Guides and Ninjas: The Retelling of Retail

Bonobos' customer service mantra is "People before profit."

Bonobos' customer service mantra is "People before profit."

What happens when people don’t change? Short answer—that doesn’t happen. Everyone changes. “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” said Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his 2014 TED Talk The Psychology of Your Future Self. Data from thousands of people from ages 18 to 68 showed they vastly underestimated how much change they would experience in the next 10 years; for example, 18 year-olds imagined they would change significantly less than 28 year-olds reported having changed.

The relevance of Gilbert’s findings extends far beyond the individual. What happens when a company doesn’t change? The brand grows out of touch. Customer wants, needs, desires and behaviors adjust with the times. Any company unwilling to adjust to those new standards is left behind—nothing more than a memory of what used to be a useful product or service (*cough cough* Blockbuster *cough cough* Borders).

Recently, there’s been quite a massive movement away from shopping malls in the US. The retail industry as a whole seems to be quickly moving online, kicking brick-and-mortar stores to the curb. Sears has dropped from 3800 stores to 1104 in the last decade, and Macy’s closed 68 stores in the last year. So what exactly changed? Consumer behaviors. People are no longer going to stores to purchase their goods; instead, they are turning to more convenient online shops. For starters, online ordering offers a more enjoyable shopping experience (I, for one, hate walking aimlessly from store to store dodging sick children determined to sneeze on me). Beyond that, Internet stores provide two unbeatable advantages: cutting out the middle man (meaning better bargains), and a streamlined customer service experience. Resolving issues with orders is easier than ever with emailed receipts, order numbers, and chat-rooms.

Does this mean the end of malls as a whole? I think not. Salvation for retailers lies in blending two worlds. We live in a landscape of over-saturated industries. Sometimes, the hardest part of purchasing something today is choosing from the plethora of options that meet all your requirements. The key to differentiating your brand from another is nurturing a unique, meaningful relationship with your customers. The human element of a face-to-face interaction is just as crucial a building block in that relationship as being accessible on the Internet.

Some companies are reimagining the purpose of brick-and-mortar stores. Take, for example, the men’s fashion brand Bonobos. Bonobos has physical storefronts called “Guideshops” in cities across the US but sells no clothing in them. All sales come in through the website. Instead of interacting with customers as salespeople, the in-store “Guides” build a unique relationship with customers beginning with a face-to-face interaction and ending with an online transaction. Treated as guests, customers aren’t pressured to buy anything. Instead, they try on clothes to find their size, get feedback and fashion tips, simply hang out, and in some locations are even offered a beer. If customers would like to make a purchase, Guides can order it right there in the store, or customers can order it later at their convenience. After my first experience at a Guideshop, I left the store with three key takeaways:

  1. Bonobos helps customers find the information they need to confidently order online.
  2. Bonobos provides that information without pushing for a sale. The storefront existed purely for the customer’s benefit.
  3. As a customer, I can purchase something and continue my day without lugging anything around. My convenience is their top priority.

The most important piece of the relationship that Bonobos builds is their commitment to a continuing conversation. Once the customer is at home, it is easy to get in contact with the customer service team (called Ninjas) via phone, email, or chat. Returns and swaps can be done either in a store or through the website. Even here, the conversation is not simply transactional; Ninjas are personable, even witty. Reinventing the retail call center, Bonobos’ Ninjas follow their motto “People before Profit,” never rushing customers to end the interaction. The experience is thoughtful and relaxed from start to finish, which makes being a customer of the brand satisfying, stress-free and memorable (the goal of marketing).

In general, consumers today seek meaningful interactions. That can mean anything from Wendy’s and Arby’s taking to Twitter to build a relatable image or, to use a personal example, a car dealership sending flowers and a handwritten note when my father was hospitalized. People want to be understood. Customers want to feel needed and valued. If a company is unwilling to change with its customers, what kind of message does that send?

Yoshi Yui