Is Customer Service Dead or Have We Just Conceded it to Amazon?

During this holiday season I had the chance to visit a number of retail establishments that I do not frequent often.  I also had the opportunity to interact with the staff at these establishments and to take a look at their selections.  I have to say, the results were disheartening, so say the least.

The most memorable of those visits took place just after Christmas.  I went to Best Buy to (hopefully) purchase a few Bluray disks with some Christmas cash I’d received, take a look at the musical instruments I’d heard they have and also check out a dishwasher.  After that visit, I had an even better view of the issue.

Best Buy

Upon arriving in the store, I went directly to the dishwashers and found what I was looking for.  Then, a helpful salesperson, a woman, asked if she could help me.  I won’t go into the specifics, but her complete lack of knowledge and deer-in-the-headlights look was not the help I was looking for.  Turns out their musical instruments were a joke and they had none of the 5 Blurays (all released in November) I was looking for.

The experience left me wondering about the future of the in-store purchase.  As I went over what happened, I came up with these three observations:

  • Our online shopping expectations are different.  The cost of an online shopping session, in terms of effort and commitment is nothing compared to driving to a store.  Expectations are low, the session can be ended at any time and there’s no commute time.  This is a bit different to the store visit where you drive over to the store thinking about your potential purchase and leave disappointed if you do not find that item.
  • When it comes to raw knowledge, it’s hard to compete with a computer.  No matter how good the in-store salesperson is, they’ll never even approach the speed and accuracy a computer has.  Amazon’s website and engagement process do a superior job suggesting additional or alternative purchases, as well as answering all questions related to the item.
  • Has the “big box” store concept run its course?  There’s a huge irony to me that the so-called “big box” stores came along 20 years ago and replaced mom and pop shops in all sorts of industries and now, Amazon is returning the favor.  I think it will depend on the industry, because some industries, e.g. office products and musical instruments, still thrive on the big box stores.  However, for general consumer electronics, computers, TVs and appliances, maybe the writing is on the wall.

As I was leaving the store, a young gentleman was stationed by the exit asking each exiting customer if we found what we were looking for.  I replied with a laugh that, no actually I did not find anything I was looking for.  I felt bad as I walked to my car, as I had found the dishwasher, so I did see one of the three things I was looking for.  I did not go back and tell him.

The moral of the story? I ended up buying the Bluray disks from Amazon. Best Buy should not hold its breath waiting for my next visit.

What has been your recent experience with retail?  Are you on top of your company’s retail experience?

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Categories: Management, Running a Business

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1 reply

  1. Good article Eric. Here are a few of my own observations:
    1) Big retail chains like Best Buy are known for high employee turnover rate. Once upon a time, you could walk into a Circuit City (remember them?) and speak with an experienced sales rep. Now, sales staff rarely stay longer than a year, so it’s unlikely you’ll get an experienced and knowledgeable sales associate. When using an online retailer like Amazon, you’ve got product experts posting useful information so you don’t have to rely on a trained sales associate to help you. And, as you mentioned, you have the benefit of Amazon’s recommendation engine and cross selling/bundling capability.
    2) Big retail chains often have centralized advertising offices. Which means that a well meaning group of advertising staff put together wonder product offers in newspaper circulars and direct mail ads, but the individual stores may or may not choose to promote that product,may or may not even carry that product, and/or may not stock a sufficient inventory. So the deals don’t often translate into good customer experiences because the retailers are not living up to the promises offered by a centralized marketing dept.
    3) So many retailers participate in the practice of bait and switch. I absolutely abhor this practice (I recently left a dentist because he pulled that on me). This fosters so much distrust with me that I typically will not shop in stores that display such behavior.
    The bottom line is this: for brick and mortar retailers to survive, they’ve got to ensure that the customer has the same positive brand and ‘user experience’ that we experience when shopping online. It’s difficult, but there are retailers who achieve this. Just think of the Nordstrom or Ritz Carlton experience. It can be done!

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