What Retailers Don’t Know – But Churches Can Learn

For the final post on my return review of Paco Underhill’s classic book Why We Buy, it’s time to dive into the brains of retailers and take a look at what they don’t know – and what churches can learn from them.

  • How many of the people who walk into stores buy something? The quick, and wrong, answer is almost 100%. The conversion, or closure rate – the percentage of shoppers who become buyers – is almost always thought to be much higher than it actually is. Conversion rates measure what you make of what you have – it shows how well (or how poorly) the entire enterprise is functioning where it counts the most: in the store. It’s all about what happens within the four walls of the store.

ChurchWorld Lesson: How effective are you with what you’ve got in terms of ministry? Marketing, advertising, promotion and a great location can help bring guests to your church – but it’s the job of your leadership team, the ministries you’re attempting, and the entire church body to make sure the Guests not only leave fulfilled, but return. Maybe as second timers, maybe eventually as participants and then members. The lesson: How are your assimilation systems working? Sure, you’ve got a great front door, and maybe even a few effective side doors – but how big is your back door?

  • How long does a shopper spend in the store? Assuming that he or she is shopping and not standing in line, this may be perhaps the single most important factor in determining how much she or he will buy. Studies have shown a direct relationship between the amount of time in a store and the resulting sales volume; usually a buyer spends almost 50% more time than a non-buyer.

ChurchWorld Lesson: There are certainly differences of opinion in the church world as to how long you want Guests and members to linger before or after worship services. Churches with multiple services often need to have a smooth transition from one service to another. This is an area where design or renovation can play a critical role: make adequate space for a foyer, café, other gathering place so that those who choose to do so can fellowship with others. Another opportunity for evaluation in this area might be the pace of services – does the timing/scheduling need to be altered?

  • What is the store’s interception rate? Interception rate is the percentage of customers who have some contact with an employee. This is an especially important measurement in a time when stores use fewer full-time employees and more minimum-wage employees. Research has established a direct relationship: the more shopper-employee contacts that take place, the greater the average sale. Talking with an employee has a way of drawing a customer in closer.’

ChurchWorld Lesson: This is a critical factor in making Guests feel welcome to your church. Well-trained and observant Guest Experience teams should make all people feel welcome to your church by extending a verbal welcome and offering a handshake or other appropriate physical touch. Guests especially need to have a verbal interaction with someone beyond a cursory “Good Morning”. The key is to engage the Guest as you are attending to their needs.

  • How long does the store make customer’s wait? Studies have shown this is the single most important factor in customer satisfaction. Few retailers realize that when shoppers are made to wait in line (or anywhere else) their impression of overall service plunges.

ChurchWorld Lesson: While church participants aren’t likely to leave like a shopper might in a long checkout line, it can happen. Most often you will find this expressed in the parking lot – in church consultations observing traffic patterns I have seen cars pull in, find no parking spots, and pull right back out onto the street. Examine all your areas where waiting might occur – can you reduce, or eliminate, wait time?

  • Who are the shoppers in the store? Take the retail store who stocks pet treats on upper shelves, unaware that the main buyers of this product were senior adults and young children. Or the family style restaurant who had too many tables for two and not enough for four or more, which caused headaches during busy times. Or the Florida-based drugstore chain’s Minneapolis branch, where a full assortment of suntan lotions was on prominent display – in October.

ChurchWorld Lesson: This is probably one of the most important areas church leaders can discover – and one that many church leaders get wrong over half of the time. Who is in your target area of ministry? Who is coming to your church? Who is not coming to your church? Grouped under the broad area of demographics, this type of information is invaluable to help you understand who your neighbors are and how they may be changing. Once you understand the who, it is much easier to begin to answer the how, where, and why questions of ministry.

As I close this brief foray into the science of shopping, I need to remind you of a couple of things: First, there is a whole lot more about this area that I think could be very beneficial to churches who want to make sure they are doing all they can to attract and retain Guests who come to their churches. My focus has been on the front end of that – hospitality – and there is a lot more. Interested? Contact me for a conversation.

Also, there are probably many who would say all this focus on the church guest and member in a consumer mindset is wrong. Certainly, everyone is entitled to their opinion. Mine is that we live in a very consumer-driven, consumer-oriented society. The competition for churches seeking to reach new people is not other churches – it’s any place and any experience that these people will compare your church to.

Shouldn’t we be doing the very best we can to reach them?

Read Part 1 of this series here.

Read Part 2 of this series here.

Parallels in the Retail and Church Worlds

Today is the second look at what the church can learn from the retail world. Below you will find a synopsis of the classic work done by Paco Underhill, noted leader in the field of retail observation and analysis. After each section is a bullet-point application to your church.

 If we went into stores only when we needed to buy something, and if once there we bought only what we needed, the economy would collapse, boom.

