Customer expectations for service at apparel retail outlets

Customer expectations for service at apparel retail outlets

MiYoung Lee

Abstract: Apparel customers’ service expectations for discount, off-priced, specialty, and department stores as well as the sources of these expectations were investigated. The content and sources of customer service expectations were identified through responses to seven open-ended questions during six focus group interviews with students. When shopping for apparel, customers expected services associated with store amenities, store facilities, and sales associates; these expectations varied by the four kinds of apparel retail outlets. The participants identified price, merchandise characteristics, and their moods and personal backgrounds as sources for their expectations.

Finding excellent customer service is often a challenge for consumers. There is little agreement among retailers on what “customer service” is and which services are important (Dotson & Patton, 1992; Linda, 1990; Zemke & Schaaf, 1989). Identifying which services are most important to consumers means determining what they expect or value when shopping for a particular type of merchandise in a specific retail outlet (Sanderman, 1981). Using this information, retailers can offer their customers services that result in positive experiences.

Although customer service has been discussed (Bateson, 1977; Berry, 1980; Gronroos, 1978; Haywood-Farmer, 1985; Parasuraman, Zeithaml, & Berry, 1985; Shostack, 1977; Zeithaml, 1981), there is limited published research on customer service in apparel retailing. Those interested in apparel retailing have focused their efforts on determining which services customers typically prefer within one retail format but have not investigated the sources of customers’ expectations. In addition, the results of these efforts have been inconsistent (Bishop, 1992; Dotson & Patton, 1992; Linda, 1990). Therefore, this study investigated (a) the content of apparel customers’ service expectations at discount, off-priced, specialty, and department stores and (b) the sources of those service expectations.

Customer Service Expectations

Expectations are frequently used as standards for evaluating performance (Cadotte, Woodruff, & Jenkins, 1987; Parasuraman, Zeithaml, & Berry, 1985, 1988; Oliver, 1980). Satisfaction results from a close match between services consumers expect and those they receive. In a study of “pure” service industries, Parasuraman et al. (1988) found five customer service dimensions: tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy. Tangibles refers to physical facilities, equipment, and appearance of personnel. Reliability refers to the ability to perform the promised service dependably and accurately. Responsiveness refers to the willingness to help customers and provide prompt service. Assurance refers to the knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to inspire trust and confidence. Empathy refers to caring and the individualized attention that the firm provides its customers. Consumers may have expectations regarding service in each of these dimensions. These expectations stem from factors including personal service philosophies, personal needs, emergency situations, competition, perceived service role, situational factors (e.g., bad weather), advertising, price, word-ofmouth, and past experience.

Bishop (1992), in her survey of apparel specialty store customers, found only four dimensions of customer service. Her findings suggest differences exist between service expectations of pure service providers and the expectations of product and service providers. Of these dimensions, apparel customers rated personal attention (e.g., courteous associates) as the most important aspect of customer service, followed by convenience (e.g., convenient store hours) and security (e.g., error-free records).

Linda (1990) found that perceptions of the importance of services provided by sales associates differed between apparel consumers and store managers Perceptions also varied based on retail outlet. Managers placed highest importance on associates’ offers to help, while consumers placed highest importance on associates? knowledge of where to locate merchandise. Discount shoppers placed greater importance on sales associates remaining nearby, greeting them, and remembering their names than did either department or specialty store shoppers. Department store shoppers put greater importance on sales associates’ offers to help than did either discount or specialty store shoppers Gracey (1993) compared perceptions of customer service held by retail managers representing department, electronics, appliance, food, and clothing stores and perceptions of consumers. Managers ranked individual attention, care provided to customers, attractive physical facilities, and attractive appearance of personnel as higher in importance than consumers. Consumers, on the other hand, ranked reliability, guarantees, costs, assurance, and selection as the most important factors.

Dotson and Patton (1992) investigated customer service expectations when shopping at a department store by conducting a focus group composed of store patrons. Customers reported they wanted personal and caring services. In a subsequent survey of mall shoppers, Dotson and Patton found the five highest ranked services to be sales assistance, a liberal return policy, repair service, alteration service, and check cashing.

Method and Data Analysis

The authors conducted focus group interviews, which provide the opportunity for an in-depth understanding of consumers’ attitudes and perceptions (Calder, 1977) to collect the data for this study. Participants were college students who had shopped for apparel at least once in the previous six months.

