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The state of retail in New Jersey Still betting on bricks

Physical stores aren't dead. In fact, they suddenly have appeal to companies that previously shunned them

A look inside Comcast's XFINITY store in Cherry Hill.-(PHOTOS COURTESY COMCAST)

Anyone that’s had to pay a cable bill or pick up a new piece of equipment from their provider knows this room particularly well: small, gray spaces with the workers doling out receipts and cable boxes, often from behind Plexiglas.

Not surprisingly, Comcast XFINITY found that those spaces weren’t conducive to a positive customer experience.

And that’s at a time when cable companies are being forced to rethink their growth plans due to massive losses of consumers who have learned to “cut the cord.”

“It wasn’t the experience we wanted our customers to have,” said Mark Dionne, director of retail for the company.

So, the company is investing in one of the most unlikely spaces in this burgeoning internet economy: brick and mortar retail.

“As our company and products evolved, retail really looked like a space where we could take things to a whole new level,” Dionne said.

Last month, Comcast opened its 8th XFINITY store in New Jersey, located in Cherry Hill.

“We’ve been taking those old locations and moving them to retail locations where people do their shopping today,” he said. “We’ve greatly expanded the size and capabilities of the locations and really going from a transaction environment into an experience environment.”

Dionne said these new locations provide customers with the opportunity to experience the company’s products.

And it also addresses another concern: waiting for the cable guy or self-install kits in the mail.

“In today’s environment, people want immediate gratification,” Dionne said. “So, you can go to our location, pick up your equipment and have it working when you go home.”

While some customers prefer the convenience of shopping online, Dionne said there are many that prefer this type of immediate gratification.

And there’s only one “channel” that can provide that type of experience.

“Even if you do an order entry on our (dot-)com, you still have to wait for it to get to your house or for a technician to show up,” he said. “The only channel that can give you instant gratification is retail, and that is a big piece for us.

“Customers enjoy being able to come into a store and touch and feel the products and, if they so choose, be able to go home right away and have things working.”

The Cherry Hill location, Dionne said, is an example of the evolution of that idea.

“Cherry Hill is a great site for us as we continue to evolve the design and footprint of the store,” he said. “It’s a fantastic retail area, but it’s our next level of store where we have a lot of merchandise in the store that complements our products.”

Those products extend beyond and Comcast’s own offerings to complementary third-party products that enhance the cable company’s service.

Turning the tide
Much like long lines at the DMV, frustrating customer experiences are essentially ubiquitous with cable companies.
In a survey of 10,000 customers of top TV service providers, conducted by Tempkin Experience Ratings in May 2016, the bottom five companies ranked below an abysmal 50 percent satisfaction.
Comcast, which ranked the lowest, scored 37 percent in the poll.
Illustrating it had a finger on the pulse of the situation, Comcast pledged $300 million to improve the experience of its customers earlier that same month.
Speaking at an industry trade show in Chicago, Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit said: “There are times you just need to transform things and rethink things from the base level. That’s what we’ve done.”

“We have a nice variety of merchandise in the store, so we have our traditional products and merchandise that complements our products,” Dionne said. “So, if you hook up our security, now we have elements in the store — both internal and third-party products — that will work with those products.”

And while this all looks good on paper, these retail investments mean very little if they don’t achieve the original goal: measurable improvements in customer experience.

Dionne said these investments highlight just how serious the company is about improving the customer experience.

“We have to be honest about where we came from, and it wasn’t the right environment,” he said. “The new environment is very large with the right staff, so people don’t have to wait in line where they’re able to fully experience the products and have experts go through their services with them.”

With the common idea of a cable company’s customer service being call centers with long wait times, Dionne said these face-to-face interactions are priceless.

“There’s no better way to prove (how serious we are) than in a face-to-face interaction,” he said. “There can be times when we’re busy so, when customers do come in, we have people who are dedicated greeters where someone can interact with a customer as soon as they come in, find out what their needs are, check them in and eliminate the need to wait in line and let them be free to experience the store if all of our agents are busy.

“So, from the beginning of the interaction to the end, there’s a real nice customer touch point.”

E-mail to: andrews@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @sheldonandrewj

Andrew Sheldon
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