by Jeffrey Gottheil

What has happened to the state of retail?  Who decided that cutting staff (due to cost constraints) meant we should eliminate salespeople completely and replace them with order-takers, greeters or cash register operators?

Where is customer service in retail? When did we come to realize that there is no value in having an individual actually knowing about the product they sold?  Where was it said that there is no value in teaching an individual to “sell up”, “sell through” or “close a sale”?

More and more stores are adopting the policy of self-serve checkout. Is it only a matter of time before we will scan the UPC code of an item we’re interested in and get all the information we need from, including inventory levels, competitive “like” products, prices and features, warranty, colours etc.?

Is it time to implement a program of vendor-supplied online operators at the store level (through digital signage with online two-way communications) in each department and have them answer any questions a customer may have about a product or service?  (This already exists.)

As consumers, are we capable of making our own decisions or do we still rely on the store to provide that service?

My answer is simple: It depends on the retail environment I choose to purchase in. If I choose to shop at Costco I’m giving up service for price but if I’m willing to pay a premium to experience a better shopping environment, then I expect more than tiled floors and themed departments. I expect someone who knows the product they’re selling, who can answer questions for me or find someone who can. If not I might as well go for price and amazing return policy. It almost pays to save the money and make the wrong decision.

I’ve been preaching the deterioration of retail and the importance of in-store marketing for over 25 years. Has anyone been listening? Call me old school, but I’m still waiting for someone who can actually tell me something intelligent about the product they’re selling, other than reading what’s on the box.

Don’t you love it when you spend 30 minutes trying to find someone on the floor to come to the department you’re in and do something more than read what’s on the box? I guess they’re assuming you can’t read.

Here are three perfect examples of what I’ve personally experienced shopping for myself:

Example #1: I walked into an Acura dealer the other day because my lease is coming due and I had such a great experience a few years ago with my last Acura that perhaps it’s time to go back. I walked through the door and was greeted immediately by an individual dressed in a suit who said “Welcome”. I returned the favor and said hello.

The first car by the door was the TL, a model that I was interested in. The salesman (or so I assumed) stayed with me as I did the traditional “tire kicking ritual”. I decided to ask him a few simple questions. His answers didn’t make sense so I asked him if he could check with someone to confirm that. He politely did so and returned saying I was right. I asked another question and once again his answer seemed not to make sense. Now this conversation went on for about 15 minutes, with him checking with his superior at least three times, until I politely asked “Are you new here?”  He answered, “No, I’ve been here for 7 years, but I’m not a salesman; I’m a greeter.”

Now a few thoughts went through my mind. 1) How does a person in his late twenties remain a greeter for 7 years? And 2) How difficult is it to learn about the most commonly asked question of only 6 cars on the showroom floor? True, question one may answer question two, BUT — Who is responsible for this? The individual with no ambition or interest in the product his company sells, or the company that employs him without providing the education and guidance to make him a better employee?

There were 6 cars on the floor. With limited effort I could have read the brochures and within one lunch hour could have answered any one of the questions I’d asked. I wouldn’t even penalize the Greeter if he had cheat notes in his pocket and read the answers to me. But 7 years in the organization and 6 cars on the showroom floor is hard to forgive.  Whose fault is this? If you have an employee for 7 years who doesn’t make any effort to understand your product and show any initiative, get rid of them and have a long talk with your HR person.

If your department heads in any retail environment are not having meetings on a regular basis, discussing the latest product arrivals and key selling attributes of the product, then why advertise your products at all? Why bring more customers into the store only disappoint them once they arrive?

