Bored worker

Shoppers are unhappy with in-store retail experience

Shoppers said they were most likely to have an unenjoyable experience at a supermarket, followed by department stores and convenience stores. Many said “rude or unprofessional behavior” of workers was a problem they encountered.
Elizabeth Christenson
Editor, Retail Leader
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What it means: As in-store retail works to define its value proposition to consumers while e-commerce and third-party options grow, creating a valuable and positive customer is the most important factor to protecting in-store trips. Essential retail chains currently rank the worst in customer experience, which builds hurdles to fostering loyalty, as these sectors rely less on e-commerce penetration and more heavily on customers shopping in-store. Read on for more insights, details, and what's next!)

More than 40% of U.S. consumers said their shopping experiences are "less enjoyable" than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with 64% citing poorly trained or unprepared retail staff and 60% blaming inadequate staffing levels, according to a Theatro survey. While 63% of consumers are doing most of their shopping in-store, the recent holiday shopping season highlighted several key warning signs for retailers seeking to earn back customers, the survey found.

Theatro consumer experience

The results show a direct correlation between in-store experience and customer loyalty,” Chris Todd, Theatro’s CEO told Retail Leader Pro. “Overall, 50% of respondents said they had ‘stopped shopping at a specific retail store because its employees were unknowledgeable or unhelpful...' This indicates that as the perceived customer retail experience declines, customer loyalty declines also.”

Theatro consumer experience

Theatro timed its survey for last month — directly after the holiday shopping season — to get a sense of consumers' shopping experiences as the world returns to the new “normal.” Among those who said their experiences are less enjoyable, 60% said that more retail stores had inadequate staffing levels than in 2019, compared to 24% who said staffing was better and 16% who said it was about the same.

Theatro consumer experience

Survey responses suggest that consumers have noticed retailers are still struggling with staffing. Unfortunately, the survey results also indicate that consumers’ expectations for speed, convenience and getting answers to their questions quickly have grown along with their increased use of the e-commerce channel.  

Why in-store?

Consumers prefer shopping in retail stores to shopping online to see and feel products before buying them, Theatro found. While some predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic would permanently affect shoppers’ purchasing patterns, consumers expressed a strong desire for in-store shopping over online.

Key findings include:

  • 91% of consumers said they do at least half of all their shopping in physical retail stores. More than a quarter of respondents (27%) did all of their shopping in stores.
  • 87% of consumers said they shop in retail stores at least once weekly, with nearly a third saying they shop in stores either once daily (19%) or multiple times per day (13%).
  • Shoppers said they were most likely to have an unenjoyable experience at a supermarket (38%), followed by department stores (34%) and convenience stores (30%).
Theatro consumer experience

While consumers rated their experiences at supermarkets and convenience stores among the worst, only 18% named drug stores as a place where they were likely to have an unenjoyable experience. Among the 230 respondents who singled out supermarkets as a place where their experiences are likely to be unenjoyable, 51% said they considered their retail experiences less enjoyable than before the pandemic compared to 41% of respondents overall. Additionally, 50% of these respondents cited “rude or unprofessional behavior” of workers as a problem they had encountered, compared to 39% of respondents overall. 

Among those who singled out supermarkets as a place where their experiences are likely to be unenjoyable, 58% said they had stopped shopping at a specific store because of unknowledgeable or unhelpful staff — compared to 50% of respondents overall. 

“This shows that to stay competitive, stores have to invest in improving the in-store experience to meet the growing expectations of consumers,” Todd said.

Among those respondents who said they do most or all of their shopping at physical stores: 

  • 76% said they prefer in-store shopping because they like being able to see and touch the product. 
  • 44% said they like the immediate gratification of taking the products home with them. 
  • 25% said they like the social aspect of shopping. 
  • 21% said they like being able to ask questions and get help with purchases from in-store employees.
  • 20% said that it’s easier to return items at a physical store.

Among the 9% of respondents who said they do most or all of their shopping online, the majority (62%) cited convenience as the reason.

“Consumers are used to having the information they want at their fingertips online,” Todd said. “When they walk into a store, they expect a similar immediate response if they request assistance. That means when a retail worker is unable to answer a customer’s question, it causes more frustration than ever. Retailers need to connect their associates to each other and back-end business systems — like inventory systems — to provide shoppers with the information they need to complete their shopping experience. 

“Tools and training to better arm in-store workers to answer customer questions — and to do so quickly and thoroughly — are very important,” he added. “Knowledgeable and available associates are key to creating a seamless and frictionless customer experience every time.”


When asked, “What aspects of shopping at physical retail stores do you find most frustrating?,” 

  • 71% cited long lines and crowds.
  • 39% said high prices.
  • 32% named limited product availability. 
  • 29% stated “difficult or rude staff.
  • 24% complained of “unknowledgeable or unhelpful staff.”

When asked, “What are the most common problems you encounter with the employees you interact with at physical retail stores?” 

  • 41% complained about “lack of helpfulness or willingness to assist.” 
  • 41% cited “rude or unprofessional behavior.” 
  • 35% complained about “lack of product knowledge or expertise.”
  • 33% cited “lack of knowledge of where products are located in the store or whether they are in stock.”

Ultimately, frustrations with employees can cause consumers never to return, the survey found. When asked, “Have you ever stopped shopping at a specific retail store because its employees were unknowledgeable or unhelpful?,” half of respondents (50%) said “yes,” compared to 45% who said “no,” and 5% who said they weren’t sure.

What's next

Supermarkets, in particular, need to invest in human capital to improve customer experiences. In the post-pandemic period, finding and maintaining talent is challenging, which is certainly contributing to poor customer engagement. But, it’s the first line of defense that retailers have to build loyalty, and in-store innovations and improved assortments only go so far if consumers don’t want to engage with the store itself.