Thursday, January 22, 2009

It's Time For a Corporate Hug

Not long ago, I was in a CVS not far from my home in Alexandria, VA. When I went to check out, a receipt was not forthcoming. Turns out, the cashier had put her register tape in backwards. She appeared clueless as to what the problem was, unembarrassed, and worst of all, unapologetic. For the five plus minutes that I stood directly in front of her waiting for a more knowledgeable colleague to go to the office and print a receipt out from the store's main terminal, she never uttered a word of regret for the inconvenience she had caused.
Turns out, I had bought some items that upon returning home, I discovered that I did not really need. Rather than drive back to the location at which I had made my original purchase, which I patronized on that particular day because of its proximity to the library and other destinations on a planned route consolidated with fuel economy in mind, the next day I walked to the CVS closest to my home, armed with the "receipt" from the other store. At first, the clerk refused to accept it and do a return; her excuse was that it did not have a bar code printed on the bottom! Translation: the machine does the thinking; she could not. After I pressured her into phoning her manager, she finally reversed the charges to my credit card, but not before I had signed yet another receipt, reluctantly disclosed my unlisted/unpublished telephone number and in addition, at her autocratic insistence, provided my Driver's License information as well. Curiously, she never asked for my CVS card, on which identifying information is stored. I felt like a criminal, and left thinking that shoplifters probably got better treatment. So much for the "C" (customer) and "S" (service) in CVS!
Not long after, I received a promotion from Giant in my e-mail. Present my loyalty card at the register and receive a free recyclable tote bag. Since I am ecologically conscious, it sounded great to me. I printed out the e-mail and walked to the store closest to my home, in the same shopping center as the second CVS. The clerk at the register was clueless, even after I showed him the e-mail, and the person from the management office that he consulted with for help was argumentative and insisted that I needed to purchase something in order to get the freebie. Never mind that the tote bags were slung over one wall at each checkout cubicle; no one that I encountered at the store level seemed aware of the corporate promotion. At my insistence, the clerk finally did scan my Giant Card and the tote bag, and, voila, it worked! I left him the e-mail for future reference, since he at least seemed interested and curious.
Will I go back to CVS or Giant any time soon? I do, after all, have to eat and need food and basic sundries. Possibly, but most likely because of proximity and price, specifically advertised sales. I will assiduously avoid the less than competent and/or civil and/or knowledgeable staff and probably patronize a different location of each chain.
It is not news that we are in poor economic circumstances, where previous merger and acquisition activity has virtually ensured that goods sold by most competing stores in a category are fairly homogenous, sale and everyday low prices being equalizing. As pointed out by Dov Seidman in "How," the greatest point of competitive distinction then becomes corporate behavior as distilled down to the customer experience at the point of sale. Are the clerks friendly and helpful? Are the items sought in stock? Are the sale prices as advertised? In this climate where relatively long-standing establishments are going bankrupt and/or out of business, and others are shuttering underperforming outlets, it is a lesson that should be studied by those that remain if they want to endure. Sales services the debt left over from massive leverage and hubristic expansion. There is less choice in the marketplace, relative to the former overbuilt plethora, but not a lack thereof, and thanks to the Internet, bricks and mortar are never "the only game in town." Yet retailers increasingly seem to be adopting a "take it or leave it" attitude, risking that a shopper will do the latter. Yes, companies are in business to make money, but letting that be the overriding perception is counterproductive to success. "Rumors" of institutionalized "bad days" have a way of getting around; it would be disastrous to get to the point where it is more pleasant to do business online and interacting with a computer is the best we can do in terms of satisfying the need for the personal touch. That last statement should give us all pause and force us to consider the ramifications of its applicability beyond the realm of business. But I digress...
In this environment, the solution for survival is not for a consumer to feel a frosty chill upon entering a store, air conditioning notwithstanding, but to be greeted with service and a warm and welcoming smile. In today's economy, a shopper can easily choose to "leave it," or worse yet for retailers, not buy at all. It is in no company's interest to make that the easy choice. Corporations are dispensable; patrons are not. However unless transformation is initiated from within, it may be necessary to prod a change in the overall lack of civility, not only in business, but in society as a whole, one footstep out the door at a time. Before that happens, retailers should follow the new President's lead and start doling out corporate hugs, one customer at a time.

Karen Ann DeLuca