Sears Isn't Spotting Top Customers At The Door, But Should It Be?

Sears is not using technology to spot loyalty customers walking into some of its stores. On Tuesday (March 12), The Wall Street Journal reported the venerable 2,700-store chain is doing that in its Woodfield Mall store near Chicago. By the next day, the story had been tweaked: The store "might soon" do that. A Sears spokesman was more blunt: "We do not have that functionality," he said.

But Sears clearly wants it—like Neiman Marcus and every other big retailer. The challenge now isn't doing it, but figuring out how it can fit in with what customers expect.

After all, Sears isn't Neiman Marcus. That luxury chain's new iPhone app, which enables loyalty-program customers to check in at the door on their phones, and provides associates with a Facebook photo and purchase history so the customer can be greeted by name, wouldn't make much sense at a high-volume chain like Sears. If a Sears associate suddenly starts ambushing every customer who has a Shop Your Way Rewards card, those customers will be confused, and all the other customers will wonder why they can't find an associate when they need one.

Sears isn't alone in that dilemma. The ability to spot loyalty customers is going to translate differently for different retailers, especially those with high customer-to-associate ratios. In a drug store, for example, customers may not want to draw attention to themselves. In a grocery store designed for self-service, a door-to-register walk-through makes no sense at all for most customers. And how creepy would it have sounded for some Wal-Mart customers to be greeted by name by a greeter they'd never met?

That doesn't mean chains can't get value out of being able to spot their best customers. It just means that value needs to be handled differently in different places.

A customer who regularly buys tools at Sears (or Lowe's or Home Depot) probably has brand preferences and isn't likely to need another table saw if he already has one. Meeting him at the door doesn't make sense, but having his purchase history instantly available to an associate definitely does.

When a customer walks into a pharmacy to pick up a prescription, the ability to spot and fast-track that customer (if the prescription is ready to go) is exactly what the customer wants. Instead of waiting in line for a pharmacist, and then waiting while the pharmacist collects the filled prescription, everyone saves time.

The same is true at grocery stores where a customer is picking up, say, an online order. Concierge-style service isn't something every grocery customer with a large basket needs or wants. But some shoppers are perfect for the special service—especially when it shortens lines and gets customers out the door faster. In fact, that makes sense for many site-to-store pickups.

Unfortunately, although meeting a customer at the door isn't always appropriate, that is the easiest place to spot the customer. A combination of GPS and in-store Wi-Fi signals can tell you that a customer's phone has entered the store, and at what entrance. But once inside the store, tracking down that customer gets tough. Despite the current buzz over "in-store GPS," there's no such thing—just a collection of technologies, including mapping and Wi-Fi triangulation (but not GPS) that can usually pinpoint a customer within an aisle or two.

That is probably good enough to track a customer's arrival at the department where he or she spends the most money. It also provides the opportunity to collect the real prize from all that loyalty-program CRM information: not just more customer data, but more customer dollars.

But greeting customers at the door by name? It's appealing, because it's easy to do, and it's perfect for some chains. But if it doesn't make sense, then no matter how easy it is, it's a waste of money and technology.