Customer service matters if traditional retail is to thrive03 Nov 11 07:00AM EST |
I had the unfortunate but necessary experience of having to visit a major department store a couple of time over the past few weeks. The first thing that took me by surprise was the emptiness of the store - plenty of stuff to buy - but no-one there to buy it.
It didn't take me long to work out why (I'm pretty sure I knew the reason why before I walked in, but it's nice to be affirmed). Not only did no-one serve me, I simply couldn't find anyone to serve me.
Like many Australians, I find myself purchasing more and more stuff I need online: it's easy, it's (at worst) the same price and it gets delivered to my door. So what is it my bricks-and-mortar store does to respond to this ever-increasing trend? You'd think they would try to find ways to combat the competition, right? Nope, they complain about it – they say they can't compete because of overheads and the GST amongst other things.
I don't buy it!
You will hear corporate types talk about "unique selling points" or "points of difference". This is a fairly simple concept - work out what you do well and what differentiates you from your competition and emphasise it.
So what does my bricks-and-mortar store have that the online equivalent does not? Point of sales service: expertise, suggestions, even the ability to pay with something other than a credit card.
A classic example of this is the book industry. Yes, there are external reasons why major bookstores are closing down including the emergence of digital technology but there is something really satisfying about asking the small, independent bookseller about suggestions for books for an aunt who likes Jodi Picoult but doesn't like Alice Sebold. They nod assuredly, rub their chin then go through a series of books that you’re sure your aunt will love.
It’s their expertise and willingness to help that separates them from the larger, now extinct, bookstores. Similarly, going into an Apple store you know that you will have your question answered by an enthusiastic staff member who knows all about the products. They're passionate about what they're selling. It's not hard.
The breathtaking display of poor service by fashion retailer GASP recently was symptomatic, albeit an extreme example, of a retailer not knowing their point of difference.
Similarly, the major department stores could also learn a thing or two about their point of difference. People still want to be looked after while shopping. They want to know where to find something. They want to know the difference between cotton and Egyptian cotton sheets. They want to know when you might be getting stock in. They want to know which cable goes into what socket at the back of the TV. They don't want to queue to pay for something.
Many companies say that their staff are the window to their organisation, and they are only as good as their staff. Perhaps the executives of these department stores should walk around their own stores and experience what we are all experiencing: no staff, no service, and no care.
There are many people who are still nervous about using their credit card online and need to use bricks-and-mortar stores but it’s out of necessity rather than preference. The stores have a small window of opportunity to win back customers but the window is closing, and closing fast.
My advice to department stores? Stop whingeing about things you can't control, and do something about it - put passionate, knowledgeable staff back on the floor who can look after us. Your future depends on it.
What's your experience with the service offered by bricks-and-mortar stores?