It’s almost like some retailers finally read the memo. They seem to now understand that customer service is the new differentiator. With quality levels and prices across almost all product categories nearly at par, it’s service that sets retailers apart--and smaller retailers have taken note.
I was recently at a new Safeway supermarket looking for dried currants. I asked the nearest floor person where I could find them, expecting a simple “look at the end of aisle 10.” Instead, the clerk told me she wasn’t sure but she could find someone who would know. She came back with a young guy in tow who walked me to the produce department and helped me find the product. This has happened numerous times recently at Safeway, Raley’s/Bel Air, Trader Joe’s, and a few other national and regional retailers. In fact, this rush to help almost seems to have happened overnight.
Sometimes the service has been almost embarrassing. I almost felt bad when a Raley’s employee spent 15 minutes helping me find tahini. I mean, neither of us even knew what it was, but there we were, marching up and down the aisles just so I could satisfy my wife’s craving for homemade hummus.
You might think that this is an expensive use of manpower, but if you consider that these retailers are competing against discount giants like Costco or Wal-Mart, then it isn’t so dumb. Where would I rather shop, someplace where I wander aimlessly and encounter either no help or disinterested help, or someplace where I practically get a personal shopper? For me, I’ll pay a little bit more for my groceries (and it is just a little bit more) to get good customer service.
Some of you are no doubt thinking, “Gee, Dirk, that’s nice that you can afford to shop for currants and tahini at Safeway, but I just lost my job and can barely afford milk, bread, and cereal. I endure Wal-Mart because I need to.” Actually, you shouldn’t need to endure anything. Most big box stores have plenty of help on the floor; I know, I’ve seen them chatting amongst themselves while I’ve waited for them to shut up and help me. There’s no reason why they can’t provide the same excellent service as smaller stores. It’s arrogance. Some national retailers command such a huge part of their market that they see no reason to teach their employees the basics of good customer service. Why bother with customer service when you have, particularly during a recession, a captive market?
That attitude should really make you angry. Why should someone at a lower income level get inferior customer service? I would argue that big box stores, which have a large percentage of low- or limited-income customers, should be doing more to make their customers’ experience better, if for no other reasons than they can afford to do so, and because making life a little nicer for those struggling in today’s economy is a good thing to do, ethically and from a business sense.
And also because, in the end, there will be a backlash. A few years ago Scott Paton wrote a scathing critique of Wal-Mart. We were flooded with letters in support of his opinion, but many letters pointed out that for those on a limited income, it’s hard to beat. If I were CEO of a big box retailer whose financially strapped customers endured my store’s poor service, I would be wondering what will happen with those customers when their finances improve.