In an effort to boost sales—and fueled by technology—many retailers are embracing opportunities to enhance customer engagement. They are looking to strengthen bonds with customers in ways that go beyond just offering them the products they want to buy.
Although primarily a marketing trend, this new effort also seems to be an unorthodox strategy to prevent shoplifting, suggests new research into how customer relationship building might lead to better retail security. Marketing and loss prevention have always been intertwined, but the effort to forge a closer bond with shoppers could further enmesh the two functions.
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The “showroom strategy” is one way in which retail is trying to recast the shopping experience. With it, retailers don’t lure customers with inventory but with services. Nordstrom Local, which debuted in October, is one such effort. Personal stylists assist with sizing and picking outfits, and customers can even get an in-store manicure, but orders are ultimately placed online. It’s an extreme example, but it does reflect a growing trend.
According to many retail consultants, the retailers that are on the surest track for growth are the ones that adapt their stores to meet the demands of consumers who are increasingly seeking retail ‘experiences’—and not just a place to buy merchandise.
By engaging customers with experiences, suggest marketing theorists, retailers might secure more loyal customers—an important part in the evolution of customer relationship building. In basic marketing, the focus is on transactions, with the goal of acquiring ‘customers.’ Relationship marketing goes a step farther, with a goal of customer retention, and with the aim of developing ‘clients,’ or regular customers.
But is there another step retailers can take? Is there an approach beyond transaction marketing and relationship marketing? There is a new idea that “safeguard marketing” could push the retail relationship with shoppers to the next level-beyond “customer” and “client” to “patron,” suggests a study published in the Dec. 2017 issue of the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, “Encouraging shoplifting prevention with quality relationships: A theory of planned behavior perspective.”
The proposed concept of ‘safeguard marketing’ aims to prevent loss and ensure retail safety by transforming shoppers into regular, honest, ethically behaving customers of the retail business-or ‘patrons.’ In addition to being less likely to steal themselves, when ordinary shoppers become “patrons,” they can reduce theft because they make effective informal surveillance agents. If regular customers become patrons, they can actually support retailers in their effort to smoothly and safely run their business.
What does it take to get there? At the heart of the new idea is to examine and promote relationship quality as an additional tool for shoplifting prevention techniques. “The persistent problem of shoplifting requires new managerial tools. We suggest that there is a need for greater relationship quality. This means retailers should make genuine efforts to understand relationship quality and its positive effects on shoplifting prevention,” according to the study. “Therefore, for shoplifting prevention, retail managers may consider improving relationship quality with customers…to safeguard their retail premises from shoplifting.”
Clearly, then, the current trend toward “customer engagement” and the focus on “store experiences” may have beneficial LP side effects, since it may help to enhance the retailer-customer relationship. The hypothesis is that the higher the level of retailer-customer relationship quality, the greater the likelihood that a customer will practice integrity and engage in shoplifting preventive behavior.
As for which particular aspects of new relationship marketing LP might want to advocate, there is still a lot of research and testing to do. The data isn’t in that show exactly how retailers might best harness relationship quality for shoplifting prevention. But some past studies do suggest specific antecedents of retailer-customer relationship quality that could likely impact shoplifting outcomes. These are factors that LP leaders should assess, as they can increase or decrease the quality of relationships-and thus theft.
1. Retailer’s participation in corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing activities. Research shows that corporate social responsibility enhances customer loyalty by providing a platform to contribute to a particular social cause that is important to them. Researchers suggest it can also be an important step in developing “patrons.” “We expect that a retailer’s participation in corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing activities positively influences retailer-customer relationship which ultimately stimulates customer’s integrity and shoplifting preventive behavior.”
2. Retailer’s service quality. There are various factors affecting customers’ shopping experience that impact both customer satisfaction as well as their perception of service fairness, trust, and commitment. As such, it is another critical variable of relationship quality that could be leveraged to reduce theft, suggest researchers. “We expect that a retailer’s service quality positively influences retailer-customer relationship which ultimately stimulates customer’s integrity and shoplifting preventive behavior.”
3. Customer’s bond with retailer’s place. As the result of their experience within a physical space, people can form attachments with physical entities, including retail stores. Positive association with a space can help enhance relationship quality, which may encourage shoplifting prevention.
With new technology as a driving force, retail is moving toward more experience-oriented and personalized customer engagement. While it’s not exactly clear how these new marketing strategies may support loss prevention, it seems that they could serve as a new approach to shoplifting prevention techniques. Formal surveillance measures such as installing surveillance equipment and staff training will always be necessary, but research suggests that there is also LP opportunity by enhancing relationships with shoppers and turning them into “patrons.”