Who’s minding the stores?

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Ring bell only once! We’ll be with you shortly. That’s the block-capital greeting I received from a sign posted beside the freight elevator at the loading dock of a popular upscale furniture chain, where I’d been advised to pick up the area rug I’d just purchased for a small fortune. Six rings and 18 minutes later, I was back in the store, hoping to find a swift resolution to my dragged-out dilemma. Upon approaching the two staff behind the service counter, I made eye contact with the only unoccupied clerk, only for her to spin around and busy herself with a more pressing matter: tidying a pile of shopping bags. It was another 90 seconds before the cashier could turn his attention to me. As I explained my problem, who else but the shopping-bag gal spun around, suddenly eager to help — even if her only assistance was to tell her colleague to page shipping and receiving.

Judging from PROFIT’s Retail Report Card, horror stories like mine play out countless times every day across the country. We assigned writer Laura Pratt to 14 Toronto-area stores in the company of Andrij Brygidyr, the president of Toronto-based A&A Merchandising Ltd., whose 800-strong army of “secret shoppers” test customer-service quality on behalf of A&A’s retail clients. Only half of the stores they visited achieved at least a C grade.

Sadly, retailers in general don’t appear to be improving with time. PROFIT’s first mystery-shopping excursion in 1996 also concluded that for every good retail experience, there was a bad one. Six years later, our second test of retail service produced the same result. Want to know what kind of service you’ll receive in the next store you enter? You might as well flip a coin.

Having spent time on both sides of a store counter, I can share many more horror stories about Canadian retail. I can also suggest a few reasons why they take place.

First, there’s the pay. Few retail jobs pay enough to attract bright and motivated people who might make retailing their career, rather than a job between “real” jobs. Then there’s the lack of training. Sure, retailers show staff how to fold T-shirts and process refunds, but how many teach sales strategies or how to disarm angry shoppers? (My only training during a year-long stint as the manager of a mid-sized chain store was two full days [!] on a complicated new cash register; nothing about motivating staff or merchandising, even though I’d never run a store before.) Then there are the customers. They might always be right, as the saying goes, but they are increasingly uncivil — a bad match for a poorly trained, underpaid retail employee.

Fortunately for many retailers, they can survive simply by being less bad than the competition. Those who’d prefer to thrive, however, should offer the training and remuneration that underpin great service — a valuable point of differentiation in today’s retail world. Given how much a great shopping experience sticks in the minds of consumers, stores would not only notch up the first sale, but repeat and referral business. And that would be a happy ending for retailers and shoppers alike.

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