This quote, by Why We Buy author Paco Underhill, was eerily prescient when written in 1999. In his revision of the book in 2009 as the world was in the midst of an economic crisis, it was still spot on. Today, we continue to experience the turmoil of a shifting economy when people are rightly making wise decisions when purchasing. Even so, you almost have to make an effort to avoid shopping today. Stay at home to avoid all the stores? Internet shopping is available 24/7, delivered right to your door. No computer, no problem – home shopping networks will gladly sell you the latest gizmo for 3 monthly payments of only $39.99. But wait – there’s more! Don’t check your mailbox if you’re going to avoid all those catalogs, sales flyers, and direct mail offers. The result – we are now dangerously over-retailed – too much is for sale, through too many outlets. Retailers are not opening stores in the US to serve new markets anymore. They are opening stores to try to steal someone else’s customers.

  • Your church’s competitors isn’t other churches – today churches are competing with any other company, service, or event in which the customer has a positive experience. Remember that people are first consumers, and the environments they live, work and play in are the ones that will first attract, and then keep them to your campus. Guests to your services are making dozens of decisions about your church before they hear the first music of your worship team, or the great sermon you’ve prepared. Those decisions will play a major role in whether or not they will return.

Just a few decades ago, the commercial messages intended for consumers came in highly concentrated, reliable form: there were three TV networks, AM radio only, a few national magazines, and each town’s daily newspapers. Retailers advertised in those media, and the message got through loud, clear, and dependably. Today there are hundreds of TV channels; FM, satellite, and Internet radio; hundreds of magazines devoted to each special interest; and exponentially expanding Internet sites for information and entertainment. Mobile devices and the hundreds of thousands of apps available for them are the next wave of technology. Simultaneously, we are witnessing the erosion of the influence of brand names. A generation or two ago, you chose your brands early in life and stuck by them loyally until your last shopping trip. Today, in some ways, every buying decision is a new one, and nothing can be taken for granted.

  • Churches, too, are heavily impacted by the fact that traditional branding and marketing are no longer effective tools for connecting with potential members. While they may build brand awareness and help provide information, those factors seem to have a lessening impact in the final decision. Just as shoppers are becoming more susceptible to impressions and information they acquire in stores, Guests to your church are being impacted by your physical campus. An important medium for transmitting messages and helping people make decisions is now your building appearance and “people flow” within in. Consider your facilities a great big three-dimensional marketing tool for the ministries of your church.

Underhill’s studies also proved that the longer a shopper remains in the store, the more he or she will buy. And the amount of time a shopper spends in a store depends on how comfortable and enjoyable the experience is.

  • Imagine a guest coming to your facility for the first time: what if they couldn’t find a convenient place to park near the main entrance; had trouble locating where to drop their kids off; got turned around and lost on the way back to the worship center because of the lack of signage; were dismayed by the dinginess of your children’s space; … you get the picture. Now imagine the same Guest driving in a well-marked parking lot with greeters directing them to a guest parking spot right by the main entrance; another greeter welcoming at the door, and helping the Guest find bright, cheerful, warm spaces that their child eagerly rushes into, staffed by caring leaders; color-coordinated signs direct your guests to and from the worship center with no confusion; and so on. Which Guest is going to return?

So, the “science” of shopping can teach the church a lot about how our building appearances and our welcoming processes can improve our ability to attract, and retain, guests (and members).

How does this “science” lesson translate to your church?

Read Part 1 of this series here.

Go to Part 3 here.

Shopping and the Church

This post by my boss Will Mancini on how churches can leverage trends in retail brought to mind some research I had done a couple of years ago about the connection between retail stores and the church.

What? You don’t think there are some similarities between the two? Read on, and then let me know what you think…

Paco Underhill, the founder and CEO of Envirosell, Inc. wrote the book on the science of shopping – literally. Why We Buy, originally written in 1999 and updated in 2009, is a witty and pragmatic report from the retail trenches on consumers’ tastes and habits — what makes them tick, what happens to people in stores, how to influence or change customers, and how and why customers change stores. Envirosell is a research and consulting firm that advises a blue-chip collection of Fortune 100 companies seeking to understand the behavior and motivation of the contemporary consumer. Envirosell films, records, and follows 50,000 to 70,000 shoppers through their retail experiences in stores, banks, and public spaces. Underhill uses video, trained “trackers” (researchers who discreetly cruise the aisles tracking shoppers and making notes on their activities), and photo analysis to help retailers understand why consumers buy – or don’t. Here’s a quick story that shows how Underhill and the Envirosell team’s research documented, then changed, the way many stores market a common item today.

A large company owned a chain of drugstores throughout the country. In efforts to understand buying patterns, they had Underhill study a typical store near their headquarters. It was located in an enclosed regional mall in the Northeast. The store’s sales were good overall, but in one category – analgesics – it was underperforming. Video study showed that the closure rate – the percentage of shoppers who bought – was below expectations. Plenty of customers picked up the packages, read the labels, but didn’t complete the purchase. The company’s previous studies had shown that the conversion rate was high, so there was another factor at work.

store aisle

Over the course of three days, a pattern emerged. The aspirin was displayed on a main aisle, on the path to some refrigerated cases of soft drinks, which tended to draw many customers to that section of the store. The main customers for the cold drinks were teenagers, many of them mall employees on a quick break. They would rush down the aisle, grab a drink, and hurry back to the front to checkout. Along the way, they would have to brush by customers – often median and senior adults in the aspirin aisle. The video studies showed that many times the aspirin shoppers would simply stop their browsing and walk away empty-handed.

