Do you practice effective empathy in your store? Maybe you should, according to an Expo West educational session given by Alyssa D’Arienzo Toro, senior partner and chief marketing officer, and Scott Madden, senior partner and director of strategic planning at Connelly Partners.

If you missed it, this Boston, MA-based marketing firm specializes in a concept called effective empathy, which Madden defines as a “subconscious recognition of shared values.” In other words, effective empathy demonstrates an understanding of customers so that they feel understood and develop an affinity for your brand. Madden and D’Arienzo Toro say retailers should put this tool to work.

Establishing Effective Empathy
When it comes to effective empathy, natural product retailers have an advantage because they already share a deep set of values with their customers like an interest in natural, organic or non-GMO. However, those concepts are now being picked up by pharmacies, supermarkets and even convenience stores. So in the end, what really sets you apart is your relationship and understanding of natural consumers, but the challenge then becomes how to maintain those customers and attract new ones.

Friendship groups. Organizing focus groups can certainly be helpful for collecting feedback, but they can also be sterile and stiff. For the purpose of understanding how to empathize with your target customers, focus groups may not provide the right information. Instead, Connelly Partners suggests friendship groups, which are more casual and authentic, producing insights that are more honest.

To create a friendship group, recruit customers who are members of your target audience. Each person then recruits a group of friends or family who are also members of your target audience. After that, arrange a time when everyone gets together in your store or a neutral location for snacks, coffee or perhaps wine if you are so inclined. The idea is to have a very casual and comfortable environment where everyone can converse openly.

As a moderator, you do not necessarily want to ask direct questions, but create an open dialogue within this group of individuals and steer the conversation so that you can extract relevant insights. While people may not be honest with themselves, they are certainly honest with each other. That’s the greatest advantage of friendship groups. One person may wax poetic about the importance of buying organic and their friend or family member may then remind them that their lunch for the past few days has been fast food.

Through this discourse you come to understand and relate to your customers’ behaviors and thought processes. By demonstrating this understanding in promotional material or in the way you stock or arrange your store, people may feel a connection and be more inclined to shop there.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine May 2016