What’s Wrong With Retail (Part One)

I own the dubious honor of having spent more than a decade in both retail and the corporate world. In the case of the former, more like three decades over two stretches. Thank you in advance for your sympathies.

Occasionally I’ve toyed with the notion of writing a book about these two decidedly different worlds, assuming I could do so without fear of multiple lawsuits. In lieu thereof, today I set forth some observations concerning what’s wrong with so many retailers fundamentals, and offer a few experience-earned suggestions on how to correct same.

Let’s start with Number One, and no it’s not prices. It’s customer service. More spcifically, the lack thereof.

Fewer than none of us have not had an in-store experience that left us saying to ourselves if no one else, “Well, I won’t be coming here again.” Veteran retail people know it’s not the temper tantrum throwers berating one and all at maximum volume that pose a genuine threat to a store’s survival. It’s the ones who quietly walk out, never to return.

There are two kinds of faulty customer service: the rude / condescending / indifferent / what have you bad interactions, or the none of the above interactions as there was no interaction because there was no employee to be found with whom to interact. The first can be corrected through various means: training, disciplinary methods up to and including termination, proper rewarding for employees who do things properly, etc. The latter, though, is seldom a matter addressable at the local level although it is the local level, i.e. the store employees once one is finally located, bearing the brunt of customer wrath.

One of the main, if not the main, reasons for shopping in person rather than online is the experience. Even those of us who prefer to shop in solitude enjoy feeling like we are welcome at any given store. Perhaps we have questions, or we are seeking suggestions about/for a given product. Or, we’re simply trying to find something. Whatever the case may be, we are looking for help, something unavailable in boring boastful online product descriptions that make the ad copy for Ginsu knives seem utterly modest. And when we can’t find anyone to help, or the person(s) who could help is/are unavailable because of scheduling cutbacks, for some odd reason it rankles a bit.

Every employer, unless you’re a one person operation, knows the necessity of keeping labor costs (salary, benefits such as health insurance, and so on) in check. Where most every retailer falls flat on their face in this area is grossly underestimating the number of employee hours required to both run store mechanical processes – restocking, cleaning, organizing – and consumer interactive processes a/k/a customer service. Failure to grasp this rapidly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: sales dip, corporate response is to cut back employee hours, sales dip even more due to lack of customer service, even more hours are cut, and inevitably everyone is wondering why things once divine are now disasterous. Gee, I wonder why.

More next week.