Example #2: I then walked into a Hero’s Burger Restaurant at 1:30 pm. (The time plays a significant role in this story.) I looked at the menu, hanging over the cash register, to see that I have three choices of burger sizes: 4 ounce, 6 ounce and 8 ounce. I asked (as most people do) for the 6 ounce burger. The girl behind the counter (all of 25 years old) told me that they’re sold out of that size. (I could never understand how a place that specializes in something can be sold out. It would be like McDonald’s telling me that they’re out of hamburgers; it just doesn’t happen — in the late hours or the end of the day, perhaps, but not during lunch hour.) So I asked, “How is that possible?” She said that someone came in and ordered all of their 6 ounce burgers. “How many did they order?” I asked, thinking it was an office party and they ordered 50+. She tells me 6. I said, “You sold out after a guy ordered six burgers at 1:30 in the afternoon?” (It only gets better.) I then said, “OK, can you show me the difference between a 4 ounce and an 8 ounce burger?” Now this is the best part. She pointed to a small 8 ½” x 11” backlit sign that featured a burger and explained that was a 4 ounce; then she pointed to a 4ft x 8 ft backlit poster permanently affixed to the wall behind her and indicated that was an 8 ounce. (Well I could not leave this alone; it was worth the price of admission.) So I said, “If I order the 8 ounce burger is it going to be 4 feet by 8 feet high?” She said, “No, no, no, but I wanted to show you the difference.” Now I’m no chef but that’s quite a difference. I guess her salesmanship worked; I ordered the 8 ounce burger. Either that or she just wore me out.

Example #3: I then visited a Bose store because I’m looking for a pair of quality headphones. I asked the salesperson a few questions and she told me that I should go online to their website when I get home and I should be able to find all the answers I need. So let me try to understand this: despite being here now with cash in hand, I should hop back into the car, battle traffic for the second time, go onto my home computer, find the answers myself, hop back into the car, park, go back to the store and tell this lovely person the exact model I want?

I have also been preaching for 25 years that a vendor and an advertising agency cannot depend solely on the staff in the store to sell their product; they must assume certain responsibilities and provide the consumer with much-needed information about their product. Putting a product on a shelf is not enough to sell it.

Retailers have cut back on the most important asset they have, their own people. They think that this is the way to save money. And when this doesn’t work, they reduce the price of the merchandise even further. Do you know how insulting it is for a consumer to walk into a store and see merchandise on sale for 70% off the regular price? This only tells me that you’re marking up the merchandise so much, that you can afford to sell it for 70% off the regular price and still make money.

Who are the guilty parties: retailers?, agencies?, employees? The major retailers have changed the game plan and made their employees order-takers, capable only of ringing up products. Suppose — and I’m going out on a limb here — you don’t reduce you merchandise by 70% and you don’t have sales every other day, but you instead invest in your staff and educate them, not only to know the product they’re selling but knowing how to sell it too.  What happened to incentives, recognizing good salesmanship and rewarding the employee?  Provide the employees with the education and tools to help sell products.  Let’s call it “employee intelligence”. If we don’t start investing in employee intelligence today then the face of retail will never change and we will continuously be competing on price not the value of the product, shopping experience or retail brand.

I’m wondering if we should go back to Consumer’s Distributing days: customers simply fill out a form and proceed to the order desk and pick up their product.

Costco has it right. They are who they are; you don’t expect service from Costco, you expect good prices. You know what you want and you go to the store pick it up and get the best value. If I’m not getting the value-add in a department store or specialty shop, why am I shopping there? For years now I’ve been supporting vendors with POP material and displays with the sole task of providing customers with additional information that will help close the sale or give them a reason to choose my client’s products over the competition.

Let’s not assume that agencies are the innocent parties in all this. They have to provide their clients with both above-the-line and below-the-line strategies. They can’t just bring the customer into the store, they must also support the product with information to help sell it and — most important — help close it. Simply put, if your ad campaign brings traffic into the store and through competitive in-store marketing a customer decides to purchase another brand then how effective was your advertising. The major question for all advertising agencies and clients is, “Where does an agency’s responsibility begin, and where does it end?” I say it doesn’t end. It isn’t just bringing customers to a store and it doesn’t end when the purchase is made; it doesn’t end even when you have a satisfied customer. It’s all about a continued relationship of learning and growing with your customer.