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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[November 14, 2001]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

How To Buy Without Getting Distracted By Shiny Objects

It's November, and it's buyer's guide season here at TMCthis is the time of the year when three of our four print magazines begin their quests to compile a comprehensive lists of sellers, aimed toward a comprehensive list of buyers. However, I'm not here to talk about buyer's guides.

Let's just talk about buying. Anyone who has anything to sell knows that right about now, the purchasing horizon is fairly dismal, unless you're selling bottled water, flashlights, the Acme Anthrax Home Testing Kit For Nervous Yuppies or food that's fantastically high in fat and starch, and subsequently topped with melted cheese (funny how diets have the propensity to fly out the window in the face of a global crisis). It's not just a buyer's market at the moment -- the buyers have picked up the market and run away with it.

All it takes is a quick surf on the Web or a tour of a retail outlet to confirm this. Consumers being imperfect, however, are indulging in one of two kinds of behavior, something I see both professionally and personally. Business and personal consumers are either:

  1. Taking advantage of lower prices by purchasing pointless things they do not and probably will never need; or
  2. Assuming a bunker mentality and purchasing nothing at all.

My personal inclination leans toward the former approach. When Costco, a large-volume buying club, first opened close to our offices earlier this year, it barely caused a blip on my radar. I live in a condominium and have little of the storage space necessary to keep items such as five-pound cans of coffee and tent-sized sacks of flour. In the end, though, I joined the club, attracted by its never-crowded pharmacy, film developing services, and bargain-priced DVDs.

Having now converted into a full-blown Costco addict, I wander the aisles on a weekly basis, coveting items such as gallon jars of dill pickles, packets of spice large enough to season the food of Norway for an entire year, tubs of mayonnaise and packages of paper toweling that could double as flood walls for a seasonal surge in the Mississippi River. Alas, on the practical level, I recognize that I don't much need a pound of turmeric, nor would it be wise to purchase a package of 48 rolls of kitchen towel at once, unless I planned on having it double as a loveseat in my apartment.

In a highly impractical manner, I ignore the items I ought to be buying in bulk: cat food and litter, saline solution (as any contact lens wearer knows, the stuff is expensive) and commodities like shampoo. I become too easily dazzled by the possibility of owning a bucket-sized container of mustard, even though I use an approximate total of two tablespoons of mustard per year.

It occurs to me that most people suffer from some level of this affliction, and it may be an explanation why, as a nation, we are in record debt though no happier today than we were a generation ago, before credit card companies started flooding our mailboxes with frantic credit offers. (I, personally, am thinking of suing Capital One for stalking.)

The call center and e-commerce markets seem to be suffering from a combination of the overbuying and underbuying ailments (though I see little evidence that they are buying large quantities of dill pickles). I've seen call centers ignore their fraying customer contact software from circa 1989 to shell out money on a wireless LAN for a 2,000 square-foot office. Most companies' buying processes are so scattered and disorganized, by the time they figure out exactly what it is they do or don't need, the invoice is already paid and the product installed.

Someone I spoke with recently told me the upper management of their company had paid for a feng shui analysis of their corporate headquarters' offices. NowI'm not backhanding feng shui, but I would have to admit that I put it slightly below improving customer service or aggregating the company's databases on the corporate priority list. Another friend recently told me about the $8,000 restaurant-quality cappuccino and espresso maker one of their branch offices purchased. Their customers are logging off their Web site with disgust, but their employees are well caffeinated and meetings are over in half the time because everyone talks so fast.

Soif you'll allow Dill Pickle Girl to hand out a little advice, here goes. Make a list. Even if you've never made a list in your life before, begin the year 2002 with a list that contains two columns: Things We Need and Things We Don't Need. No one person in a company can come up with this information. It must have the input of the entire organization. Fred from Purchasing may think he needs custom-built frames for the pictures his kids drew for him at summer camp so he can hang them in his office, but he doesn't. Ditto on Phil the receptionist who sends you a weekly request to buy an egg poaching pan for the office kitchen. On the other hand, if Edna in the call center is complaining that your customer database dates from the late 14th century, you may want to put her request on the opposite column from Fred and Phil and see about replacing Ye Olde Customer Lyste.

Right about now, the time is ripe to alter a hackneyed old phrase: "It's the customers, stupid." It's fair to say that you and I are going to be irked when a company takes the cash it should have used to build a Web site that wasn't seemingly put together by a hyperactive five-year old and spends it on a new modern-interpretive sculpture for the front lawn of corporate headquarters.

Sounds elementary, doesn't it? You would be stunned to find out what remarkable revelations these are to businesses across the globereally.

I have seen some encouraging news lately in the form of good quarterly financial reports from both workforce management and logging and monitoring companies. What this means to me is that many companies are beginning to recognizing the intractable need for stellar customer service, and they are doing all they can to make sure they deliver it, in the form of automated quality monitoring and employee scheduling packages.

In the meantime, I'll keep wandering the aisles of Costco in an attempt to avoid getting distracted byLook! A twin package of five-pound tubs of sauerkraut!

Share your Stupidest Company Purchase Stories with the author at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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