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Customer Inter@ction Solutions
February 2007 - Volume 25 / Number 9
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Clicks-And-Mortars: Doubly Dismal Customer Service

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, Customer Inter@ction Solutions


Though the estimates vary, most sources have called this online holiday shopping season somewhere in the range of $25 billion, and most agree that the growth rate over last year was about 25 percent. Market research firm comScore Networks (www.comscore.com) discovered that Wednesday, December 13th was likely the biggest online shopping day of the year, with sales reaching $670 million. This was an improvement over last year’s top day by over $100 million.

According the annual “Top 40 Online Retail Satisfaction Index” from market research company ForeSee Results (www.foreseeresults. com), click-and-mortar retailers (companies with both stores and a strong online presence) demonstrated the most improvement online this holiday season, though these click-and-mortar companies still lagged behind 100 percent Internet retailers like Amazon.

It’s safe to say that online shopping is in, and not just for the holidays. More and more people are becoming comfortable with it, having gotten over issues of security (probably falsely, as security issues appear to be on the rise), shipping, returns and not being able to see and touch merchandise in advance.

After spending a few hours in retail stores, it’s not hard to see why shoppers are increasingly willing to get over almost any obstacle, up to and including the box arriving in the mail with an assortment of angry, poisonous and live invertebrates contained within.
Why am I in such a snit? I went to several stores during my lunch hour today. After a mild winter thus far, it’s finally gotten cold in New England. I decided I could use a few new sweaters or fleece tops. Because I hate malls, I usually choose standalone department stores — the kind known for reasonable prices and decent quality.

There were few sweaters to be had, though, since it’s January and, according to some incomprehensible rule of retail, that means it’s time for spring clothes.

Who really does their spring shopping in the winter? Are there still people out there who buy their clothes one season in advance? Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”? Maybe. But the rest of us who don’t find Versace and Armani boutiques to be reasonable sources for a simple knit sweater? Give me a break. What I think is that it’s a ploy to get us to resort to shopping the store’s clearance racks, which are always loaded with the proper types of clothing for the season. Stores put out their regularly priced merchandise one season ahead, knowing few people will pay full price for it, and as a result, manage to get shoppers to strip their clearance racks, which though discounted, are still priced high enough to make the store a profit. You feel like you’re getting an enormous bargain, even though you’re paying $19.99 for a sweater that cost the store $4. Everybody wins (except the poor working sod in Bangladesh who made the sweater for $.02 in pay).

After having found a few items on sale, I brought them to the cash register. My cashier, whose expression was so bland for a moment I wasn’t sure she was actually conscious, swiped the items over the scanner. One rang up at full price. “That’s on sale,” I said. Though her eyes technically pointed in my direction, she did not actually focus on me. “How much is it?” she asked, in a monotone voice.

“I don’t know,” I said testily. My robo-cashier picked up the phone and sent a page into the atmosphere. “Price check for women’s clothing.” I’m not sure who we were waiting to respond. God? In any case, nothing happened. “Shall I go back and check?” I asked. She nodded, then bent over at the waist and put her forehead down on the counter next to her cash register. I wondered if she had powered down to save energy.

When I returned with the sale price sign in hand, she had not moved. I wasn’t sure what to do. Press control-alt-delete to reboot her? She finally straightened and entered the sale price I pointed out on the sign into the cash register. I paid, wondering if I’d never left to check but just written “$1.99” on a piece of paper from my purse and showed it to her, she would have nodded unenthusiastically and entered that price into the cash register.

It makes me wonder if higher-end department stores that pride themselves on customer service (Nordstrom, for example) have seen physical retail sales take a dive in favor of Web-based purchases. Maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. The more people shop online, the less stores can justify offering employment to real, thinking humans in their brick-and-mortar stores. And as a result, the more robo-service we get, the more likely we are to risk the security of our credit cards, shipping costs and potential returns to save ourselves from the barely sentient customer service in stores.

But what happens when both the online experience and the brick-and-mortar customer experience are dismal? Talk about chicken-and-egg scenarios...it’ll be almost impossible to tell which went rotten first.

E-commerce company Allurent (www.allurent.com) recently released its second annual “Holiday Shopping: Online Customer Experience Survey,” which the company designed and implemented to better understand consumer online shopping behavior. The most interesting points?

• Year-over-year, there’s been nearly a 50 percent increase in consumers who report that a frustrating online experience would make them less likely to shop at that retailer’s physical store;

• Eighty-two percent of consumers surveyed revealed that a frustrating shopping experience makes them less likely to return to a retailers’ Web site; and

• Fifty-nine percent reported that when they have a frustrating shopping experience online, it negatively impacts their overall opinion of the retailer/brand. In 2005, this number was 55 percent.

Click-and-mortar retailers of the world, it’s time to pick one channel (at least) to excel in. If you staff your physical stores with disinterested DMV rejects, you may be affecting sales on your Web site. If your Web site is a nightmarish black hole of frustrated customer service expectations, you may be keeping people out of your stores.

Anyone know if there’s anything good on the clearance racks at Nordstrom? CIS
By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director,
Customer Inter@ction Solutions

The author may be contacted at [email protected].

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