As retailers strive to implement changes to meet customer needs, the benefits still swing too often in favour of the business.

I nearly got thrown off a Retail Week awards judging panel a few years ago for fighting a 12 Angry Men-type battle to get an innovative store prototype from Sainsbury’s the Best Design award.

It’s no surprise to me, then, to find Sainsbury’s again trialling some innovative new ideas. What caught my eye this time, however, was the focus on thinking more about what the customer wants from a visit and fitting the store to suit.

Sainsbury’s are not the first to attempt this. The Co-op has been redesigning its convenience stores to meet particular types of customer visit for a while. But now there is evidence of a trend in grocery to start thinking much more deeply about what a customer really wants and trying to shape the offer to deliver it.

Anticipating customer needs

You might think it’s a bit odd to describe this as a new idea; after all, haven’t we all been saying this in retail for years? Indeed we have. Along with many other consumer organisations, our stated wish has been to meet customer needs first and foremost.

But often we haven’t really done it. Let me give you some examples.

Self-service checkouts – promoted as a customer convenience tool, but in fact they take longer than manned checkouts and the real benefit is to the retailer in reduced staff costs.

“Self-service checkouts – promoted as a customer convenience tool but the real benefit is to the retailer in reduced staff costs”

Simon Burke, Blue Diamond Group

Online complaint and contact facilities – yes they’re 24/7, but you normally wait ages for a response and in the meantime all the service desks and phone lines have virtually disappeared. Again, big staff savings.

Putting essential items like milk, bread or eggs at the back of the shop so the customer has to walk past everything else to get them. Or having sweets and other impulse items on the checkouts. Better sales, but is this what the customer really wants?

These examples are just from food retail. You can come up with lots more, I bet. So we may be meeting customer needs, but much of what we offer, and the way we offer it, is what we want for them, not what they really want for themselves.

Business benefits

As a customer, I have become much more conscious of the way businesses I interact with seek to influence (or even control) my behaviour for their own benefit. Apple is one example. But airlines and airports are probably the most controlling, and least customer-centric, consumer businesses anywhere.

These businesses are very explicit in their attempts to corral their customers, whereas retailers are generally more subtle. Nevertheless, today’s customer knows their own mind like never before and is increasingly likely to see through supposed ‘customer benefits’ that are really ‘retailer benefits’.

So this new thinking on genuinely giving customers what they want has not come a moment too soon. I hope we will see it carried through into a real new chapter in retailing philosophy.

  • Simon Burke is chairman of Blue Diamond Group