“Every customer is valuable and, they’re even more valuable today because there are fewer of them.” Ron Frasch, chief merchant of Saks Fifth Avenue, on improving service in the holiday season.”
The New York Times, Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Some many years ago when I was childless and still had expendable income, I was at the cosmetics counter of Lord & Taylor waiting for someone to help me. I stood there for at least fifteen minutes while the saleswoman talked on the phone to her boyfriend. “Excuse me,” I finally said, and then, “Excuse me?” The saleswoman took the phone from her ear and said, “Yes?” Exasperated I replied, “Would someone here like to take my money? I would like to buy something.” The woman then looked at me as though I had just asked her if I could use the restroom behind the counter. With that I walked away, purchases unmade, which was a good thing for my pocketbook and a bad thing for the store.
Ten years ago, friends from France were visiting my family and me. As Toys R Us had not yet opened in Paris, they wanted to do a little shopping for a new baby on the way. We introduced them to the nightmare that is that particular store, they loaded up their cart, and then we stood at the checkout line for what seemed like an hour, while the clerk, who seemed barely able to move, rang up the purchases. Any question asked by our friends or us was met with a blank stare, a shrug and a mumbled “I don’t know.” Our friends, conditioned to the service that Parisian stores regularly give, were appalled. (I particularly have always loved the way a French clerk will come around to the front of the counter to hand you your bag instead of heaving it at you.) My then husband shrugged back and said to our friends, “This is what happens when you have full employment.”
Full employment, not so many years ago, also meant clerks who could not count change, who would not walk you to an item you were looking for unless you absolutely insisted, choosing instead to point vaguely and say, “It’s over there on aisle 10, I think,” and who seemed barely trained for what they were doing.
But now, according to the New York Times, stores and their salespeople are so desperate to have your business, that they are actually treating you like… well…customers. Clients. Valuable people who might just help keep them in business if you are so foolish as to spend your well-earned money with them instead of, say, on the mortgage or electricity.
I’ve seen this miracle myself. They greet you, offer their help, and then discreetly slip away until, magically, like a waiter at a fine restaurant, they realize you need them. Then POOF! they reappear, ready to serve. Lately I have been so enthusiastically thanked for making a purchase that I felt like I had just figure out a way to solve the dilemma of world peace.
I’ve worked behind a counter more than once and I won’t say it’s always easy to keep up, but there are ways to make customers feel more at ease. An apology for the wait, a smile, some gentle small talk about the item can easily make someone have a better shopping experience, especially during a time when one has to shop, like the holiday season. An honest assessment about a garment’s fit helps, too. I never sent a woman out of the clothing store in which I worked carrying a garment she would regret and never wear.
But service in the United States has, until recently, been something of an afterthought. More than once I have walked around an entire store looking for an open sales counter, only to be discouraged enough to leave my things and the store. I can never go back into a Wal Mart after a saleswoman made me feel like asking for a dressing room so that my son could try on black pants for a band concert was simply too much to bear. I bought the pants at a much more expensive place and didn’t regret it. I haven’t seen the inside of a Wal Mart, save for one emergency purchase when everything else was closed, in a dozen years.
Of course, in the past, I have gotten service, of a sort. A saleswoman would follow me around asking if I needed anything until I was sure she thought I was a shoplifter just waiting to put a blouse down my pants. That kind of service no one needs. Thankfully, even with emptier stores, salespeople no longer hover. They actually watch and wait and, lo and behold, give good service.
My favorite store, Banana Republic (whose sales I shop regularly and whose clothes always seem to fit and make me happy) has several good service techniques. If you use their card (and I do and always pay it off) you receive discounts and special notices for further discounts that are only for card holders. They send you coupons for real money off your purchases for every dollar you spend, so that theoretically you could get something for free. They also offer excellent service. As soon as you are seen carrying even one garment around in your hand, a salesperson gently offers to “start a dressing room” for you and then whisks the garment out of your hand and hangs in on the door of a room so that you can, with little trouble, recognize your dressing room. They will also be there when you come out and look in the mirror pondering whether the outfit fits. They won’t comment, but they will be there to go get a size up or down as you need it. Banana Republic is not Bergdorf Goodman but I would much rather shop there. Even during full employment, walking into Bergdorf’s made me feel like the help accidentally using the front door.
Now, though, according to the Times, even I could, supposedly, go into Bergdorf’s and be treated like royalty:
” It may be a curious silver lining of the recession, but even a casual browser can expect to be treated like a V.I.P. in high-end stores on Madison and Fifth Avenues once famed for snooty attitudes and imposing facades. Almost every person who has stepped through the gilded revolving doors of Bergdorf recently, whether a tourist or, on Dec. 17, the actress Susan Lucci in a salmon-pink mink, has been given a hero’s welcome, with an honor guard of doting sales associates.”
That’s nice. But I would actually settle for the person behind the counter being able to count out change. Even after the holidays.