Bold North Associates

Return to Retail: Welcome Your Customers Back! 

By Maureen Hooley Bausch, Partner at Bold North Associates

Ready or not, customers are returning. And while we’re not sure if we’re living post-COVID or merely experiencing an intermission, it’s time to welcome them back.

After 35 years in retail, the most important thing I’ve learned about success is this:

If people leave your establishment feeling better than when they walked in – they will be back.

Whether your establishment is a store, restaurant, salon, attraction, or something else altogether, you’ll be successful if people leave your business happier than when they arrived.

 At Mall of America, I had the privilege of working with retailers, attractions, restaurants, salons, clinics, hotels, high schools, colleges—everything from carts and small coffee shops to large department stores. And at Cub, I was embedded within a rapidly innovating and expanding retail organization.

I’ve always been fascinated with the world’s great retailers. Stanley Marcus. The Daytons. Nordstrom. Marshall Fields. What they did—universally—was to make people feel good. As Walt Disney said, “Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.”

Now more than ever, we need to learn from these greats about how to treat every customer who walks in our door. Every customer, client, or shopper is a special guest. Because people want to be welcomed back. They want to come to your establishment. Many won’t have as much to spend, and they only spend it with people who truly appreciate them.

This has been proven time and again through world crises, through recessions, even the Depression, across companies big and small. Making people feel significant really does make a difference. They’ll come back, and they’ll come back often.

Making that special connection is harder as we adhere to safety protocols. There’s so much to think about these days. But you can still create a welcoming atmosphere.

Your customers must learn what you expect, and your sales staff must deliver. Whether it’s masks, hand sanitizer, touchless, one-way traffic, or maintaining six feet of distance, it’s critical you live up to these protocols in a positive, wonderful way.

Don’t miss this point: Pay attention to customers and team members wearing face coverings. Do their eyes communicate anger… or weariness… or boredom? Or can you still see a smile in their eyes? Unfortunately, the old instruction to your client-facing team to “Smile!” isn’t enough. If they don’t communicate joy up to and through their eyes, their attempts at positivity are lost. As employees greet guests, the new imperative is “Smiling eyes!”

There’s so much more we need to put in place. But the basics of welcoming people back are just that. Basic. Simple to comprehend and act on.

From my perch in the basement of Mall of America, I had the opportunity to watch over a thousand brands. A thousand organizations, each doing business a little differently. As I studied the most successful, I saw all of them work hard at three keys:

  1. They ASK their customers what they want.
  2. They COMMUNICATE meaningfully and regularly.
  3. And they continually enhance the

If you want an acronym, that’s ACE. But let’s start by asking customers what they want.


You probably already know your customer demographics—age, gender, household income. If you really want to understand them in our chaotic circumstances, you need more than that.

At Mall of America, we had the resources to conduct ongoing research, but the most important research doesn’t have to cost a dime. You can do your fact-finding by email, by phone, or in person. I normally recommend doing research with all your customers. However, at this point of welcoming people back, concentrate on your best customers. They’ll be the first back, and they have the fewest barriers to successfully reentering your store.

An example: J.McLaughlin has store managers call their top customers. I’m guessing their top 20%. They go a step beyond and give each a gift card from Mr. McLaughlin. But most important is the connection they make. They tell customers how important they are. They invite them back. At the same time, they gather all sorts of information on how their lives had changed.

Today, we need to know how our guests are feeling. How have their lives changed? What are they concerned about right now? What will make their visit possible?

Frankly, your goal is to understand where their heads are at. When you know what they face right now, you can eliminate the barriers that keep them from returning. Tory Burch has a great handle on this. They’re sending customers questionnaires asking, “What would make you feel safe coming back to our stores?”

Once you understand what your customer is thinking, communicate. Get back to them and tell them they’ve been heard. And explain the news they want to know.


Every brand has a promise. Whether you’re a college or a coffee shop, you’re promising something to your patrons. Know it. Define it. Own it.

When we welcomed Superbowl LII to the Twin Cities, we knew the game would be branded the Ice Bowl, the Tundra Bowl, or something equally one-dimensional and unappealing. So even though we knew it would be very cold in February in Minnesota, we named our Super Bowl the Bold North.

