Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What's wrong with retail stores (hint: it's not the prices)

Brick-and-mortar stores often complain that they are losing business to online merchants because consumers today only care about finding the lowest price. No one values the personal service they offer, these stores grumble.

But that's just not true. Consumers do value good service. The problem for many traditional retailers is that not only don't they have the best prices, they also don't have very good service.

Consider my visit this week to Michael's, the arts and crafts store in Long Beach's Towne Center.

Michael's carries such a bewildering array of products that what I needed most when I stepped in the door was someone to point me to the right aisle. But there was no such person.

As I circled around the store twice it appeared there was only one person working, and she was handling customers at the checkstand. It seemed I could have done anything laid down in the aisle, tossed rubber stamps into the air, ran around naked and no employee would have noticed.

Then, excitedly, I spotted two more workers. Alas, one was on the phone. I headed for the other one. I'm not sure whether he saw me or not, but he turned directly away from me, went through a door, and disappeared into a back room. Sigh.

After a few more minutes of wandering aimlessly in search of help, I left. Michael's lost a sale simply because no one was available to direct me to the right aisle. I bought what I needed later in the day online, from a seller that made it easy to find what I wanted.

Sadly, this experience is hardly limited to Michael's. I've had the same frustrating experience looking for help at Lowe's, Home Depot and other stores

Later in the day, I stopped at Costco in Commerce, California. I had coupons that the store had mailed to my home in hand.

But when I presented my coupons at the checkstand, the Costco worker said they wouldn't accept them. Why? Because this was a Costco "Business Center."

If you've never been to a Costco Business Center, let me describe it: It's a Costco. It looks like a Costco, has huge carts like a Costco, has Costco products and employees with Costco badges. The only difference I could discern was that on the side of the building, next to the word "Costco," were the words "Business Center."

After Costco refused to accept Costco coupons, the checker then told me that my membership had expired three months earlier and that I couldn't buy anything there anyway until I forked over $55. So when you try to use coupons, it's not a Costco. But when it comes to membership, it is a Costco.

I said no thanks to renewing my membership, and left my cart full of products in their hands. I won't be back.

I am also amazed at how many stores make it difficult to give them money. You've done your shopping, you head to check out and then you find a huge line of people, just because the store would rather waste your time than hire more employees. The CVS drug store in the downtown Los Angeles Mall is a prime example. More than once, I've walked out of that store because of the line and left my would-be purchases behind.

(Just in case you think I'm nothing but a whiner, check out my nearly perfect shopping experience at Barnes & Noble.) 

Let's face it: Online stores make shopping convenient. You don't have to drive anywhere, fight for a parking space, or wander aimlessly in a store. There's never a line. When you're ready to checkout, online stories are always ready to take your money. And those are all important parts of good service.

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