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A losing equation for the customer

Here is a proposition. Please give it some serious consideration, because I think you’ll agree with the concept. As I suggest it, however, I realize that those directly involved may resent the idea, but that’s too bad, because I don’t speak for them. I speak for the rest of us and we deserve to be heard.

Here is the theory:

As the retail stores grow bigger and bigger, the quality of the salespeople deteriorates. Put another way, the ability of the sales staff to answer questions and provide customer service is inversely proportional to the square footage of the store.

I went shopping the other day with money actually burning a hole in my pocket, determined to make a buy. I had already removed my credit card from my wallet and slipped it into my pocket, where it was readily accessible. I saw an item on display that seemed to match my specifications exactly. There was no price on it.

I searched for a clerk. There were none in sight. There were many other customers, seemingly eager to buy. We were all drifting. In the distance I spotted a young man wearing a red polo shirt, with the store’s name and logo embroidered on the left breast. That was certainly a clue that he was on the staff, wasn’t it? I sprinted across two aisles and hurdled several cartons, arriving at his side, breathless.

"I need a price. Can you help me?"

He treated me as if I were an uninvited guest at a cocktail party, interfering with his routine.

"You’ll have to find Ted or Larry," he replied. "They are the real experts on those."

I told him I didn’t really require an expert. All I needed was someone willing and able to look up a price. He declined, explaining that he was being paged. He smiled and hurried away.

I stood there for a few moments, surrounded by other shoppers milling about, trying to decide on my next move, wondering whether Ted or Larry were real people, and whether it was their day off or time for their coffee break.

Then I went home. The only upside of that decision was that my credit card hadn’t been put into play. The downside was that I found the appropriate item I really wanted to buy, but then could get no attention.    

I hate shopping. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration. Let’s just say that I usually have an intense dislike for shopping. There are many others just like me; coincidentally, we often are related to serious shoppers and sometimes, for no good reason, accompany them on their expeditions. On such occasions, we often can be observed sitting on those benches at the mall reading yesterday’s newspaper, or else twiddling our thumbs in one of those easy chairs they have conveniently located on the perimeter of the women’s shoe department. 

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. When I need or want something specific, I go buy it. Sometimes I have to be given suggested buying destinations because I don’t track the inventories of the stores the way the real shoppers do.

"You might want to try the so-and-so mart, they have a good choice of pajamas," is typical of the kind of advice offered to people like me.

There are so many competing marts today, and I suspect I’m allergic to all of them. My nose starts running and I begin yawning upon entering them, and can find relief only when I emerge safely and am hurrying back to my car.

The size of the marts used to intimidate me, but that doesn’t really bother me anymore. After all, hiking is good exercise.

The problem is the training the staff receives. Often they don’t know any more about what they’re selling than the prospective buyers, and give the impression they would rather be someplace else, anyplace else.

Before marts, when the stores were smaller, there were fewer clerks, but they seemed to know what they were selling. Some smaller specialty stores still have people like that. Do you want to buy a fountain pen or a fishing lure, a shirt or blouse to wear with a certain outfit, a toy for a 5-year-old, or a refrigerator with a quiet motor? They know.

I don’t know whether there is any moral to this story, unless it is this: a truly educated consumer expects no help from the hired help.

Dick Hirsch is a regular contributor to the Opinion page.

12/1/00 (c) 2000 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.



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