We defined how we wanted to be known. We defined it. And we kept our promise. We showed the world what bold Minnesotans do in the winter. We zip over the Mississippi in 30 below wind chill. We flip supercharged snowmobiles at 150 feet over Nicollet Mall. We have concerts in the snow. And we moved the Birkebeiner downtown and let racers ski on the street.

People loved it. Our goal was to get people to come back, and 83% said they would!

When you know your brand and your promise, you can build all your communications around reinforcing that brand. Frequency is key. You need an annual calendar that accounts for the seasonality of your product and your customers’ buying patterns. Then you can create urgency throughout the year.

Think of your communications plan as it’s a drumbeat—a steady drumbeat that crescendos when you need them to come in your store. I’ve done this for years. For many varieties of businesses. As you stay top of mind, you drive traffic when you need to.

Of course, don’t overdo the frequency. If I get an email from a retailer ever morning, I’m going to hit delete and probably unsubscribe. Then, make sure that the frequency isn’t too much.

It goes back to understanding your customer. When are they listening? When will you connect and be a help rather than an annoyance? Find out—and make sure you hit them when they have open ears and open eyes. Young moms may not look at emails until late at night, when the kids are tucked in. Other people are early birds. They get up and check their emails.

And where are they listening? What channels are they’re looking at? TV? Radio? Facebook? Instagram? Find out and communicate accordingly.

You likely find yourself communicating rules and regulations. So create a “happy sandwich.”

  • Start with positives—how wonderful they are and how much you’ve missed them.
  • Then dispense your rules and regulations—your new protocols, how you’re keeping them safe. With smiling eyes, of course.
  • End with more positives—how happy you are that they’re back, that “we have the perfect outfit for you,” or “we have the best shampoo,” or whatever you’re selling.

Regardless of your brand, make sure your tone is truth and trust. Transparency is so important now. People want to know what you’re doing to keep them safe. They want to know that you care about them.

“Well done is better than well said,”

Ben Franklin

 So have you been frustrated the past few months? Just when you need to accelerate your efforts, you might feel like you’re out of gas. Remember: Your effort is worth it. People who walk in your store will spend significantly more than they do online. It all hinges on a great comeback experience.


It is important to determine what you can do—and do it well. If you’re selling online or offering curbside pick-up, absolutely, positively make sure it’s done to perfection. Don’t mess up an order or make customers wait for that parcel during pick up.

Some establishments are totally botching this area. Don’t be curt or unkind. Don’t be condescending, like they should know exactly where to pull up or which code will get them their merchandise. Everyone is learning new rules and new ways of shopping. Be patient.

And when you welcome customers back indoors, make people feel good. Walking into a place that looks like a tornado just hit feels dirty and unwelcoming. Make sure your signage is kind and clear. Make your windows beautiful, bright, and new. If people need to wait to enter, give them something great to look at. And ditch the merchandise you had hoped to move back in February. Showcase your best new offerings. If you have items to move, put them in the back. Or call them shrink and give them away as a surprise bonus.

The best visual merchandisers I ever worked with could increase a store’s sales by 30% by moving tables around, setting the store path with bright colored merchandise, and moving that first display in about eight feet so people can actually get in your store and look around.

For people who love shopping, they’ve missed the thrill of discovery in physical stores, whether that’s a wonderful outfit, a piece for their home, or a great price point.

Make sure your business is set for new discoveries!

One of the highlights of my career was giving Stanley Marcus a tour of Mall of America. He was older and needed a cane to walk. At one point, he said, “You know, I need a tip for my cane.” Back in those days, we promised that “If you can’t find it at Mall of America, we’ll give you $10.” We never had to give away $10, because we had everything from toothpicks to paint and everything between.

He said, “I heard about this.”

I said, “Oh, I can find you a cane tip.” Well, I couldn’t find one in a drugstore. When we went to lunch, he made me pay him $10. It was the first time I’d ever had to pay up. And then I remembered The Walking Company and ran over and got the tip. Stanley Marcus laughed hysterically. And you can bet he gave me back my ten bucks.

In these unprecedented times, Bold North Associates can help you learn as much as you can from your customer. To make sure you communicate what your customer needs to hear in bold new ways. And help you reset and reimagine the customer experience, so they feel welcome like never before.

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