Staff Is The Key To Department Store Customer Satisfaction

It's the staff, stupid. But it's also the merchandise, and price. A new study by consultancy J.D. Power & Associates says the courtesy of sales associates has a huge influence on consumers' overall department store experience, particularly with more upscale stores. The firm recently completed its first study in the area of customer satisfaction at department stores. The "2007 Department Store Experience Study" is based on responses from 5,877 consumers in Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York.

In the Atlanta metro area, Nordstrom ranked highest in customer satisfaction among upscale stores. Kohl's was highest among mid-sized department stores, followed by Dillard's and Macy's, which tied. Nordstrom was also highest in Los Angeles, with Macy's ranking highest among mid-sized stores. In New York, Neiman Marcus ranked highest among upscale stores, with JC Penney highest among mid-level stores.

Michael De Vere, executive director of emerging industries at JD Power, says courtesy and friendliness account for 31% of the consultancy's measure of consumer satisfaction in upscale stores, with availability of sales staff and speed comprising 19%. "While it always comes back to merchandise, sales staff is key," he says, adding that Nordstrom scored high on facility, merchandise, sales staff and general price. "In comparing Nordstrom, they were best in all four factors, and sales staff measures were huge for them."

The study shows that upscale department store shoppers liked the availability of exclusive brands and customer service at Nordstrom's in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and at Neiman Marcus in New York. De Vere says midscale-store shoppers are--perhaps not surprisingly--more interested in price and value, as well as with selections of brands and fashions, areas in which JCPenney, Kohl's and Macy's succeed in metropolitan areas, per the study.

The study also finds that consumers who frequent mid- and upper-end stores also shop down-market stores. Per the consultancy, 4 in 10 upscale store customers say they shopped at the midscale department store Macy's before making a purchase at an upscale store; and midscale department-store shoppers say they also shopped discount stores like Target but made their purchases at a midscale department stores.

De Vere says the up- and down-market movement of consumers is blending segments of the market. And he says there is a silver lining in the fact that upscale consumers are dabbling in mid-school stores, but not purchasing. "Over half of [upscale] consumers are stating that they couldn't find the merchandise they were looking for, but that's not a rejection of the store. Macy's clearly sees the opportunity. And, if they spend their ad dollar to get that traffic in there, it's only a question of time."

Macy's has, in fact, launched a campaign promoting the store as a one-stop shop for Sean Jean, Martha Stewart, Usher, and other premium labels, with TV spots featuring the aforementioned who appear in their own sections of Macy's touting their products.

"Macy's right now is pushing to claim superiority, from the merchandise standpoint," says De Vere. "We had consumers rate various brands on image; consumers see a Macy's and JCPenney and Kohl's as very similar from brand image. What Macy's is trying to do is say 'we carry some designer brands.' If you think about where their target is, one could speculate they will be short of Saks or Neiman Marcus, but right in a sweet spot." He says mid-level stores like Macy's have no choice but to move up, since they are feeling pressure with one out of ten of their customers going to Target first.

Other findings: consumers who shop at a midscale department store before making a purchase at an upscale store spend an average of $109 per visit and $2,393 annually on apparel, while customers who shop at an upscale store before purchasing at a midscale store spend an average of $249 per visit and $4,011 annually on apparel.

Consumers, per the study, are also becoming more concerned about conservation, with about 45% of upscale store customers and 30% of midscale customers--and particularly those 40 years old and younger--saying that they would like their department store to offer a designer shopping bag that is reusable.

And the best way for stores to undermine customer satisfaction is to make them wait in line, unless the store's in Los Angeles. Per JD Power, a wait of more than four minutes at the cashier lowers satisfaction, declining 42 points in Atlanta and 44 points in New York (on a 1,000 point scale). In Los Angeles, consumers are more patient, per the consultancy. Satisfaction declines by an average of 22 points among shoppers in Los Angeles who wait longer than five minutes to check out.

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