Sunday, October 18, 2009

The State of Retail Business

I think I've finally discovered why I have so much trouble fitting into a retail job. For that matter, it also explains why I fear that I'll never be able to find a job where I truly fit in with the company.

Because I disagree with the ethics of American business.

Perhaps that's too broad of a statement. Or perhaps not. I haven't worked in every type of business out there, so I can't say for sure. But I've worked retail, and I think I've got enough years behind me to understand the premise behind big box retailers.

The purpose of any business is to turn a profit. That's completely understandable. But it's the methods by which these profits are obtained that I have problems with. Let's say you are interested in purchasing a digital camcorder and are just starting to check out prices, brands, models, and features. You enter a store to take a look at some displays. You have no intention of buying just yet; you simply want to get some information.

This is what a big box executive expects of your experience. Keep in mind that this is how he WANTS his store employees to perform. I'm well aware that this isn't always how they work. I know I don't.

You walk into the store. As soon as you enter, an employee greets you. "What can I help you find today?" he asks.

You tell him you're looking into purchasing a camcorder and just want to browse for now.

"Let me show you where they are," he says, motioning for you to follow him. Regardless of your earlier statement that you just want to browse, he asks questions. "What kind of camcorder were you looking for?"

"I'm not sure yet," you tell him. "I'm just looking for now."

You both arrive at the display and he launches into his schtick. "Well, the kind of camera you'll need will depend on what you're going to be doing with it. This kind does this, that kind does that, blah blah etc etc." You get the idea.

To make a long story short, you tell him what you want the camera for, he suggests a model, and you decide to take it regardless of the fact that you haven't really had a chance to see what else is out there. Why? I don't know, but again, we're talking about what an executive expects should happen every time.

And now the sales pitch for all the added extras begins. "Do you have a case? You'll need one of them. How about screen cleaners? I'll go ahead and add those to your cart. Here's a lens cleaning brush that you'll need. And flash drive to transport your movies. Here's an extra battery. And a battery charger. You know what? Why don't you go ahead and buy another - you can never have too many charged batteries waiting to be used. And here are our special lens filters for different types of lighting situations. And speaking of lighting, here's an attachable light for the camcorder. Did I mention we have a wide angle lens available? I'll go ahead and throw that in, too."

Then comes the finale.

"Our technology service plan will protect your camcorder from any wear and tear that might occur. I'll go ahead and sign you up for that."

And you, apparently too stupid to think for yourself, have said yes to each and every thing the salesperson has suggested. By the time you leave, you've got four bags full of stuff, and you don't even know what half of it is. On top of that, your credit card is near maxed. Still, you're somehow a happy shopper who will return to that store time and time again.

What a crock.

OK, so you can clearly see that I disagree with this "vision" for retail sales. But this is honestly and truly how big box companies expect each and every sale to play out. On top of that, the seemingly bloodthirsty salesperson likely knew full well that you didn't need all that crap and for that matter wasn't even sure it was the right camera for you. But he got the sale, the add-ons, and the warranty plan, and for that he'll get a "good job" when he tells his boss. And that's it. No commission - that money is best left in the exec's pocket.

Everything about that example is everything I hate about this business. Aside from the stupid customers I write about, I hate the assumption that "the customer came in for SOMETHING, so it's our job to make sure they buy it." It's not as simple all that. If I ask a customer if they need help and they say they are just browsing, I'm supposed to prod and push and ask questions and make suggestions until the person is walking out with something in their hands.

That "bloodthirsty" salesman? Yeah, he probably couldn't care less about your purchase. He was just doing what he had to do to get his boss off his back for a couple hours. THAT'S the only real motivation of retail - to NOT get yelled at. I don't know the exact number, but I'm willing to bet that anywhere from 90 to 95% of retail store employees only work there to collect a paycheck. But corporate thinks we live and bleed for the company. If you don't, why work here? You want your job to have meaning, right? You want to enjoy what you do, right?

That whole conversation above was a carefully "crafted" way of forcing you to either continue with the conversation/sale or be rude and tell the guy to buzz off. Most people will allow the conversation to continue to avoid being rude despite what they're actually thinking about the whole thing. The idea is that if the salesman is able to keep the conversation going toward a conclusion (the conclusion being a purchase) then it ensures more sales for the company.

The add-on conversation that I typed out there wasn't all that far from reality. We're pretty much told to "assume" the customer wants these things. The idea here is to make the customer almost question their own objections. "Well, if HE is so confident I need it, then I guess I do." We're supposed to keep going on that until the customer says no, and then we're supposed to "overcome objections." In other words, push and push.

Sound pretty sleazy?

It is.

Here's my ideal shopping situation.

Again, same scenario. You've decided to purchase a camera and have headed out to the store to check out prices and specifications.

As you enter, an employee greets you with a smile and a hello. "Anything I can help you with?" (There's a big difference already. The question "Anything I can help you with" puts the decision in YOUR hands. No pressure. The executive's version, "What can I help you find?" makes the assumption that you want/need help finding something and almost tries to force you into the sales dialogue.)

