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).
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.
Among the many hurdles I encountered during the course of my power-shopping weekend were kids' shoes that were out of stock but perhaps could have been found at another store or special ordered; sheets that were prominently advertised in the paper but almost impossible to find -- and a sales clerk who made no effort to locate them; and a crib mattress I wanted to buy but was told wasn't in stock, even though it was.
But the most glaring example of this kind of breakdown came at Buy Buy Baby, a bustling, interesting and well-stocked children's store in Rockville. The store had a bookshelf on display that I wanted to buy, but a saleswoman told me it was sold out. However, I'd noticed one of these bookshelves, with no visible tag or sign, sitting amid several pieces of furniture that were bubble-wrapped and already sold. I asked if I could buy that one. The saleswoman said she didn't know and would page the manager.
After a few minutes, the woman returned with another woman, a supervisor of some sort. This person also didn't know why the bookshelf was there, but told me that if it could be sold, it would have been put in the clearance area. It's probably not for sale, she said, but the only way to find out for sure was to ask the store manager. I waited another 10 minutes for the manager, who didn't come, and again asked the saleswoman, who said: "I haven't heard back from the manager, so I don't think you can buy the bookcase."
In other words, please go away.
So I went and found the store manager myself and, as I expected, he was totally helpful and sold me the bookcase. Its only defect was that it didn't have any shelf supports, but I could buy those easily at the hardware store. The manager wrapped the bookshelf for me, raked 20 percent off the price and found someone to put it in my car.
I don't want to indict Buy Buy Baby, because I left satisfied and the store manager treated me exceptionally well. The problem the store had was a single employee who so easily concluded "you can't buy it" simply because she didn't know the answer.
And this is where experts agree that there is a breakdown in the culture of retail. Throughout the industry, the lowest-level employees aren't paid enough, trained enough or valued enough to treat customers the way the stores themselves say they should be treated.
It's easy to chalk up experiences like mine and Whalin's to one unhelpful worker, but when shoppers encounter such obstacles at store after store, its clear that it's a more pervasive problem than retailers realize. No wonder online shopping is growing so fast.
"Companies spend millions upon millions on 'customer relationship management,' but isn't it funny how they fall short in that last 50 feet?" said Doug Fleener, president of Dynamic Experiences Group of Lexington, Mass. "It's like when they were building all those fiber-optic systems, but couldn't figure out that last 100 feet into your house."
Is this problem fixable? It is, if it's a priority from the top down. It's not just about paying employees more, which is hard enough for big retail chains to do when they're under constant pressure from Wall Street to improve profits. The truth is, even meagerly paid hourly workers will rise to the occasion if they are trained and treated well.
"I'm a firm believer that how that employee treats me . . . is a direct reflection of how they're being treated and how valuable they're feeling," Fleener said.
When a retail chain's entire message to its staff is about products, discounts, inventory control and stocking, it's easy for employees to miss the point that what the customer wants -- to give a store his or her hard-earned money -- should come above everything else.
"Retailers allow people to walk into their stores and walk out of their stores," said retail marketing consultant Debbie Allen of Scottsdale, Ariz. "They put all this money into advertising, but they don't build relationships by actively trying to help. It's totally insane."
It is, and it drives shoppers insane. When retailers truly begin to recognize that -- and there are a few that do -- then there will be a lot more incentive to spend a weekend shopping.
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