Yesterday my friend @MikeShemesh posted a Facebook complaint about waiting in a line @riteaid that was already long when one of the two cashiers left his/her station and vanished. Needless to say, all the customers waited even longer to pay for their purchases and get on with their day.
Downsizing to an Empty Store
Who has not experienced something similar? These days, many stores maximize their profits by cutting back on sales representatives, cashiers, attendants, service people, and other customer-facing employees. This lean- and-mean business strategy has two faces:
- A sales floor that looks like an episode of Life After People. Shoppers face full racks, bright lights, gleaming floors—and empty sales stations.
- Cashiers replaced with “Self Checkout” stations that are supposedly more convenient for the customer. I dealt with this clever little lie in a previous post: Efficiency Backlash Part 2.
Invisible Sales Staff
Today I want to talk about the first one—no sales staff. I find the empty store particularly problematical because I am not a fashionista. When I go shopping for a special occasion, I like to work with a knowledgeable and helpful sales rep who will tell me what looks good and what doesn’t, suggest alternatives, fetch different sizes, and even call other stores to find what I need. Thus I shop first at Nordstrom because that’s exactly the kind of service they provide. Recently, I found the dress I wanted in the color I preferred but they didn’t have it in the size I needed so the cheerful saleswoman who had been helping me called a corporate number and arranged to have it shipped directly to my home. Score 5 points for @Nordstrom.
Compare this to Lord & Taylor where there are virtually no sales reps in the women’s clothing department. Good luck trying to find someone who will help you, fetch a different size or even check you out so you can take your purchase and move on.
A Slipper Zipper in an Empty Store
Once I was in the dressing room with a very slippery zipper tab that was stuck halfway down and resisted being pulled all the way. I looked in vain for an @lordandtaylor employee somewhere in the women’s department to help me out of the dress. Finally, I asked another shopper and she pulled the zipper down. That’s simply ridiculous.
It goes without saying that the higher the prices, the better the service you are likely to receive. But that consigns millions of shoppers to the odd capitalist hell of wandering through a brightly lit but empty store trying to find someone to please take your money so you can buy what you need. I sometimes think about standing on the sales floor and openly filling a shopping bag with clothing to see if anyone—even store security—would notice what I was doing. Or could I get all the way to the electronic alarm system at the door before someone in the store noticed that I was shoplifting? I won’t actually do this, of course, but I might write a short story about it.
Customer Satisfaction is Your Job
I understand the kind of bottom-line thinking that drives a company to make these decisions. In the CFO’s office, the job is all about numbers and how to optimize them. There is no room for people in those spreadsheets and Venn diagrams, nor does one expect it. But someone in the corporation must have the job of maintaining and even increasing customer satisfaction. Someone must be thinking about drawing customers in and providing them with a good shopping experience so they will return.
Does this person have no power at Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Sears, and other stores with empty sales floors? Does no one on the company’s executive team realize that skinnying the company down so far that customers are left on their own does not make for a great experience?
Intruding, Not Shopping
When I walk into one of these stores, I feel like I’m intruding, not shopping. It’s as if the store is really closed but I slipped in through a side door that was left open inadvertently. The mannequins watch me as I go by, the merchandise glitters and gleams, the HVAC pumps out heat or cold, but all the people have gone away. It’s not only not welcoming, it’s kind of creepy. Welcome to The Twilight Zone.
This experience is even worse now that I can shop on a weekday instead of cramming it all into a weekend. During the week, the mall is populated mostly by young mothers and senior citizens. The nearly empty mall is full of nearly empty stores. If you go early enough, you can even get someone in the Apple Store to answer a quick question.
For an executive’s perspective on why there are so few shoppers, watch Venture Capitalist and CEO Nick Hanauer’s TED Talk: Inequality for All.
Race to the Bottom
Unfortunately, it’s a race to the bottom. First management lays off staff to pump up profits. But then shoppers stop coming to their store so they lay off more people. The store becomes not just an empty store but also disheveled as clothing and other items of merchandise left by the few remaining shoppers don’t get returned to racks, displays look pawed over, and clothing falls to the floor. Now people start avoiding the store because it’s unpleasant just to walk into it. Finally, the store closes. Lean and mean becomes lean and stupid.
The once hard-working employees lose their jobs but the executives go on, being hired somewhere else on the strength of their experience so they can ruin another store’s bottom line.
What to do? Well, I have my own simple philosophy:
- I shop where I am wanted. If the sales floor is empty, I leave.
- I appreciate good sales help and patronize stores that provide it.
- I don’t use self-checkout ever.
The only way to stop this rude and inefficient race to the bottom is to exercise the power of the dollar. Insist on customer satisfaction instead of customer abandonment. It’s the store’s job to make sure you’re a happy shopper, not your job to ensure the company is profitable. Maybe if more people refused to be treated with disdain, retail executives would wise up and change things.