You say you're looking into purchasing a camcorder and that you just want to get an idea of what's out there. The employee leads you to them.

"Do you have any questions that I can answer or would you simply like to browse?" he asks. (Again, huge difference. The control is in the customer's hands. You have all the right to ask for help, but there's no pressure being put on you at all.)

"No thanks," you tell the associate. "I'll just take a look for myself."

"By all means," he says with a smile. "If you decide you'd like some help, Robert is right over there." He points down the aisle to a young man who is stocking shelves. "This is his department, and he knows all about the cameras."

You thank the associate and he heads off, leaving you to look at, fiddle with, and test out the camcorders for yourself. After a bit of looking, you come up with a few questions. You head over to where Robert is working and ask if he might be able to help you out. He is happy to answer your questions and gives you some great information.

"Thanks," you say, "I appreciate the help."

But Robert has another helpful piece of advice. "If it would help your research, you might want to check out our website. It makes it very easy to compare the specifications of different models to decide which is right for you." (Not only did he not push you to buy anything you weren't sure about, he gave a good suggestion to help you in your research.)

You thank him and leave the store, feeling like you've got a good start on your research.

I think the differences are clear. Where retail stores these days are all about pressing you into a sale (despite how much they'd claim the opposite), my idea of how stores SHOULD run leaves the customer with no pressure while at the same time having associates there to help them if necessary.

There are those who would complain, "But the first example earned the store money while the second version did not."

But they aren't considering the lasting effects here. In the first example, while the customer DID indeed plunk down money, he left the store not even sure what he'd just bought. After a bit of time, he'd surely realize that he'd made an impulsive decision with his purchase and possibly return it. And if, by that time, he was outside the return policy, a battle would ensue. Either way, the experience would have no doubt left him with a sour taste in his mouth in regards to the store. Even if he didn't return it, he still will remember the store as having pushed him into something he really didn't want. And it all happened because that's what the company executives push their employees to do.

On the other hand, the second example showed employees who were happy to help yet were clearly not "bloodthirsty." That would be a place I'd be comfortable to shop in because I would feel like I wouldn't be hassled about buying stuff I don't want and that I'll be getting honest information rather than be talked into buying something expensive just because it's expensive. While the customer didn't walk out with a purchase on that visit, it was an experience that left a lasting impression and would've likely helped to build a customer for life.

When I started at CompUSA, we were the crap store of the region. Everything we did sucked, everyone picked on us as the joke store, our numbers blew, complaints were all over the place, and it was just an unpleasant place to work. Not surprisingly, our manager created a sales culture much like the first example above.

The following year, he left the store, and the man who took his place changed our views. He was all about honesty and taking care of the CUSTOMER, not the company. The reasoning was that if we take care of the customer, the customer will take care of us. And over the course of the next year, we turned the store around. The following Christmas season, we made more money than any other store in the region. Coincidence? I doubt it.

But he was fired shortly thereafter under circumstances that, I feel, were complete BS. But that's a topic for another time. Anyway, when his replacement came in with the old "pushy salesman" tactics, the store went right back down the tube.

See, too many big box organizations are so focused on the day's numbers that they're not considering the future's numbers. That's why the warranty plans are pushed so hard. Everything is about "how can we get more dollars out of each customer?" And warranties are pure profit.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to say that warranties are a bad idea. I usually buy them myself. What I disagree with is how they're worked into a company's business model. It's one thing to offer a service, it's another to push it as a necessity. Here's how I think it happens: Company offers warranty. Some customers buy. Company factors profits into next budget. Suddenly warranty sales are no longer a bonus - now they're a necessity. "Would you be interested in a warranty plan?" suddenly becomes, "I'll go ahead and sign you up for the plan." A company should be able to survive on the PRODUCTS the sell - the reason they opened the store in the first place. Warranty sales should be icing on the cake, an extra source of income that can be used for whatever. It should NEVER be depended on, because as soon as you begin depending on service plan sales, you go from "offering" the sale to "expecting" the sale. That small difference can decide whether or not your customer leaves happy or annoyed.

And that's what I think is wrong with American retail. Instead of letting the customers tell us what they want, we're trying to tell the customers what they want. And the methods of twisting words, misleading statements, and assumptive questions are, in my opinion, unethical and counterproductive.

So then, of course, comes the question, "Why do you work retail, then?"

I've tried getting out, and I'm going to keep trying. But I doubt that will solve the problem. Whether working retail or otherwise, every company deals with customers of some sort. And the trend of hidden fees, extra costs, deceptive language, and unnecessary add-ons continues in many other types of businesses. That's not to say that EVERY company or manager works this way, but it is most certainly the prevalent method of business.

So why did I type all this out?

I really don't know.

What I do know is that I'm no closer to feeling like I'll fit in with current business models.

So maybe it's time for a change...

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