Monday, December 4, 2006

Merry Customer Service

We can spend hours every week talking with retail executives and reporting new trends and technologies in the industry, but there’s nothing like a holiday shopping binge to open your eyes to retail reality. My top 10 take-away messages from a weekend spent shopping with my family:

Biggest customer-service shock: On the first Saturday in December, J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret did not have gift boxes at the stores we visited.

Best overall in-store experience: No surprise here. Crate & Barrel excels at everything—merchandising, employee assistance, superior customer service and efficient checkout despite the longest lines of any store visited.

Most hospitable customer-service: Friendly and efficient cashiers at Dollar Tree and Target proved retail doesn’t have to be high dollar to be high quality.

Most knowledgeable service: We visited two recently converted Macy’s stores, and the associates at both stores did an outstanding job of locating inventory in back rooms or other stores. Kudos to Federated for transitioning stores to the Macy’s protocol in time for superior holiday shopping experiences.

Least knowledgeable service: Unfortunately the ladies in pink are making the list again—although the Victoria’s Secret associate was very nice and wanted to be helpful, she was at a total loss when it came to finding sizes and inventory. That would be a training, not a personnel, issue.

Multichannel myth-busting: My assumption that merchandise in catalogs would be available on line proved false. J. Crew does not include all its merchandise on its Web site—but a call-center operator provided outstanding service and located the item I was seeking with hardly any info at all.

Mutlichannel excellence: Since I had discarded the catalog, assuming I’d find the product at a store or on line, this same J. Crew call-center operator provided me with SKU item numbers and talked me through an Internet visit so, although the product was not available at, she and I could see that we were talking about the right merchandise.

Warning signs: I always feel a twinge of fear for retailers on my “personal favorite’s” list when the store is empty but the mall (and competitor stores) are packed. Here’s hoping J. Jill was vacant because all those husbands wait until the last minute to shop, and perhaps Smith & Hawken was just having an off moment.

Generation gap: A 14-year-old girl will turn standing in line at Starbucks into a social event; a 79-year-old grandfather will never understand why anyone (much less a crowd) would stand in line for 15 minutes to spend $4.00 on a cup of coffee.

Opportunity begging attention: If retailers want to take customer service to the next level, you’ve got to think outside the box—literally! Parking-lot congestion is a mess during the holidays, and poor access to shopping centers is a huge deterrent for shoppers, who don’t want to spend 20 minutes sitting in traffic waiting to enter a mall parking lot. Valet-parking services address only a small percentage of the problem. Tenants should flex some negotiating muscle to have a portion of CAM charges dedicated to addressing this problem—possibly with shuttle service from remote lots or hiring off-duty officers to direct traffic so it flows more smoothly.

— Connie Gentry