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Breaking the paralysis of choice

Do you remember the first time you confronted the paradox of choice?

For me, it happened early in my career. I was a sales manager at a well-known retailer and noticed that the more varieties of white shirts we put on display, the longer it took customers to make a buying decision. Instead of a quick grab and go, they’d spend hours in the dressing rooms, agonizing over small differences in collar and sleeve styles.

This phenomenon still afflicts retailers today. But the good news is, there are things we can do to address it. In my current role heading Microsoft consumer sales, I’ve found some approaches that have been effective in helping customers arrive at buying decisions they’re happy with. Whether we’re the retailer ourselves or, like my team at Microsoft, we’re working with retail partners, we all have a special privilege: We have something customers want to buy.

First, a little background. The paradox of choice says that the more choices available, the less likely a shopper is to make a decision – and the more likely he or she is to have post-purchase regrets. Given the online proliferation of options and the anywhere/anytime nature of shopping via mobile devices, this paralysis has touched many retail businesses. That included our consumer PC business.

Consumer electronic purchasers, 80 percent of whom start their journey online (Source: PwC Report 2018), can get so overwhelmed by the number of options that they simply postpone a decision. The PC refresh cycle for consumers grew to 4+ years in the US market and five years in Japan. Additionally, satisfaction rates were poor: Even when shoppers made a buying decision, our own product satisfaction scores told us 25% had regrets about buying the wrong device.

What we needed was a way to help customers find their way through the maze of choices and arrive at a device that was right for them. We landed on a 3-part turn-around strategy we call retail reimagined.

Know your customers. Help them focus online.

Our first step was to build an online product advisor that posed a simple series of lifestyle questions that led to a curated collection of devices. Are you a road warrior who needs to be productive on the go? Check out these devices with lots of processing power and 12+ hours of battery life. Maybe you’re a fashion-conscious student with an active social life: Consider these 5 laptops that are fast and light with beautiful exteriors.

As shopper select devices, we then accompany and reassure them throughout their journey helping them make the right choices on their way to checkout. A clever third party solution called Glaze enables retailers to create millions of smooth and seamless consumer experiences that enrich shopping opportunities to convert more and upsell and cross-sell offers to the right person, such as promotions on Microsoft Office software to run on their PC. This personalized customer attention to add-ons that would improve their experience increased the purchase of Office by up to 270 percent in our initial pilot.

Empower your employees. Especially the ones in sales.

While online is good for researching options, we know 90% of online buyers want to see and touch their PC before completing the purchase (Source: Microsoft Path-to-Purchase FY18 Q4). But the in-store experience was a disconnect. Shoppers faced a sea of devices with no easy way to locate their online preferences. Sales staff struggled to differentiate the multitude of devices and to deliver a product demo that spoke to shoppers’ needs. The instore experience was not making friends or influencing people.

Retail expert Dev Mukherjee lays it out: “It used to be that an unhappy customer would talk to a dozen friends and family members over several weeks. Now, with social media and customer reviews, a negative or positive comment can reach hundreds in a few minutes – and the comments live forever.”

The first task was staff retraining to emphasize customer satisfaction over closing sales. Instead of mastering product specs, we’ve provided training so our partners can focus more on interpersonal and storytelling skills. They’re having conversations with customers not about what the device can do, but what the customer can do with that device, and how the device can enhance great experiences like making friends in gaming communities and building family photo albums. One UK retailer is sending its sales teams to drama school to work on voice, confidence and personal presence.

Next: focusing the product demos on customer experiences instead of tech specs. On 250,0000 screens connected to the internet instore, customers now get an interactive experience personalized to their needs and likes. Done right, this increased the time spent on a device to nearly five minutes, up from an average of 90 seconds. The sweet spot is a standalone demo followed by a salesperson-hosted one – this combination is driving our best rates for converting shoppers to buyers and for selling software along with PC devices.

Reimagine retail. Out with clutter, in with clean.

This is really the heart of our retail reimagined effort. The same way we’ve decluttered the Windows online screen, we’ve worked with partners to declutter the physical spaces with fresh and open designs. Out are crowded tables of devices; in are streamlined and spacious layouts that have inviting entry points and collection-based assortments. There’s also a concierge space in select retailers where shoppers can walk up with any question and get immediate expert help.

The overall effect is clean, warm and welcoming. The more open layouts make it easier for customers to get their bearings and find what they’re looking for. The focus on collections allows a more logical grouping of the devices that customers like most. Data backs us up here: in the reimagined spaces, customers are 4x more likely to buy that day and 5x more likely to make a retailer recommendation to others.

By making a few improvements to the customer journey, my team found some ways to help customers along the purchase path. So, while we probably can’t completely remove the paradox of choice, we do have the power to make it less paralyzing.

Thanks for letting me share some of our retail learnings. Here’s to changing the paradox of choice and the power to find exactly what you want!

Learn more in our Retail Trends Playbook.