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Are You Guilty of “Fishbowl” Customer Service?

by Dive Shop 360 | Mar 1, 2024

You’ve probably heard the phrase “living in a fishbowl,” meaning you live your life on display for everyone to see, constantly under scrutiny by others. Now apply this analogy to people shopping in a retail store, being watched by sales associates as they look for products without any interaction or engagement. Don’t let fishbowl customer service happen at your store!

With this analogy in mind, take a look at the experience below:

The Retail Doctor recently wrote about his visit to the luxury department store, Neiman Marcus, in Dallas. As he browsed, he could hear one associate in men’s shoes loudly talking to another one – both behind the counter. Another man was stationed in the middle of the floor, like a sentinel, and still another associate watched, with his hands clasped behind his back.

He went on to mention that one of his pet peeves with luxury brands is their mistaken notion that service means being available and aloof until the shopper asks for something. “People go into a store to experience a feeling, but feeling like you’re in a fishbowl or ignored doesn’t make you want to spend exorbitant amounts of money,” he says.

After The Retail Doctor took the jacket he found—on his own, without assistance—up to the register and the sale was all rung up, the young man said from behind the counter, “You know that would really look good with a pair of black pants.”

Talk about a missed opportunity!

Here’s what should’ve happened: the minute The Retail Doctor showed interest in an item by picking it up or trying it on, a sales associate should’ve headed over there immediately to engage him. If an associate had approached him with thoughtful product suggestions, instead of talking to his coworker, The Retail Doctor says he probably would have bought the pants and probably even more merchandise.

But the sales associate added nothing to the sale. Which is unfortunate, because Neiman Marcus is currently three billion dollars in debt right now. Needless to say, fishbowl customer service isn’t going to save them.

While you may not be in the same shoes as Neiman Marcus, as a retailer, you can still learn a lot about what NOT to do from their treatment of The Retail Doctor. Here are some of the main takeaways from his experience:

1. Don’t send customers to your competitors

“Without customers, you wouldn’t be in business,” says The Balance. “That is why it is surprising how easily retail stores drive customers away.”

“When you’re only clerking the merch that someone wants, you’re gonna be in trouble.”

— The Retail Doctor

When customers leave a retailer’s store with only one item—or no items—and not with everything they need, a competitor is not only going to get their additional business, but they’ll also get the opportunity to make a loyal customer out of someone who should have been yours.

Shoppers who are willing to leave their home, get in a car, drive through traffic, and search for a parking place are anticipating spending money at your store.

Remember, 90% of shoppers are in a discovery phase when they walk in and are open to buying something they never thought of before. If you don’t help them discover great products, your competitors will.

Essentially, your survival as a retailer is dependent on how well you convert customers!

2. Don’t forget that your paycheck is paid by Customers

The Retail Doctor’s shopping experience demonstrates the need for a branded shopping experience in your store. This can’t happen if your sales associates fold their hands behind their backs and watch as shoppers enter your store and wait for them to ask for something.

“Maybe I’m naive, but, my job is to sell. This includes being authentic and forming a relationship with my clients. At Definitive Audio, we have a couple of beautifully merchandised stores. I like to introduce myself, give them a tour, and play something cool for them. A lot of folks haven’t experienced high end audio before! What this does for ME is keeps my enthusiasm going and when that next person stops in to purchase, they get the same red carpet treatment. I’m not a victim-if retail is no longer working for me, I have the responsibility to go do something else. If and when that day comes, I’ll bring my “A” game to whatever I do!”

— Carrie Connolly

It’s important that your staff knows how to engage people from all walks of life in a genuine way. That means getting out from behind the counter, listening to why the customer walked through your doors today, identifying their motivations to buy, and making relevant product suggestions in a compelling way that encourages them to buy.

When you build rapport and connect with your customers, it helps to lay the groundwork for a true relationship where you both look forward to seeing the other again. It also makes it easier for you and your sales associates to sell add-ons because they are viewed as a human being and trusted adviser, not just a nameless clerk. Repeat business and add-on sales make it possible for you to comfortably pay for essentials like rent and payroll.

3. Don’t lose money on price selling

“Value selling is the foundation of increasing retail sales,” says The Retail Doctor. Yet, when he walked into Neiman Marcus, as mentioned above, he spotted several long racks stuffed with what appeared to be new men’s clothes. On every end was a sign that read, Up to 40% off.

While it may be easy to mark down products or guide customers to the cheapest options—which is 90% of retail help these days—constant markdowns are bad for profit, and the cheapest option doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for the customer.

Make sure your sales associates have a solid understanding of the premium products you sell so they can keep the conversation focused on their long-term value. When customers comprehend that there are distinct differences in quality, they’ll be more appreciative of the of the higher priced items.

Using the Feel, Felt, Found Methodyou and your associates can tell customers, “I used to feel that way too about the price of this item. I felt it was too much. That was until I found out how much (better made, easier to use, quicker, etc.) it was over the others.”

Establishing the value of the product in the customer’s mind also makes it easier for you and your salespeople to move into a conversation about add-ons.

4. If you don’t make customers a priority, your store won’t last

Now that you know what not to do, let’s look at a very different experience The Retail Doctor had at another retailer, Ted Baker. When he walked into the New York store, he received a warm greeting from a young lady dressed in a Ted Baker outfit. She encouraged him to take a look at what was new, and a minute later a young man approached him and complimented him on his good taste as he looked at one of their shirts.

After a pleasant conversation about the store’s unique decor, the young man set up a fitting room, brought The Retail Doctor a few additional shirts, and left to help another customer. Each time he tried a different shirt on, one sales associate or another was there to make a positive comment or give him a thumbs up, staying with him during his entire shopping journey—in a helpful, non-annoying way.

The Retail Doctor purchased three shirts that day because of employees who like what they do, enjoy engaging strangers, take pride in their appearance and manner, and genuinely offer helpful product suggestions.

“Brick and mortar isn’t dying, it’s the art of engaging and maximizing each and every customer that walks through the doors,” said Jim Farrell, one of The Retail Doctor‘s readers.

If you plan to grow your business, you must make your customers feel that they are your number one priority—the most important person in your store at that moment.


When people shop at your store, they shouldn’t feel like fish in a fishbowl as sales associates watch them with aloofness from a distance. There’s a saying that goes something like this, “People may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.” If your customers feel ignored, snubbed, or apathetic, you’re going to lose them. That’s not something you can afford to let that happen in today’s competitive retail landscape.

As The Retail Doctor points out, brick and mortar retailers have lost sight of making the shoppers’ day. They’ve forgotten about the trust equity they have with their customers. Are you one of them?

Shoppers still trust brands like you to deliver something different than a competitor or an online retailer, so your job is to deliver an experience that makes them feel more welcome, less stressed, and more confident. Remember, you’ll be known for—and remembered by—the feeling the shopper has in your store.

Avoid fishbowl customer service and elevate your dive shop business with DiveShop360.