Commentary

How The Help Is Killing Retail

I read earlier in the week that aside from a small uptick in April, shopper visits to U.S. retailers have fallen by 5% or more from a year earlier in every month for the past two years. Apparently, instead of wandering through stores and making impulse purchases, shoppers use their mobile phones and computers to research prices and cherry-pick promotions, sticking to shopping lists rather than splurging on unneeded items. As a major Amazonian, none of this comes as much of a surprise to me. What does is how brick-and-mortar retailers are reacting: by letting their last vestige of hope -- personal customer service -- atrophy or disappear altogether.

It used to be you had to go to Radio Shack to find profoundly and universally poor customer service, but these days I see it nearly everywhere. Before I give you just a few examples from my life, you have to understand that I hardly ever go into stores (except for groceries). I embraced Internet shopping practically from the 2400 baud rate. Although I have made my share of mistakes (like not fully investigating a seller before buying, and finally realizing that the lowest price is often not the best product) by and large Internet shopping has been fantastic for me.  So why -- on my so-very-few visits to actual stores -- is the customer service almost always terrible? If you extrapolate from my few visits, the issue is clearly massive.

The names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

Go to CVS to pick up prescription. Five people behind the counter, but only one helping very long and slow line of customers at one of three available registers. When I make sarcastic and pointed comment to pharmacist, he blames "rules" made by "Wharton B School types" who run the company. Alternative solution: stop counting pills and work the register until line is resolved. Plan B: hire another high school kid during peak hours.

After getting hard sell on TV at Best Buy, I agree to purchase, only to be told THEN that product is out of stock: "You can come back next week when we expect a delivery." Alternative solution: "When it arrives, I will deliver it free to your house." Plan B: "Here is a slightly better, more expensive, unit I will sell to you at the price of the out-of-stock unit."

At Toyota dealership asking very basic questions about $35,000 potential purchase, only to be told "I don't know" or "I'm not sure." Alternative solution: Know the frickin' product or don't try to sell it. Plan B: "I am really a dumb-ass, so let me get a smarter dumb-ass to help you."

At Walmart asking astoundingly basic questions about electronics, only to have "associate" refer to shelf tags and/or box for information. Alternative solution: See "Know the frickin' product." Plan B: Offer big screen-TV access to Internet, so I can get a straight answer from someone who know what the hell they are talking about, like Crutchfield.

Also making the Frequently Annoying Club: One open register across half a mile of department store clothing departments; kids who make up answers they gleaned from the store or manufacturers' marketing material, which don't remotely address the question; standing in a retail aisle CLEARLY looking for help, only to be ignored by store workers; listening to two store workers converse about incredibly private matters that should not be aired in public (often about how much they hate their jobs); cashiers who can't be bothered to look you in the eye, even once; being answered "try aisle 7" when there is an 80-20 chance that is the wrong aisle, rather than being walked to the product; not being offered alternative ideas when the store is out of stock.

Then there was this guy, in the auto parts department of Sears in Charleston, S.C. who -- when he didn't have a taillight in stock -- picked up the phone, called an unaffiliated auto parts store down the road, and asked them to hold it for me. Coulda "ordered" it and had me return. Could have just blown me off. But he didn't. Chalk up a big win for Sears customer service.

I understand that less traffic means less sales, lower margins and less money to properly train workers in the art of customer service. And that retail sales is not the career of choice for the highly trainable. But the single reason to go to a store is that human contact. If it is miserable, why go?

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2 comments about "How The Help Is Killing Retail".
  1. len mullen from none , August 8, 2014 at 8:33 a.m.
    My experience with retailers has been better than yours, but you rightly note that B&M retailers are losing share to their online counterparts. It's not the help. When I use my Discover Card to buy at BestBuy.com or Walmart.com or HomeDepot.com, I get cash back PLUS the items are ready for me when I walk into the store. Who tallies that sale? At the same time, B&Ms have to change their businesses to leverage their local presence. Radioshack is a good example. Amazon and Walmart offer the same merchandise at a discount. If Radioshack put an antenna on their roof and OTA/OTT hardware in a Magnolia-like room, demonstrated local possibilities, and connected people to local installers, they would offer something the others don't and I, for one, would shop there. I might even hang out there.
  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 8, 2014 at 9:27 a.m.
    Let's go back to the smart snark of Wharton B types. This is about management, not $7.25 an hour retail workers who cannot work in the pharmacy. The people behind the counters there are pharmacist assistants, not high schoolers. Why is there a backup ? Because the B types aka MA's have no experience on the floor, have not worked their way up and of course, the big box stores won't pay for more workers or training or teaching the trench skills. Last week I called a "Brand" directly - the store didn't manufacture it - and the person said nicely, so just return it and I did. The person at the store was as nice as could be, but she can't fix or is the store responsible to fix manufacturers' problems. You have plenty to bark about, but it is up the wrong tree.