Although this is a convenience sample, the subjects represent young adults who are consumers with significant future buying power. A bulletin board notice and solicitation from classes were used to recruit 29 participants. Six mini-focus group interviews of four to six participants each were conducted by the principal investigator, lasting about 50 minutes each. Mini-focus groups are gaining acceptance by researchers since smaller groups make it easier to recruit and conduct interviews, provide a comfortable environment, and afford opportunities to share participants’ ideas (Greenbaum, 1993; Krueger, 1994).

Participants in the group interview were assigned to a group based on their time preferences. Participants provided personal demographics via a self-administered questionnaire. The focus group session included discussion of openended questions addressing (a) types of customer service received when shopping for apparel, (b) expectations for customer service at discount stores, off-priced stores, specialty stores, and department stores, and (c) sources of service expectations. Audiotaping and note-taking were used by the authors during the sessions to collect data.

Major concepts were identified by a selective approach in which the researcher underlined, highlighted, or circled specific essential phrases (van Manen, 1990) in the transcribed text. To enhance the reliability of the analysis, transcripts were analyzed by two primary researchers. Researchers attached codes to the data to group the information referring to the same concepts together. The concepts were used as categories (e.g., return policy). If a concept emerged from more than three different focus groups, it was identified as a theme. After the initial coding, some concepts were recoded into broader themes (e.g., return policy, alterations, and gift wrapping were all recoded into the theme of store amenities).

Findings and Discussion

Participants were females (n = 16) and males (n = 13) ranging in age from 19 to 35, with an average age of 22.4 years The majority were Caucasian (n = 28) and had never previously married (n=26).

Customer Service Expectations When Shopping for Apparel

Three main themes emerged from participants’ responses: store amenities, store facilities, and sales associates’ attributes (see Table 1). A liberal return policy is one of the most frequently mentioned types of desired store amenities: “They should give a refund if you have a receipt, but . . . a lot of times, you get [clothes] for gifts. . . and return [them] more often than anything else, and I don’t usually ask somebody, especially if it’s not a family member, for the receipt.” Good lighting and mirrors in dressing rooms were essential and expected store facilities. Participants expected sales associates to offer helpful suggestions and to be honest, professional, and unintrusive.

Since store amenities, store facilities, and sales associates’ attributes consistently emerged as components of customer service, these components were used as the basis to explore whether customer service expectations of participants differed when shopping for apparel at discount stores, off-priced stores, specialty stores, or department stores.

Discount store was defined as a store that sells soft goods and/or hard goods at a 20-60% price level below regular retail prices (Lewison, 1991). An off-priced store was defined as a store that sells medium- to high-quality brand-name products at deep-discount prices (Mason, Mayer, & Wilkinson, 1993). A specialty store was defined as a store specializing in the merchandise it offers a consumer, which varies according to the type, selection, and quality of merchandise; the range of price lines; and the size, design, and location of stores (Lewison). A department store was defined as a large retail institution carrying various merchandise lines with a relatively good assortment within each line (Lewison).

Discount Stores

Participants (n = 28) with experience shopping at discount stores did not expect extensive customer service because of low prices: “…[discount stores] would rather offer the product at a lower price, and you have to do a little more work for it.” This result does not support Linda’s (1990) findings. A return policy was the only store amenity participants expected, and availability of many registers was the only store facility mentioned.

Participants expected associates to help locate and move merchandisenot to recall their names. In addition, they expected depth in merchandise assortments and hoped to find a variety of sizes in stock. To maintain or improve customer satisfaction with service, discount stores need to offer a no-questionsasked return policy, staff sufficient cash registers to make checking out quick and easy, and reduce stock-outs.

Off-Priced Stores

Participants (n = 21) with experience shopping at off-priced stores expected less customer service than they found in discount stores. Participants only made comments about store facilities: “[offpriced stores] need more of those racks and everything. It gets so congested, but I don’t even like to shop at some of those because of that.”

Off-priced stores might focus on store facilities, such as having good signage and ensuring merchandise is displayed with enough space so that customers are not overwhelmed with merchandise.

