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Emotional Intelligence and Store Design

By Miller Zell

The tired dad pulls up to the drive-through window to pick up his family’s dinner, his two young children screaming in the back seat. The associate hands the man his food.

Then she says, “Sir, I’ve included four double-fudge brownies... on us. Have a great evening!”

Pause for a moment on this exchange and recall this oft-used quote: “They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

This scene is about Emotional Intelligence in retail (specifically empathy and social skills). On the most basic level, it’s about a QSR employee giving a customer a freebie. But it’s much more than that -- on both ends of the exchange. And these sorts of interactions amid the stress and anxieties emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and its eventual aftermath are more important than ever.

Of course, our anecdote concludes with a happy customer, what every retailer wants. Not only is the stressed-out dad getting something for free, the offering probably elevated his previously grumpy children’s mood.

But you know who else is smiling? The associate. She was empowered to make this decision, and it made her work experience more satisfying. She’s an engaged employee who evaluated a situation and then delivered a great customer experience. Here’s a guess that the beleaguered father will remember the next time he’s looking for a quick meal.

This fairly simple anecdote connects on a foundational level to how Miller Zell applies Emotional Intelligence – EI – to retail research, strategy and design. We want to facilitate such exchanges through our retail solutions. Why? Because a critical part of creating a great customer experience is optimizing the associate experience, inspiring and empowering your employees with the best possible environment, initiatives and tools to present your brand at its aspirational best.

It’s not just about being nice or emphasizing customer service. This is a holistic approach to the customer experience, one that rises above the transaction but is nonetheless still geared toward ROI.

For example, consider your recent digital upgrades. Your app is powerful and those new LED screens are impressive. Some customers will be immediately engaged. But others won’t, and getting them to leap into new technology requires knowledge and enthusiasm from your store associates.

Therefore a critical part of your strategy before adoption is anticipating how employees will engage with your new technology and use it to serve your customers. Employee training needs to provide them both knowledge and a sense of investment in your new digital elements.

This intersects with store design that incorporates EI. The decisions about your technology – its placement; its surroundings; and, critically, its content – all will influence both your associate and customer engagement.

Retail EI is about a collaboration between store and associates that enables a connection with a variety of customers and the diverse experiences they are seeking.

For example, when Miller Zell partnered with toy industry disruptor, Kefi, we sought to create immersive environments that appealed to both adults and their children. Kefi also wanted its stores to be nimble, capable of reacting as they sensed customers’ wants and needs changing.

Recognizing that its core customers – young parents – aren’t worried about retail silos, Kefi has evolved its retail environment into more of a lifestyle boutique, where associates can direct children and their parents to enjoyable but different experiences at the same time.

EI in retail is about connecting brands and customers. EI in store design creates an environment that enables EI, one that meets the customers and associates at their best place to collaborate.

Another Miller Zell client, Chick-fil-A, wanted to evolve the look of its Truett’s Chick-fil-A sit-down restaurants. It wanted a design that was both familiar and modern, but most essentially one that maintained an authentic connection to Chick-fil-A’s iconic founder, S. Truett Cathy.

We poured ourselves into research into Cathy’s wonderful backstory, knowing that his life would connect with customers and foster a sense of nostalgia. Our design provided a contemporary dining experience rooted in tradition that was comforting to diners, one that supplemented Chick-fil-A’s much-noted emphasis on customer service.

EI isn’t always about sentiment. Miller Zell partnered with Buffalo Wild Wings for a new concept restaurant in Las Vegas, and one of the strategic design decisions was including a basketball court, so customers could eat, drink, watch sports and... play sports. It’s not hard to imagine an enthusiastic associate making this experience better for both eager and tentative hoopsters.

Emotionally intelligent store design connects not only to the customer; it also must optimize the experience of the associates so they can better connect with the customer.

This means anticipating, understanding and reacting to a range of new norms for public spaces due to shopper concerns with social distancing and hygiene.

As for the ROI that accompanies such a focus, research by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman “shows that people would rather do business with those they like and trust rather than someone they don’t, even if it costs them more.”

Therefore, your store strategy and design should focus on engaging your associates so they then deliver experiences customers want and need in order to become loyal.

Editor's note: This story was published in March of 2020.

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