The primary learning was that a store has more than one constituency, and it must therefore perform several functions, all from the same premises. Sometimes those functions coexist in perfect harmony, but other times they clash.

Hello? Does this sound like your church? Do you not have various constituencies “competing” for the same space and resources? Does it often seem like a tug-of-war with no winners?

The solution for the drugstore chain? They moved the aspirin to a quieter section of the store, where sales rose 15% immediately. They also located a selection of cold drinks and snacks close to the front of the store – a move that has now become industry standard.

That’s what the science of shopping can teach the church. People have habits on how they move in spaces, interact with others, and make decisions.

Why not study the retail world and apply those principles to the design and operations of our churches?

What are some retail lessons you have observed and have implemented at your church?

Read Part 2 in this series here.

Senses and Sensibility – Getting Back to Basics

Do you long for the “good old days” when the pace of our lives was simpler and life was slower? As comedian Will Rogers once said,

Things ain’t what they used to be – and probably never was.

There’s no use longing for the good old days. In a world that is:

  • Increasingly hurried
  • Painfully insecure
  • Physically and mentally exhausting
  • Socially and economically fragmented, and
  • Psychologically and emotionally demanding

Millions of people are desperately in need of opportunities to feel:

  • Free from time pressure
  • Safe and secure in their surroundings
  • Pleasantly stimulated, physically and mentally
  • At peace with themselves and others, and
  • Ready to be open-minded, creative, and productive

Organizations that can provide such opportunities by re-imagining the Guest experience will attract an enormous number of Guests in the years ahead and keep them coming back.

Guest experience – in a church? Here’s where the “common sense” comes into play. Just like the business you frequent often, churches delivering experiences that exceed Guest’s expectations are those to which people return, again and again, until they’re no longer Guests but full-fledged members of the church community. When a Guest thinks “Wow!” it is because he or she feels affirmed or valued. The church has said, “You matter.” While you may not be trying to sell a product, your Guest (and potential member) is very much “shopping” for a church. More important, they are shopping for a spiritual experience that addresses their personal needs. Why not make sure you do all in your power to make it happen?

A Potpourri of Guest Improvement Ideas

Visit your church …again – How familiar are you with your own church building and campus? We all tend to get comfortable with our own surroundings and overlook what our Guests see. Try to see your facilities through a fresh set of eyes – your guest’s eyes.

  • How easy is it to drive onto your campus and find convenient parking close to your buildings?
  • What’s the condition of the parking lots, sidewalks, and landscaping?
  • Are there greeters and parking lot helpers to guide you into the building?
  • Are the buildings and rooms identified?
  • Is there a welcome area that is warm and inviting and that has smiling helpful people staffing it?
  • Do you have a café or refreshment area nearby for guests and members?
  • If you have children, it is easy to find the right place for them? Do the security measures in place give you a sense of peace as you leave your child?

Visit another church in your community – What can you learn from visiting another church?

  •  How do they handle parking and greeting?
  • What kinds of signage do they use?
  • How are the people greeting one another? Do feel like they’re invading your “space”, or are you comfortable?
  • When you first walk inside the building, what do you smell?
  • Is the area visually cluttered, or pleasing?
  • What’s the noise level like?
  • Is there a café area? Is it clean?

Overall, does the facility make you feel welcome? How does the personal impact of the people fit in to the surroundings?

Visit other types of places and engage all your senses – The next time you dine out, take on the role of a critic. Not just of the food, but of the total experience.

  •  What are your impressions of the parking area, the restaurant, host/hostess, wait time, staff – and don’t forget the food!
  •  How was the experience?
  • What wowed you?

You’re not trying to find something wrong – you’re trying to train yourself to use all your senses to imagine what Guests are experiencing when they come to your church.

Identify potential distractions – and work to remove them – If your Guests become distracted because they can’t find a place to park, or their children’s room has an odor in it, or whatever, you will have a difficult time re-engaging them for the real experience you’re trying to establish: a personal encounter with Jesus. When you eliminate potential or obvious distractions, you are one step closer to satisfying your Guests.

Company’s coming – are you ready to “WOW” them? Use your common sense to engage all of your Guest’s senses and their first impression will be a positive and lasting one.

Want to know more? Expand your “sensory knowledge” by reading:

  • First Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church, Mark L. Waltz
  • The Experience Economy, Updated Edition, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore
  • How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb
  • The Starbucks Experience, Joseph Michelli
  • The Apple Experience, Carmine Gallo
  • Setting the Table, Danny Meyer
  • Chocolates on the Pillow Aren’t Enough, Jonathan M. Tisch
  • Brand Sense, Martin Lindstrom
  • Moments of Truth, Jan Carlzon
  • Why We Buy, Paco Underhill