When a couple of colleagues went to Chandni Chowk, the Old Delhi market, for work, they returned complaining heavily about how they were constantly tailed by the salesmen of shops selling sundry things, especially garments. Sellers of these goods followed them persistently to invite them to their shops while they walked the lanes in the congested marketplace.

Yet another friend was heard making a similar complaint even though she hadn’t been to the crowded Chandni Chowk but had just returned from her weekend shopping spree at stores in a premium mall. The sales assistants in some of the stores she went into, crowded her, offering unsolicited advice. Such crowding around is common unfortunately, even at some of the established retail chain brands and is called shadowing.

Shadowing is when you enter a store and a sales representative literally walks with you or ‘shadows’ in the store trying to sell you stuff, bombarding you with products you don’t really need, just to achieve his or her sales target. “Shadowing is when a sales associate is crowding you, encroaching your private space and almost intimidating you to make a purchase," explains retail and luxury expert Abhay Gupta who is also the founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Luxury Connect LLP.

Retail industry experts attribute several reasons to shadowing. Reliance Brands’ chief executive officer (CEO) Darshan Mehta says that given that the cost (salaries) of floor staff in retail industry in India, especially in the “mainstream" departmental stores business is still very low, there is a propensity to hire more people. “More often with the mistaken belief that more is good and that more people on the floor would lead to better customer service. Very often this leads to poor quality of floor staff, language and grooming standards, product knowledge and customer service. A combination of the above leads to “customer shadowing" and thus poor customer service," he explains.

Gupta agrees. He says that shadowing could be the outcome of the top management policy of simply pushing sales and, or, employing undertrained staff. Or it could stem from having a policy of ‘low fixed wages’ coupled with higher ‘performance linked wages’.

“In most cases, shadowing is the result of mainly ill- trained staff. Besides, since this staff has to meet certain sales targets so they start pestering the customers to buy," he explains. To some extent pestering may result in more sales but overall, “shadowing is detrimental in today’s scenario", Gupta adds.

For starters, the customers are entitled to their privacy and they should be provided the same. The staff should only be available within earshot or eye contact zone. Assistance should be provided promptly and appropriately. Once done, attempts at cross-selling and upselling can be made gently.

There are rules for good retailing. First, there’s a Hell Zone in retail. This is the first eight feet of the store entry. One must never, repeat never, intercept a walk-in customer in that zone. The customer should instead be allowed to soak in the visual impact of the store design. They should be allowed to look at merchandise and allowed to absorb the sights and sounds. Research shows that if intercepted with an offer for help in this space, most clients say ‘no’, turn around quickly and exit the store. That’s a risk a retailer cannot afford.

Secondly, the sales assistant must make eye contact by walking past at a distance with perhaps a prop in their hand to appear busy but convey the message, “I am around and available when you need me." “This puts the customer at ease and he drifts along smoothly knowing that there is someone to help when he needs it," explains Gupta.

Clearly, the basic rule here is never to crowd the customer and respect their private space. Lastly, the sales assistants should be selling the “brand" and not the product. This means the sales staff must know all about the brand, its history, its heritage, its value proposition.

Gupta explains that in the luxury segment, shadowing is a strict ‘no no’. Client privacy is of utmost importance to luxury brands and at no cost will they compromise on the same.

So what is the solution to shadowing which irks customers and may be detrimental to retailers? Firstly, retail managements must change their own attitudes towards their staff. They should train, nurture and develop them.

“They should believe in them so that they learn to engage, explore, and then add value to the customer rather than sell," says Gupta.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.