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.
* 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.
It's a good point. When shoppers are looking for only the most basic attention, what they get in response shouldn't be a referendum on an employee's career satisfaction, it should be common courtesy.
* Who's minding the store? Another big irritant to shoppers is problems in store operations that seem to crop up over and over and never get fixed.
Falling clearly into that category are the discrepancies shoppers find in unit pricing at supermarkets, when two brands of the same product display unit prices in different measures, such as price per ounce vs. price per pound. It makes it hard to figure out what product offers the best deal.
"I can't believe that after all the years of unit pricing, store chains have not implemented uniform standards," wrote an annoyed shopper.
"I cannot believe this is not intentional," wrote another.
Shoppers have an eagle eye for inconsistency, especially when it comes to price. But what really struck me in so many comments was the degree to which readers refused to give stores the benefit of the doubt. They are bitter and assume they're being "taken."
Any story on unit pricing is also going to invite the inevitable flood of tirades about how stupid our measuring system is compared with the simplicity of metric measurements. A reader from London explained that unit pricing problems are nonexistent in Britain. "Everything here is metric, so it's way easier to compare value. Time for a change?"
* Less redeeming value. Another common point of frustration among readers, it turns out, is coupons. I got a few positive comments from die-hard coupon users who explained how they got this and that free, or nearly so, after using a double coupon, a club card discount and a rebate. I will never have that kind of follow-through.
But lots of readers indicated that they are, in fact, using coupons less and less, consistent with industry research. They say coupons are less valuable and more trouble than they used to be, and they especially dislike those that require the purchase of more than one item.
No relief is in sight. To manufacturers and retailers these days, the lure of pushing more products out the door is far greater than the lure of giving one customer a sense of satisfaction over one good deal.
* The line(s) form here. And you can't talk about coupons without talking about retail lines. I always pick the line with the customer who pulls out a coupon wallet to sort through them while the rest of us wait.
After my column on the differences between single lines and multiple lines in retail settings, I was admonished by several readers for not delving more thoroughly into the intricacies of Queuing Theory. This mathematical formula was devised decades ago to most effectively route telephone traffic, and it basically holds that a single, bank-style line is always the most efficient, expedient way for customers to wait their turn.
Given that, I was skewered for seeming to support the multiple-line model. But my problem with relying on Queuing Theory to dictate the setup of retail lines is that it doesn't account for the unpredictable psychology of shoppers. There are those who want to gamble that they'll pick the shortest line, those who obliviously cut in line when a single impromptu queue has formed, and those who will walk out rather than wait in a long line to buy a bag of M&M's.
The truth is that many consumers today, especially for quick shopping trips, are simply too selfish and too impatient to stand in a single line, even if it clearly is the fairest checkout system a store can offer.
* Fabric safety. When I wrote about functional fabrics, I was remiss in not addressing the potential health implications of so many chemicals being bonded onto fibers to give fabric certain functional qualities. Readers had a lot of questions and concerns about what the long-term effects might be, for example, of wearing socks with silver molecules in them to repel odor.
Apparel manufacturers and researchers vouch for the safety of such products, but certainly it's a subject to watch, especially as more substances get woven into fabrics for the functional benefits they convey. Shoppers are a skeptical bunch, and with good reason. Apparel companies will have to deal forthrightly with such health issues if they want the kind of consumer acceptance they're hoping for. In conversations they're having now, it just doesn't come up.
* Just an e-mail away. And finally, on a personal note, I will be on maternity leave for several months. But please keep the feedback coming when you have a question, comment or concern about what you see when you shop. I read every e-mail that comes to firstname.lastname@example.org, even if I can't respond to them all.