Specialty Stores

Participants (n = 28) with experience shopping at specialty stores expected extensive customer service. Participants expected better return policies than at other types of stores, knowledgeable sales associates, and personal attention:

“Because it’s a specialty store, [sales associates] should know more about what they’re selling. And they should be more helpful.”

Participants experienced sales tactics (i.e., high pressure sales) in specialty stores that they attributed to commissioned associates. Participants reiterated the importance of unintrusive service as well as providing enough physical and psychological space so that customers can choose what they want without feeling watched or pressured: “In a specialty store… if I need help, I expect it to be there… At the same time, I don’t like somebody on me the whole time . . .

Leave me alone.”

While earlier studies have revealed that having commissioned associates improves customer service (Colletti & Murray, 1990: Lennon & Davis, 1989), our participants perceived commissioned associates as the cause of undesired selling tactics.

Department Stores

Participants (n = 27) with shopping experience at department stores expected even more customer service than at specialty stores. Individuals interviewed suggested that since department stores are part of large corporations, they can afford to do special things for their customers In addition to basic store amenities, participants expected unique accommodations, such as gift wrapping, shipping, child care, wedding registries, and pick-up services. Comments concerning store facilities focused on attributes such as restrooms and restaurants. Although participants expected to be approached and acknowledged by sales associates, their experience was that associates were difficult to locate.

Furthermore, participants emphasized the quality and type of service they received depended on how they dressed: “[In a department store] I do tend to dress up, because I found out when you come in . . . jeans, like a t-shirt . . ., you don’t get the service that you do when you are in more dressed clothes. You don’t get the respect, and you don’t get the help.”

The responses in this study supported the findings of Dotson and Patton (1992), where participants indicated they expected to find sales associates willing to help. Participants in the Dotson and Patton study noted that the lack of interpersonal contact between themselves and associates tended to bring disappointment and, ultimately, less satisfaction with the service (see Table 2).

How Service Expectations Develop

Expectations for customer service stemmed from four main sources. Participants noted their expectations were tied to price. “You have to be willing to spend extra money to get [service].”

Participants’ expectations for customer service were also influenced by the merchandise characteristics. Individuals interviewed expected better service from stores that stock high style fashions. In addition, participants’ expectations were influenced by their mood: “Sometimes you’re in the mood to have someone talk to you while you’re shopping, and someone to help you . . . sometimes you go in, and you don’t want that. You want to be left alone and shop by yourself. And it could be the same store, or it could be the same salesperson.”

Personal background, including where participants lived, shopping experiences, and family members, was also a major influence on expectations. Some participants’ expectations stemmed from their parents’ expectations or from opinions of friends or family in the retail business. Others believed their expectations resulted from their own unique shopping experiences.

These sources of apparel customers’ service expectations differ from Zeithaml et al. (1993) determinants of customer service. Although two sources, personal experience and price, were noted, several determinants of customer service expectations in their model were not mentioned. These differences might be due to the type of customer (pure service) that Zeithaml et al. used to develop their model.


Customer service is not a single universal concept. Customers have different expectations for the services they want to receive from different apparel retailers. This needs to be taken into consideration when developing service policies. Some factors that shape customers’ expectations such as customers’ moods or previous service experiences not under the control of the service provider. Since some expectations stem from previous experience, making future shopping experiences positive may result in positive perceptions of any retail outlet.

What it takes to make a shopping experience positive varies; consumers can help make their own experiences positive by complaining about specific negative experiences they have. For retailers to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations for service, consumers need to make their views known. Complaining may seem unpleasant, but it is one of the primary ways retailers know if consumers’ expectations are not being met. Moreover, it is a method for consumers to make their needs known to retailers.

Consumers invest their money, time, energy, and trust when they shop, regardless of what product or service they seek. In return for their investment, they require more than just merchandise and/or service. It was evident from the comments of these participants that shoppers also want respect and care from providers.

This study focused on service expectations for apparel stores as one type of service provider. It raises questions for all consumer scientists on the kind of service provided to “consumers,” whether they are traditional customers, clients, or students. For example, students invest resources into obtaining the best education possible. Are you, as an education provider, asking your customers their opinions about the services you are providing? Is the service you provide meeting and/or exceeding what your “customers” expect? How are you shaping their expectations? How well do you know your customer?


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MiYoung Lee is a research assistant and Kim K. P. Johnson is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.

Copyright American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences Winter 1997

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