Retailers: Invest in your future, get good holiday help



Here's my annual tale of holiday retailing and the lessons it holds for merchants and shoppers alike. This year's story is A Tale of Three Retailers.

First up is The Coach Store, an outlet in The Gallery at Harborplace which sells amply priced leather goods and personal accessories. The service I received was absolutely terrific. When I asked to see some women's gloves, they were shown to me quickly and, without prompting on my part, shown to me in various styles, sizes and colors.

The young woman behind the counter pushed the store's wares without being pushy herself. She shared personal anecdotes to illustrate the best kind of glove to buy and how to pick the proper size. She even tossed in an indirect compliment on my obvious good taste in women's accessories.

Well, the money literally flew from my wallet. I felt good about what I'd bought and wasn't overly concerned about the store's fairly high prices. Would I go back? You bet.

Earlier, I had walked into a Williams-Sonoma store, also in The Gallery. Williams-Sonoma is an upscale kitchen and housewares chain, and I was looking for a fairly expensive (i.e. $350 to $450) appliance, which the outlet had in three colors -- white, blue and green.

I preferred a different color and tried to find out if it was available. Here's how my conversation went with the salesperson I sought out to help me:

Me: "Is this [I mentioned the product] available in any different colors than what's on display?"

Them: "Yes, but our location doesn't carry any of them."

Me: "Do you have a catalog from the manufacturer that might show what colors it comes in?"

Them: [Salesperson goes to catalog drawer and fails to find catalog.] "We don't have the catalog. You might try one of the bigger department stores. Lots of them carry this brand."

Me: Exit Williams-Sonoma, forever as far as I'm concerned.

Now, I'm sure the young woman I dealt with was doing the best she could, and I don't want my experience to tarnish the entire Williams-Sonoma chain. In fact, the only reason I mention the store's name is because I don't want to create the impression that all retailers have problems.

But here is how the conversation should have gone:

Me: "Is this available in any different colors than what's on display?"

Them: "Yes but we don't have any others in stock right now. If you'll tell me what color you're looking for, I'll be happy to call our other outlets to see if they have it. If not, I'll call the manufacturer and see how long it would take to be shipped directly to us. Would you mind coming back in a few minutes to see what I've been able to find out?

Me: Either exit Williams-Sonoma $350 to $450 further in debt but satisfied, or exit without buying the product but pleased at the efforts made on my behalf and likely to return on a future shopping expedition.

I know retailers feel they face serious obstacles getting full-time help that's competent, let alone the part-time people who work in their stores during the holiday season. Well, retail managers, WAKE UP!

The reason your stores need all that part-time help is to deal with a hoped-for horde of customers. By definition, many of these customers are people who don't shop your store during the year.

Now, they're in your shop looking to buy something. Besides making a holiday sale, you have the potential to turn many of these seasonal customers into year-round patrons. That's certainly what happened to me in The Coach Store.

Further, seasonal shoppers may not know as much about your store as do your regular customers. They are particularly in need of informed sales help and, presumably, would be especially grateful to receive it.

In short, the holidays are a time when retailers could make a solid investment in their futures by providing well-trained and service-oriented sales help. That's especially true this season, given widespread reports that we've entered a recession.

Instead, we continue to get poorly informed personnel who seem to feel their job is to passively receive pieces of paper money or plastic charge cards from shoppers brave enough to fight their way up to the sales counter.

Retailing success used to consist of three elements -- location, location and location. Now, I hold, those factors have been replaced by three other sets, which apply to some groups of shoppers all of the time and all shoppers some of the time:

1) Price, price, price.

2) Service, service, service.

3) Convenience, convenience, convenience.

Stores that don't sell heavily based on price (including the two I visited) must emphasize service or convenience to create the perception in consumers' minds that they are receiving value for their money.

Too often, however, retailers seem to lose sight of their primary focus, chasing price when they should be stressing service or convenience.

And even if they do have a clear idea of how to relate to consumers, it's vital they transmit this idea to their sales force, from the most senior manager down to the 17-year-old, part-time temporary in for the holidays.

Oh, I almost forgot about the third retailer. It's the repair shop where we take our cars (sorry, Amir, but it would be a conflict if I mentioned the company's name).

My wife came in with a burned-out headlight and was in the process of having the replacement work written up when the owner came by, noticed her and gave instructions that the work was to be done free of charge. " 'After all, it's Christmas,' " my wife quoted him as saying.

Now, it's true that I have been sending this man's kids to exclusive private elementary schools with my auto-repair bills. But it's also true that this small gesture guarantees that I will be sending them through college as well.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

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