You can't get good service at any price

June 29, 1999|By SUSAN REIMER

WILL somebody please wait on me?

Will someone please offer to help me find something? Will someone please answer my question? Will someone please seat me right away? Will someone please bring another size to the dressing room? Will someone please offer to retrieve what I want from the stock room?

Will someone please take my money?

What does it take to get waited on around here?

I am sure I sound like a grumpy old lady, but whatever happened to service -- let alone service with a smile?

Why do I feel like I am annoying every 20-something sales clerk on the floor -- not that you can find one?

Perhaps if I carried a ringing phone, someone would wait on me. Sales clerks seem perfectly willing to serve the remote needs of an anonymous caller rather than take the cash out of my hand.

I feel like shouting out loud in a department store, "Don't tell me you don't know. Find out!"

I am tempted to step out of the long line at the video store and scream, "OK. Someone jump on one of these cash registers right now. Shelve the movies later. We're people. They are boxes."

Even though, according to shopping scientist and author Paco Underhill, I am "capable of consigning entire species of retailer or product to Darwin's dustbin" with the smallest shift in my routine, I am powerless to get somebody to wait on me.

In his new book, "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping," Underhill explodes the myth that retailers work overtime to find ways to make us pay too much for products we don't need. Instead, he describes how retailers abuse and neglect us and, through their inattention to common-sense details, do everything to discourage our patronage except lock the front doors.

"Many businesses are cutting overhead by using fewer workers, fewer full-timers and more minimum-wagers," writes Underhill. "All our research shows this direct relationship: the more shopper-employee contacts that take place, the greater the average sale."

If employees are busy stocking shelves and ringing up transactions and not helping, it is a guarantee the store is under-performing.

Underhill is the founder of Envirosell, and for 20 years he has made his living observing shoppers in situ and telling store owners what they are doing wrong.

He finds lots of slights and most of them are committed against women -- a huge mistake when you think that women are the supply officers for their families, either making or executing almost every purchasing decision, from a new home or car to the underwear he wears.

And invisible sales help and long lines at the checkout stand are two things that irritate shoppers most.

"Busy executives don't like to wait for anything, but they don't realize normal people feel the same way," he writes.

He says his video cameras have recorded countless women who, having filled a shopping cart with many dollars worth of carefully selected items, will abandon that cart and walk out of the store if they find themselves in the cashier line from hell.

That's not good business.

Underhill says that women have come to dominate the retail world, either because of their anthropological history as "the gatherers" or because for centuries patriarchal societies kept women out of the world of commerce, except at the retail level. Very simply, shopping was the only way a woman could get out of the house and interact with other adults.

But women's lives have changed. They get plenty of time away from home. Most are working, and don't have any time to wander, confused, up and down the aisles or stand in an endless checkout line.

This is true for men, too. But men don't "shop." They enter a store with the list their wives give them.

"Shopping is still and always will be meant mostly for females," he writes. "Shopping is female. When men shop, they are engaging in what is inherently a female activity."

Retailers ignore women at their peril. After all, look what we did to the sewing machine and the fabric store (we don't have time to sew our family's clothes).

Look at what we did to the grocery store coupon (less than 3 percent of them are redeemed) and to the mom-and-pop hardware store (Home Depot changed it from "tool time" to "let's play house").

Or the electronics industry (cell phones were guy toys until women decided they were useful to keep in touch with the kids) and the auto industry (the Saturn, no-haggle purchasing and female salespeople).

"Retail must pay attention to how women wish to live, what they want and need or it will be left behind," writes Underhill. "Even the enormous changes in the lives of men and children are merely in response to the lead taken by women.

"It pays to listen and be humble."

Pub Date: 6/29/99

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