by Laurie Schechter
(L-R) Mark L. Aaron, Richard Shapiro, Leslie Zane, and Susan Miller.

The importance of customer experience as a strategic imperative was the hot topic of discussion at the most recent Retail Marketing Society luncheon on Thursday, April 18th. The panel of industry experts featured: Tiffany & Co. Vice President-Investor Relations, Mark L. Aaron; The Center of Client Retention President, Richard Shapiro; and Triggers Growth Strategy President, Leslie Zane. JSM Strategy Advisors Principal Susan Miller served as moderator.  The discussion explored the definition of customer experience, how best to engage customers, and how to use excellent customer experience as leverage to retain and grow customers.

Shapiro shared lessons he gleaned from growing up in retail with a small business owner father who taught, “all customers are people first, customers second.” Make a personal connection with each customer; create an emotional bond and you create a great customer experience. He warned, however, “too many people think of customer experience as a single interaction. Instead, it’s a continual process.”

Shapiro, who has authored two books on how to engender repeat business and interviewed 100s of 1000s of consumers in his work, maintained the most potent human emotion at play is hope. A customer shops in the hope of finding something. By doing what 99% of stores don’t do, show the customer you care during and after the shopping experience, you support the hope, build the customer relationship, become a part of the customer’s story and increase intimacy with your customer.

This philosophy can generate success in store and online. Sales associates, typically the second largest expenditure in a retail operation, are frequently an overlooked opportunity to develop better customer experience and interaction. For Shapiro, everything is tied to emotions and telling the customer you want to see them again.

Being client-centric is how Mark Aaron and Tiffany & Co. define customer experience. “Create memorable, magical moments” because, “every blue box has a story.” Focus on the customer, understand them and their motivation, and build on that. Aaron believes it’s a myth that only Millennials care about the experiential. “All customers want a good experience,” he said. Knowledgeable sales associates, fun in-store events, bold and inclusive advertising celebrating Tiffany’s modern incarnation along with its 182-year old brand heritage, are all crucial elements in creating a memorable experience.  “People need to be inspired,” Aaron explained.

New experiences and product innovation are integral. “We are constantly reaching out to customers with newness,” said Aaron. Pop-up stores, the flagship’s new café Blue Box, technology that has upped their game in truly customized engraving and establishing a global CRM system enabling the customer purchase path to be accessed in any store no matter the location, will culminate in a renovated New York City flagship transformed for the 21st century by modern technology. He also stressed the importance of corporate responsibility and transparency in gem sourcing to show the customer Tiffany’s relevancy. Aaron’s advice, “Be bold. Be agile. Be respectful of heritage and be willing to adapt the brand in the most relevant and exciting way possible.”

Triggers Leslie Zane’s philosophy is that every brand has untapped growth potential. She sees four growth inhibitors all in retail today:

1) Prioritizing current customers over prospective customers

Zane says if you have limited budget, use those dollars towards prospective customers. Growth will encourage change to the benefit of current and prospective customers.

2) Negative associations weighing down brands

“Real competition is in the minds of prospective customers. Figure out where the negatives are,” and create new positive associations.

3) Lack of expertise

Figure out what you’re really good at and demonstrate real expertise in that area. For Zane another myth is Millennials don’t care about nostalgia. “They love heritage,” she said, “because it means expertise.”

4) Over segmentation

Too much of a “slicing and dicing” approach. “The key is not how customers are different,” Zane explained, “but how are they alike.”

Focusing on growth and spending time making a brand a “go-to” are crucial. 95% of buying decisions are made at the subconscious level, Zane noted. It’s essential to enhance the positive associations and to have more than your competitor. Positive customer experience is one powerful way to do that. Figuring out exactly what your brand stands for and managing that brand identity successfully drives traffic.

For more info on the Retail Marketing Society and its luncheon panels, check out its website at