most retailers have worked at improving the overall customer service levels in the store, they seem to have fallen short in one key area: getting the shopper out of the store.
In recent years, merchants and vendors have strived to improve the product knowledge of sales associates, based on the assumption that women want help choosing the right merchandise. Many brand managers have taken to providing training programs for store personnel or hiring their own salespeople to work their in-store shops at the majors.
At the same time, store managements have real concerns about levels of staffing as they are linked both to the bottom line performance and to a store's image and reputation. Nordstrom is the classic example of a store whose reputation has been built on customer service.
But in these days of self-service, from cash machines to gas pumps, is service--specifically, personal help in selecting merchandise--really what the customer wants?
Is it possible that department and specialty stores are getting a bum rap when it comes to their low service levels? More importantly, have merchants directed their resources in the wrong direction?
To find out, WWD asked women: "When you are shopping for clothing, either in a specialty or department store, what is your main reason for wanting a sales clerk?"
The new survey reveals that what women really want is sales help at the register, so they can make a purchase quickly and get out. Almost two out of three respondents (62 percent) said fast checkout is the primary reason for wanting a sales clerk.
The survey also revealed that some shoppers call on sales personnel to provide price checks, but only a miniscule number of women cited this reason, less than 1 percent (0.8 percent).
WWD commissioned International Communications Research, a market research company in Media, Pa., to perform the national telephone survey. The survey, conducted April 18-27, polled 588 women in households with annual incomes of more than $25,000. It provides a nationally representative and projectable estimate of 37.5 million American women 18 or older. The average household income in the survey was $53,970.
Surprisingly, only about one out of 20 shoppers indicated that they want personal help to put together an outfit. Fewer than one out of three women (28 percent) want help to find a size or style that the customer has already chosen.
The survey also asked women to select a statement that most accurately describes the availability of sales help when needed.
Here, department store and specialty store management received low grades. More than half (56 percent) of the women reported that "sales help is available, but you have to make an effort to find someone." Some 17 percent said "sales help is rarely available when you need it."
Store management can take heart from the fact that the survey reports about one out of four shoppers (24 percent) indicated that "sales help is almost always available when you need it."
Further analysis revealed that of all those who believe sales help is "almost always easily available," 66 percent want sales associates to be at a register for a quick checkout. About a quarter of this group want help in finding the correct size once they have chosen a style, while only 7 percent say they need help in selecting garments.
Among those who said sales help is "rarely available when you need it," 62 percent also want sales help just to be at the checkout. More than a quarter (27 percent) of this group, however, say they need help in finding size or style once they have found what they like. Only 5 percent of this group wants help selecting apparel.
Among those who said they need help in selecting an outfit, 17 percent reported that sales help is missing when they need it. But more than half of this group said that sales help is available, but some effort is required to find them, and 32 percent requiring help declare sales assistance is "almost always easily available."
Analysis of respondents by age also provides some insights into the nature of the service question. Respondents represented 11 age groups from 18 to 65 and over. In several of the segments, shoppers showed a greater-than-average need for sales help either in finding size or style or in selecting garments. Specifically, these age segments were: under 30, 35 to 39 and over 50.
Among shoppers who complained the most--declaring sales help was rarely available when needed (17 percent of the respondents)--the largest group was in the 40-to-54 age group.
So are department and specialty stores getting a bum rap on service?
The new WWD survey indicates that on the question of service, retail management gets mixed reviews. The good news is that eight out of 10 shoppers believe sales help is available with some effort. The bad news is that customer service is more than finding a sales clerk. Failure to address the customer's time needs, with better checkout services for example, leads to fewer sales and lower earnings.
As Management Horizons Consultant Cliona Hooper notes in reviewing consumer attitudes toward service over the past five years, "Overall, consumers are proving increasingly difficult to satisfy in terms of service. The key to satisfying customers' service expectations is efficient, speedy service from friendly and knowledgeable sales staff."
In the 1996 Kurt Salmon Associates Consumer Pulse Survey, a large number of consumers said they will walk out of a store because the checkout line is too long, the store is too crowded or the clerk is surly. In the national survey of consumer attitudes, 26 percent of shoppers said they have left stores because of the attitude of the salesperson, and 22 percent of consumers said they have left for lack of sales help.
Yet when shoppers find a salesperson who is helpful and friendly, 39 percent said they will often end up spending more. In addition, 19 percent will leave empty-handed if the checkout lines are too long.

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