Are retailers neglecting the voice of the non-customer?

It feels like retail giants are dropping like flies on our high streets at the moment. The most recent, The Body Shop, was held with such great affection, but while White Musk-scented teenage memories may cast a warm glow, they don’t pay the rent. Once a ground-breaking retailer with vision and purpose, The Body Shop lost their way – and we lost our reasons to visit.

Not the first, and certainly not the last.  But in this age of so much customer data and ‘conversation’ to tap into, how do brands like these find themselves blindsided?

Could a clue lie in the salutary tale of BHS, so many moons ago?  When I was a fresh young researcher I helped manage their customer satisfaction research programme.  These were the days before online surveys, and we targeted their stores for our respondents. As customer satisfaction scores rose, BHS sales were plummeting. We wondered what the hell was going on. Of course, the answer was obvious – as fewer customers came into store, only the most loyal remained.  They still loved the place, but turns out there weren’t enough of them to save the chain.

Fast forward to 2024, and the ‘customer voice’ programmes that so many retailers employ to keep abreast of shopper opinion are in danger of falling into the same trap.  With ready access to customer databases, it’s natural that retailers want to build their own self-serve platforms to deliver insight – especially when the cost advantages are so compelling.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m a great advocate of keeping customers close.  But what about non-customers?  The ones that don’t visit, don’t sign up, don’t care?  Theirs are the voices retailers ignore at their peril.

Leaders in brand thinking, the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, remind us of the importance of extending brand reach by understanding how non-customers can be brought into the fold, even if only occasionally.  While current customers offer an engaged and invested viewpoint, the most successful brands don’t rely on loyalists to inform their next move.  They know they need to build awareness and salience among their lapsed and non customers in order to build penetration.  Author of Better Brand Health, Jenni Romaniuk, calls this ‘tuning out the noise to better hear the quiet consumer’.

And it’s that quiet consumer that can tell us so much.  The people who don’t shout the odds but just quietly ignore retailers: consider them irrelevant, expensive, difficult, not for them.

These are the voices that retailers need to turn the volume up on, to drive success and secure a future in a fiercely competitive market.  They tell us the misconceptions to change, the barriers to challenge, the friction points to smooth. In tough times that’s vital, of course – but in the good times too, to guard against complacency.  More expensive to research perhaps, but worth their weight in gold.

At Trinity McQueen we focus a lot of our thinking on closing the Say-Do gap – and here lies a classic example of how that gap can become a dangerous gulf for retailers if they’re not careful.  While ‘voices of the customer’ are saying a great deal, it’s what shoppers out in the wild are doing that really counts – especially if they are choosing to spend their money elsewhere.  Understanding this behaviour, and what drives it, is so important to provide a clear-eyed view of where improvement is needed and where a successful path lies.   Retail is a ruthless business.  Let’s take off the flattering filter and tackle the challenges, warts and all.