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Maximising the last mile — the power of point of sale

The key question is not whether or not customers can recall the brand. But rather where and when do they think of the brand, and how easily and often do they think of it?

(Building Customer-based Brand Equity: Kevin Lane Keller, Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and K. K. Davey, Knowledge Networks WARC, 2001)

Imagine installing a massive, multi-million telephone network. But neglecting to provide any telephone connections. Absurd isn’t it? Yet this is the mistake many brands make when trying to reach out to people. They spend millions of rupees on high visibility and high cost advertising. But pay much less attention to the place where people actually make the decision to buy or not. At the point of sale.

There are some companies that have paid attention and have reaped the benefits. Frito Lay, took their product out of the dark interiors and crowded shelves of grocery stores. And put them on to racks placed at the entrance of the store. They brought the brand closer to the shopper’s field of impulse. And in time, to their hearts as well. That one single innovation gave their range of salty snacks a step jump up in preference and sales. What they recognised was that high voltage advertising isn’t enough. How you reach out and touch people when they’re actually about to buy, can make a significant difference.

When you visit a car showroom. Or shop for ingredients for your signature culinary creation. Or browse through a premium apparel store. Or visit an electronics store. What’s the experience like then? Does a luxury brand ensure that the sales experience matches the hype? Is the car salesman really equipped to answer your questions? More important, does he reflect the values of the brand? In a grocery store how do the displays differentiate a brand from its competitors? How does it stand apart from the clutter?

This is the point when many brands seem to say “Ok we’ve got you so far. Now we’ll leave you to it.” The last mile connect is lost. Sometimes brands treat ubiquitous consumer promotions as an example of connecting with them. But what are these promotions actually saying to you? That things are a bit “sluggish” so the brand would like to give you an inducement to buy it. Or that it may not be as good as its competitor, so here is an inducement to choose it. Or that this might not be the season when you’d consider the brand or the category. So here’s some enticement to buy it now, rather than later. Promotions are part of the marketers’ armoury. And a necessary one at that. However very few actually strengthen a brand’s connect with its audience.

So that comes back to the core issue. Of finding ways to bring the brand to life at the point where people buy it. There are some interesting examples. An off-road automobile brand brought the wild outdoors in to its dealerships. It recreated camping, complete with tents and climbing gear. Nappa Dori has one of the most coherent, imaginative and well curated store experiences in retail. In the personal care industry sales promoters have a significant impact on the sales of a brand. The best trained promoters do not actually hard-sell their brand. But instead start a conversation with the customer. To find out their needs and advise them accordingly. They act as brand spokespersons rather than salespeople.

Many times the people present at the point of sale become the brand’s biggest handicap. Rather than its greatest asset. There are many luxury brands where sales people are completely unaware of the magic that the brand represents. Magic that makes it worth paying so much more for. Car salesmen who are unaware of and not particularly interested in the cars they are selling. Especially those selling “mass” cars. Even though for the customer it isn’t a “mass” purchase. Disinterested telecom service staff who want to close the deal and move on to the next customer. Rather than spending time to understand what the customer needs and addressing it. The flood of FMCG products results in an array of bewildering choices, crowded together on store shelves. Other than visibility at the retail outlet what do these brands stand for? Colourful labels and the occasional example of interesting packaging? What can people expect from these brands? And why should they recall them or return to re-purchase them the next time they go shopping?

And if talent isn’t available, how about using technology? Why can’t an automobile brand have a Siri equivalent in their showrooms? A digital interface that answers questions with greater expertise than a bored salesperson. Consumer durable showrooms could use these as well. With AI and machine learning the solution for many categories may lie in technology. However technology can be easily adopted. A differentiating and engaging point of sale experience requires a well differentiated brand. To succeed in today’s very competitive market is there any other way? There are categories that can be very effective in creating point of sale enthusiasm. Automobile brands are one example. The test drive can become an experience rather than a routine. An SUV brand dealer, for example, who expected you to treat the drive test as a test of your own off-road skills. It also helped that he was an experienced rally driver. An assiduous salesperson at a mobile handset shop. He spent the best part of an hour ensuring a perfect fit for the screen protector of a digital camera. So much effort fitting a screen protector to a product that wasn’t bought from his store. But what he did ensure is that the next time a mobile phone was being considered, his store would be the first stop. We all have anecdotal examples of individuals who go that extra mile to help out. To advise and create invaluable goodwill for the brand. But can you recall any brand that does this as a matter of course? How much of it depends upon individual initiative? How much of the point of sale experience is curated by the brand?

Some fast-food brands have ritualised elements of service. And thus created a unique and uniform experience. But these are few and far between. What happens most often is the uniformity of indifference. Service sector brands have a big challenge. That of creating a brand out of intangible experiences. But they also have the big opportunity of bringing the brand to life. Every interaction with people creates a brand moment of truth. Which if managed well, comes to represent the brand for those who come in contact with it. A well articulated brand credo must have a direct impact on customer choice. And it must be codified into a training program. The staff dealing with customers must be committed to it. By understanding the credo and the raison d’être for it, conviction, rather than process ability, would be inculcated. This would have two significant benefits. First, these brand advocates would bring the brand to life for customers. Second, these advocates would be able to show how the brand is so “right” for the customer. And thus enrich its competitive advantage in the mind of the customer.

But it isn’t about the salesperson alone. Today technology can be used in surprising and sustainable ways. Ways that provide a superior point of sale experience. ATMs have obviated the need for interacting with disinterested tellers. Audi has created a rich virtual experience in its showroom. If the real value of brick and mortar stores is their shopping experience — are they effective in exploiting it? The point of sale experience can be a mere transaction. Or it can be transformational. In category after category, word of mouth is a powerful driver of preference and sales. The point of purchase experience is a great opportunity to generate positive word of mouth. A combination of smart automation and well trained personnel could transform the experience. And the fortunes of the brand.

To finish first in the race for a person’s heart, a brand must lunge ahead of its competition at this, the final and crucial decision point.