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Selling Us

Shoppers Raise Their Red Flags

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page F01

Whenever I organize my e-mails for an occasional column on reader feedback, I am amazed at the deluge on any subject involving customer service.

Here's how your comments on shopping have stacked up in the past few months.

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Customer service. When I wrote about the roadblocks that shoppers often encounter when trying to buy something, I said we shouldn't have to push so hard just to give a store our money. I was subsequently regaled with stories from consumers who pushed as hard as they could and still -- with apologies to the Rolling Stones -- could get no satisfaction.

"Because of such universal poor customer service . . . my husband and I have concluded that almost everything takes three trips," wrote one frustrated shopper.

Many people just give up rather than go to that trouble. Some readers say they shop more online now just to avoid the needless frustration they find in stores, while others offered concrete examples of sales that retailers lost because of poor service. One woman said she'd abandoned a $118 purse at the register in a department store "because the clerk treated me as though I was bothering her." Another reader said he walked out of a Lowe's home improvement store, where he had planned to order a $500 storm door, because he couldn't find anyone to help him.

Retailers talk a good game about customer service. Several former retail employees explained that customer service is always a big focus in "corporate," but then it's not translated to the store level and there's almost no accountability.

How could it not matter if business is being lost? This isn't about the occasional failure, either; it's really a systemic problem throughout the retail world. Yet I have to think that if retailers truly focused on improving customer service they'd have more than enough added sales to pay for the extra employees and training that it took to get there.

Courtesy is priceless. One interesting debate emerged from nearly 100 e-mails on this subject, as well: Should we, as shoppers, be angry at unhelpful or indifferent clerks who are paid minimum wage and get no benefits -- or should we understand why they don't care and be sympathetic?

"Why should they care? No one cares about them," one person wrote.

I am appalled at how poorly many retailers compensate their employees and think those chains deserve to lose sales for such short-sighted business practices. But fundamentally, I agree with a reader who said that "no one forced these people to take jobs in the service sector." If they can't deal with people, he wrote, they should move on.

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