Management Retail Service

‘Counter culture’

Order Reprints
‘Counter culture’

Have you noticed that companies with excellent reputations serve up excellent customer experiences at the point of sale? As an example, when waiting in line to purchase a cup of coffee from Starbucks, you are likely to hear a barista say, “What can we get started for you?”

Several things happened at that moment; the customer has been acknowledged, and the engagement has begun. The customer realizes he/she is closer to that delicious cup of coffee. This is trained behavior on the part of Starbucks’ employees. I hear it spoken repeatedly at nearly every Starbucks location I visit, especially if the line is long. Acknowledgement and engagement is important to the customer experience.

I remember my first exposure to tire sales training back in the mid – 1970s. The Five Steps to a Tire Sale started with a friendly greeting. The trainer emphasized that an associate should greet or acknowledge a customer moments after they enter the store.

Today when I enter a retail establishment and approach a sales counter, it only takes me a moment to realize what type of service I’m about to experience. Some associates recite words from a training manual; other associates use the same words, but actually engage; and still others just allow random words to fall out of their mouths.

There is a feeling or culture surrounding a retail sales counter, and I am going to call it the “counter culture.”

Counter culture today is driven by many factors; the physical appearance or visual message of the counter, its functionality, its welcomeness. The retail sales counter area is prime real estate; everything in a retail tire store starts and ends at the sales counter.

There’s an energy that happens (or not) at the counter. That energy, I define it as the culture. It resides at every counter in every store everywhere.

As we prepare for the reveal of our counter remodel at a 100-year-old retail tire operation in Los Angeles, I’d like to drive home three important points as you ponder the possible upgrades you might make to your counter culture.

The counter is a pivotal place. If your counter could talk, and it does, what does it say? Does it say, “Welcome, glad you’re here.”? Does it say, “Thank you.”? A retail sales counter should be comfortable, functional and visual.

Point #1 – Comfortable

Note the picture. This store offers customers a stool to sit on while engaging with associates. In a recent interview at this particular location, I asked about the stools. I noticed the customers seemed more relaxed while seated at the counter versus standing. One of the associates commented that it’s harder for a customer to leave if they have to get up in order to go. Their belief and observation is that when a customer is standing, it’s easier to say “no” and walk out because they are positioned to turn and walk out. Another observation, they claim customers are more relaxed when sitting, which is something to consider and possibly will be a wise investment. As an example, Target sells stools in a variety of colors for less than $50.

Point #2 – Functional

Note the picture. This sales counter is too narrow. It’s hard for associates to function on their side of the counter, signing for parts, receiving documents. Vehicle inspection forms and the like require some countertop space. This counter is too small. On the customers’ side of the counter, the countertop space is almost nonexistent. The lack of space actually says, “We have no place for you.” It’s unwelcoming.

Point #3 – A clear and visible message

In the 100-year-old tire store we’ve talked about in January and February, we are going to use the following message that ties into their business: “Integrity, past, present and future.” We are going to speak about the past, stand in the present, and point to the future.

The right messages delivered at the right time in the right place will influence consumer decisions. Is there a better place to influence your customers than when they are standing/sitting in front of your sales counter? Studies show that 75% of all buying decisions are made in the store.

A counter culture must be consistent or it’s confusing. I know of a tire store in Los Angeles that has the lowest tire prices every day ... (for real). Their waiting-room chairs are perhaps decades old. The nicest piece of furniture in the tiny showroom is the new Coke machine. Customers stand outside while the tires are changed. The message is, “We’re cheap, and we have the lowest price.” The message is clear and visible everywhere.

What does your counter say? Get ready for our “reveal” next month. It will be very eye opening.     ■

Wayne Williams is president of ExSell Marketing Inc., a “counter intelligence” firm based in La Habra, Calif. He can be reached at

For more of Wayne Williams' articles, see:

A different perspective on the sales counter

It all starts and ends at the sales counter

A hard look at procrastination

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