Jan 23, 2008

A Tale of Two Retailers

After shopping with his family yesterday, a friend of mine told me two stories that between them show just how good – and how bad – the customer experience at retail can be these days. Let’s start with the bad and get it behind us.

My friend and his wife were on the hunt for a table lamp that would work with 3-way light bulbs. Entering an upscale home furnishings store with, among other things, hundreds of lamps they quickly found something they liked. But when they peered under its shade, there was no light bulb. In fact, none of the nearby lamps had bulbs. Nor was there any indication whether the lamp could accommodate a 3-way. Eventually a saleswoman unearthed a bulb, though not a 3-way, and popped it in so that my friend and his wife could at least judge the lamp on its basic business, providing light. As to the 3-way she assured them that since the socket said it could take 150 watts, 3-way bulbs would work.

She was wrong. Back home after buying the lamp, stopping at the hardware store, and attempting to put in a bulb – my friend discovered it wouldn’t fit. The lamp shade mounting was much too short. Now, maybe he should have figured this out himself at the store. But shouldn’t the saleswoman have known this much? Shouldn’t she at least have verified what she said. She didn’t. Today my friend returned the lamp, his regard for the store seriously damaged. All for want of a few light bulbs and a simple 5-second sales training lesson on the rudiments of one of the store’s major product categories.

Totally opposite, and a thousand times better was my friend’s experience at Border’s, which the family stopped into purely by chance and with zero intent to buy. As he browsed, his twelve-year-old son came up to him excitedly and said, “Hey come here to the CD’s. Now: Pick out a disc and ask me to play you a track from it – any track you want.” And he could. He swiped the CD’s barcode, punched a couple buttons on the store’s equipment, and handed the earphones to dad. Voila, a sensationally convenient and fun way to shop. And a sensational way for Border’s to sell impulse purchases. Only self-restraint kept our trusty consumers from walking out with six new CD’s and an unplanned hit to their credit card balance.

PS: My friend and his wife then remembered that a home furnishings store they visited earlier had lamps clearly marked “three-way” and salespeople who said (correctly) that “most of our lamps are 3-ways.” The couple went back and bought one. At this point in the process, how attractive the product looked was mattering less. What made the sale was a no-surprises, no-wasted effort purchase.

I’ve made things simpler than they are, of course. Retail managers are forever tearing their hair out because they can’t get little things like light bulbs taken care of routinely and properly in their outlets. And for the manufacturers who make the lamps and win (or lose) the sales based on retailer know-how and execution, the problems are only compounded. Still, I don’t think my friend’s case was untypical.

More and more, the product – no matter how upscale – is a commodity that can be purchased anywhere. But how it’s purchased, and how the customer feels about the experience, can vary a great deal from one place to the next.

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