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Selling Us

Everywhere Is Heard A Discouraging Word

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page F01

With the impending arrival of a new baby in our household, my list of things to buy has been growing: a toddler bed for the almost-2-year-old, a crib mattress and a second bookcase to accommodate our bursting collection of kids' books. I've also been needing some children's shoes and new sheets.

That was the list I set out with last weekend, and by the end of the day Sunday, I had shopped in the District, Virginia and Maryland and had bought almost everything I'd planned (and, of course, a few other things).

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But it wasn't easy -- and not because of the traffic. Driving down Rockville Pike after my last stop late on Sunday afternoon, it occurred to me that at almost every store I'd been to, I'd encountered some kind of problem or hurdle. Spending my money took perseverance and effort.

Was it just bad luck over the course of a hot summer weekend? In fact, it has become maddeningly common in retail today for customers to hear, from the first line of employees at a store, something like this: Don't have it, can't get it, can't find it, can't do that, don't know, maybe we'll get it, the manager's not here, come back later and try somewhere else.

"Things have gotten very difficult in stores," said George Whalin, a retail consultant based in San Marcos, Calif. "When customers get the 'Can't be done' twice, they throw up their hands and say, 'Okay, I'll settle for something else.' That's unfortunate, but it's real."

It's not just unfortunate for shoppers, however -- it's also a big problem for retailers. No one really knows how much business is lost when undertrained and unprepared employees turn a simple transaction into too much trouble. But it has to be a lot.

What's most striking about this problem is that shoppers can often overcome this first line of resistance if they push to talk to someone else. Sometimes a particular request really can't be fulfilled, but the first messages shoppers hear from frontline employees are frequently things that a supervisor, manager or executive would never deliver.

Whalin's example was about a friend who recently tried to go into a dressing room at a Stein Mart at 8:45 in the evening, but was told she couldn't use the fitting rooms because they are closed 15 minutes before the store closes. That had to be a policy decided by that store, or even by the employees on duty, Whalin said, "because I know the Stein Mart folks wouldn't do that."

Indeed, a quick call to Michael D. Ray, Stein Mart's senior vice president and director of stores, revealed that the chain has no such policy about closing dressing rooms early. In fact, he was pretty distressed to hear about the incident.

And that's not surprising. Increasingly, there seems to be a disconnect between the folks in the corporate offices, or even those running the stores, and what lower-level employees are saying to shoppers day in and day out. Far too often customers are made to feel they are a problem, rather than the lifeblood of the business.

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