Retail stores are increasingly barraging their customers with
questions. It's marketing for them. It is good for you?
At Albrecht's Sentry Foods, a family-owned grocery store in
Delafield, Wis., cashier Jackie Ryerson says hardy customers are
sometimes surprised when she asks, "Would you like help out to your
But Ms. Ryerson is required to ask all customers that question;
also, whether they have coupons, a gasoline points card, and, of
course, if they prefer paper or plastic. Store management regularly
sends "mystery shoppers" through the line to verify that she does.
Increasingly, consumers are bombarded with questions at the
checkout counter - May I start with your phone number? What's your
ZIP Code? Are you a member of our rewards program? Do you need
batteries? Would you like to save 10 percent today by applying for
our credit card? In a down economy, merchants not only want to
impress customers with attentive service, they are also using
sophisticated "business intelligence" software to boost their bottom
This holiday shopping season, such techniques will be on full
display. But there are ways to deflect annoying questions - and
preserve your privacy in the process.
"I think the consumer ... is feeling put off by all these
intrusive questions," says Sally Greenberg, executive director of
the National Consumers League in Washington, D.C. "I tell consumers:
Think twice before you speak. Why do they want this information and
what is it going to be used for? You have no obligation to provide
it. You're the customer. You're in charge."
Dismissing questions, however, won't put an end to them.
"Retailers recognize that their greatest source of information on
their customers comes at the point of sale," says Lee Holman, lead
retail analyst for IHL Group, a global research and advisory firm
based in Franklin, Tenn. "With high-powered computing capability and
so forth, Pentium-class processors at the point of sale, and heavy-
duty database capability in the back office or back at headquarters,
they have been tracking information for a long time."
Groceries started using that information in a big way, and now
retail stores and online channels are following suit, says Sahir
Anand, a retail analyst with Aberdeen Group, a research and survey
firm in Boston. "Once you have a segmented customer list, you can
cross-sell and up-sell more effectively."
Up-selling is pitching a similar product in a higher price range.
Cross-selling - such as suggesting accessories to go with a camera
purchase or reminding customers that they might need batteries for a
toy - can be a win-win situation, says James Dion, president of
Dionco Inc., a retail analysis firm in Chicago. "Probably 95 to 98
percent of people view this as positive."
A more onerous form of cross-selling, which customers do object
to, is pushing a specific item at the register, such as gum or diet
cola, irrespective of their needs, he adds. "That bugs 60 to 70
percent of the population."
Retailers can learn a lot from buying patterns. That's why sales
associates so persistently ask customers to sign up for loyalty
incentives, also known as rewards, preferred-customer, or frequent-
buyer programs. These can be a good deal. …