Stanley Marcus, the retail magnate-emeritus, has been playing the role of shopper lately and he doesn't like what he sees from that side of the counter.
Retailing has "gone to hell," says Marcus, boasting that he's saved $43,000 in the last two years because people weren't sharp enough to sell him things he was perfectly willing to buy.
Talking to a group of California merchants recently, Marcus explained that he had decided not to buy anything unless it is "sold" to him.
He stomped out of a cigar store not long ago when, after seeing a full-color ad for expensive imported stogies, he walked in and asked about the brand. The manager said he wasn't sure they carried it; Marcus figured that if the manager didn't bother to read his own ads, he wasn't going to pay attention to them either.
A car salesman lost a sure sale when he failed to offer a test drive to the retired founder of Neiman-Marcus.
Marcus's shopper stories would fill a Neiman-Marcus catalog with expensive bibelots of retail wisdom, but you don't have to be a master merchant to understand why customers often take a walk.
Here's a catalog of crimes against the customer, all committed within shopping distance of the White House. The names have been changed to protect the guilty:
My car salesman probably isn't the same one who dropped the ball on Marcus, but he surely studied at the same school.
The salesman saw me coming. It was easy; I was the only thing moving in the whole place. Not only that, but I was driving his make, a six-year-old model ripe for replacement. The salesman's dream: a satisfied customer coming back for more.
I headed straight for a silver coupe and waited for the salesman to amble over and offer to help.
"Hi," I said, "I'm interested in a new Sooper Swoosh. I really want a sunroof, but I haven't seen one anywhere. When are they going to be available?"
"You tell me," replied super salesman.
"Well, I was told they were going to be out by now."
"You don't believe everything you're told, do you?" came the reply.
What I didn't believe was that a car salesman would have the chutzpah to urge a customer to be more skeptical. Nor was I prepared for his next curve ball:
"How tall are you?"
"Ohh, I don't think you want a sunroof, you're too tall. You know they really cut into the headroom, I don't think you'd fit in there. How about this one right here?"
I persisted, all but offering to trim an inch off my scalp, if only he would tell me when I could try to squeeze under a sun roof. No answer. Not a hint. Not even an offer to find out and call me. No sale.
But, hey, the car business is booming these days. What difference does it make if some guy walks? There's plenty of buyers out there.
The caterer was, if anything, even more nonchalant and nonproductive than the car salesman.
It was to be a pretty-big-deal party. Maybe 75 people, food, drinks, a bartender, the whole bit. It was adding up to several hundred bucks worth of frivolity, but that wasn't enough to keep his attention.
While his customer tried for almost 45 minutes to place an order, this guy took four phone calls (at least one of them personal) and made clear that the customer's convenience was none of his concern. Another worker sat idle the whole time, apparently incapable of either serving a customer or answering the phone.
Scratch that one. Next stop was the bank.
The reason real banks are being transformed into automatic teller machines, I'm convinced, is that not even the most unreliable machine can be programmed to be as uncivil as the people it replaces.
I had just spent part of lunch muttering with a colleague about the abysmal service at a financial institution whose only redeeming social value is its proximity to our office. We laughed when I stopped there on the way back to work.
It was 2 p.m. -- plus or minus one minute -- when my hand hit the door handle. The teller saw me and without blinking pulled the shade down in my face. Closed.
That afternoon I spotted the Stanley Marcus speech and that very evening I vowed to follow his advice: "If they don't want to sell it to you, don't buy it."
The clerk in the outdoor furniture store seemed efficient enough. He answered a couple of questions, checked the stockroom and said, yes, the patio table I wanted was in stock.
"Fine, I'll take it."
He ducked into the backroom and emerged a minute later tableless and a bit chagrined. We've got the table, he said, but we don't have any twine to tie it on your car. And we don't deliver.
I grimaced and sighed, obviously frustrated, and with Marcus as my mentor explained why I was going and not coming back. "Look, I want to buy the table, but if you can't tie it on the car, I can't get it home, and I'm not going to make another trip back. So you can tell your boss you lost a sale because you were out of twine."
Suddenly a second clerk came up with a solution. "We don't have any twine, but we have this rope" he said, pointing to a spool of the stuff that's used to string together swimming pool lane markers.
I smiled in relief.
"You'll have to pay for it, though, 16 cents a foot."
If Stanley Marcus hadn't refused to buy cigars and a car, he probably would have shoved his cigar into the guy's face or run over him. I was merely incredulous, you might even say nasty.
"You expect me to give you $155 for this table and then pay you for the rope to tie it on my car? You gotta be kidding."
Just as clerk number two was explaining that he didn't have the authority to give away rope and that it really wouldn't cost me very much to buy it, the other employe reappeared, triumphantly clutching his twine.
I wrote the check. Then I wrote the column. Now I'm going to write Stanley Marcus a letter.