The Ten Foot Rule

Posted on Posted in retail strategy

Sam Walton, eponymous founder of the world’s biggest retailer, Walmart, spent his life practicing what he called “the ten-foot rule”. The rule is simple: if you come within 10 feet (about 3 metres) of a customer, look him or her in the eye, smile and ask if you can help. On store visits, Walton would encourage his sales associates to take the “ten-foot rule pledge”. And in Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, it was de rigueur to flash the pearly whites when you came within smiling distance of anyone. The smile became part of the Walmart culture, and a “smiley” icon was even adopted as the mascot for Walmart’s long-running “Rollback” campaign. (Walmart subsequently even tried to register the “smiley” trademark, but failed.)

It’s simple stuff, but smiling sells. In his 2008 book “Buy-ology”, marketing guru Martin Lindstrom reported on a research study which looked at how “joy, or happiness, affects shoppers”. Respondents were asked to imagine that they were visiting a fictitious travel agency, and had to interact with one of three types of sales assistants: a smiling woman, a sad sack, or a female who looked completely fed up. Unsurprisingly, the smiling woman engendered the most positive customer experience, evoked joy in the customer, and research participants reported that they would be more likely to return to this kind of company.

A study in San Francisco Magazine backs up the fact that service with a smile leads to repeat business. In relation to restaurants, the magazine reported that more than 50% of people say they won’t return to a place with bad service, even if the food is stunning. On the other hand, 30% of consumers would go back to a restaurant where the service was good, even if their meal was so-so. That really resonates with me – one of my pet hates is sullen staff and poor service.

Humans are hard-wired to respond positively to smiling faces. In 2008, researchers at North America’s Duke University discovered that the image of a smiling face preferentially activates the orbitofrontal complex, an area of the brain responsible for reward processing. That makes evolutionary sense, as in our prehistoric past, you needed quick visual cues to distinguish between friend and foe.

More U.S. research has shown that a smile can actually increase your average sale. A famous Winkielman/Berridge study demonstrated that thirsty subjects shown subliminal images of a smiling face were willing to pay about twice as much for a drink than respondents who were unconsciously exposed to an angry face.

So if you want customers who are engaged, predisposed to spend, and committed to come back, it’s worth adopting your own version of Sam Walton’s “ten-foot rule”. Make a friendly smile an integral part of your customer engagement strategy. And check it’s happening via your mystery shopper program. As the saying goes, “a smile costs nothing, but gives much”.

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