Thursday, May 9, 2013

6 comments When He's Not Busy Trouncing Them for Providing Bad Customer Service, Mitch Albom Feels Bad for the Retail Stores

I am sure most of you remember the article Mitch Albom wrote last summer about how no one in the service industry cares enough to provide good customer service anymore. It was arrogance at its finest to read Mitch outraged at the thought he wasn't getting good customer service. Don't they know who he is? He's Mitch Albom. When you go to heaven, you will probably meet him there. He will be the one sitting on a pillow-shaped cloud berating Saint Peter for not smiling enough and daring to repeat Mitch's coffee order back to him. Today, Mitch decides he feels bad for the service industry and brick-and-mortar stores going out of business. He doesn't feel bad for the small, independent stores, don't get him wrong. It's mostly the large companies going out of business, like Borders, with whom he shares the most sympathy. He blames the mean old Interwebs for ruining in-store shopping as the world knows it and states the art of browsing in a store may soon no longer exist. Many of these same brick-and-mortar stores employ those people who Mitch so brazenly berated back in the summer for exhibiting poor customer service, which is something that seems lost on Mitch. A computer can't provide the bad customer service that Mitch seems to believe exists in brick-and-mortar stores.

Anyone in retail is familiar with this scene: A customer comes in, asks for help. He tries things on, tests things out, maybe takes some literature, writes down model numbers or designer names.

And then the customer robs the store, not only wasting the sales clerk's time, but also getting away with valuable information like literature, model numbers, or designer names. None of which are readily available online of course.

You will also find it interesting that Mitch is writing a column that gets posted on the Detroit Free Press site as opposed to being available in the Detroit Free Press newspaper that gets delivered to subscribers' doorstep. Newspapers are going out of business, yet Mitch doesn't care enough about his own industry to insist his columns only get posted in the newspaper.

"But Ben," you would say, "that is ridiculous to blame Mitch Albom for what the Detroit Free Press chooses to post on their website. He has an opportunity to reach more readers by posting his column online." I agree. It is about as ridiculous as blaming consumers or the Internet for using brick-and-mortar stores for research and then choosing to purchase an item online. Mitch is essentially blaming the Internet for having lower prices and blames consumers for daring to use stores to do research prior to buying online.

Then, when the time comes to close the sale, the customer says, "I'm still thinking. Give me your card, and I'll get back to you soon."

You never see him again.

More likely a customer walks into a store and can't get any service because everyone who works in the service or retail industry is an unattentive asshole who isn't capable of tying their shoes.

Amrightorwhat, Mitch? There is no good customer service anymore. Everyone who works in the service and retail industry is an inattentive asshole.

It's called "showrooming."

It's also called "doing research and then choosing to buy the same product cheaper somewhere else." This often happens in a free market when prices aren't set at a certain level and it is a good thing for the consumer.

The Web-based store gets the nod.

The brick-and-mortar store gets nada.

I just bought an iPhone 5 case. I could go into the Apple or Verizon store and pay $10 more for the same product, but I choose to go to Amazon and buy the product. It is the exact same product and is cheaper online. As bad as I feel for Verizon and Apple that they lost my business, I'm going to usually stick with the lower price online if it is the same product I can get in a store.

One retailer in Australia has had enough. Celiac Supplies, a specialty foods store in Brisbane, posted a sign on the door that says a $5 fee will be charged for anyone who is "just looking."

If this store doesn't have a constantly updated online site where someone can view the products available, and know they are available when they walk in the store, this is a great way to go out of business in a quick and efficient manner. I'm not paying $5 to walk into a specialty foods store hoping they have the product I want. I can handle this fee if the inventory is constantly updated online so a consumer knows the product he/she wants is available, but otherwise this idea will probably stay in Australia.

In explaining the policy, the sign read: "There has been a high volume of people who use this store as a reference and then purchase goods elsewhere. ... This policy is in line with many other clothing, shoe and electronic stores who are also facing the same issue."

Way to fight back against the consumer. You can't have these customers taking advantage of lower prices for comparable items at a different location. These consumers don't deserve a choice in how much they pay for a product and where they buy the product. I applaud this method. It punishes the consumer for having options and anytime you can punish your customer business is certainly going to be booming.

As usual though, Mitch isn't really telling the complete truth in this column. Celiac Supplies has a pretty large website where it appears a consumer can purchase products on their website. Mitch is trying to paint Celiac as a small-time business that's just trying to keep customers against the rising tide of Internet commerce, but they seem to be more than willing to take advantage of customers who like to online shop. So I get the point Mitch is trying to prove, but he didn't do much research when citing Celiac Foods as an example. Celiac Foods seem to eagerly embrace online shopping.

This brings up another question I customers really go and browse at a specialty foods store? Okay, for some products I can see how this would happen, but I don't know if customers are browsing the breads, fruit, cakes and pastas only to buy the product somewhere else.

The $5 fee is credited for anyone making a purchase. And the store doesn't charge kids, retirees or regular customers. But naturally, as soon as this story circulated on the Web, the policy was blasted by critics -- on the Web.

First the Internet bombards society with advanced statistics and now the Internet is trying to circulate stories about this store that charges customers for browsing! Of course, it probably isn't likely my local newspaper would pick up on this story and be able to report on it with the depth that a report on the Internet could report on the story, but that's beside the point I guess. The lesson is that the Internet is evil and nothing good can come from reading stories on the Internet. We see this every single time Mitch Albom posts a column on the Detroit Free Press site.

The idea of Mitch bemoaning "the Web" widely circulating a story IN A STORY THAT HE HAS POSTED ON THE INTERNET SO THAT IT CAN BE WIDELY CIRCULATED, certainly doesn't seem to dawn on Mitch. If we are going to meet certain people in heaven, Mitch thinks there's a good chance we will meet the Internet in Hell.

But I do think it has a point.

Not entirely. Consumers have a right to find the cheapest and best product. It's fine if a store chooses to charge customers to browse their store, but don't be upset when the store goes out of business. I can't speak for every consumer (because I'm not Bill Simmons), but I don't think consumers like the idea of being charged to find the best price or best quality in an item they may want to purchase.

The sad tale of Borders

Yes, poor Borders. It's not the independent book stores that Mitch feels bad for, but he feels bad for a mismanaged corporation. That sounds about right actually. 

Yes, I know everyone wants a good price. But Internet retailers can beat the prices of your local store for many reasons, including no overhead for rent, property taxes, electricity, utilities, security, clean up or the salaries of all those nice salespeople who tell you everything

These are the same "nice" people that Mitch so pretentiously eviscerated in his column about poor customer service last summer, remember. They are nice people when their company is going out of business, but shitty at their job when the company is performing well.

They also might be overseas or in a cheaper state. Oh, and you don't always get charged sales tax.

Notice how Mitch leaves out that an Internet-based company has to charge shipping and handling on what is purchased and this is often much more costly than the sales tax charge. This is another case of a writer leaving out details that don't support what he is trying to prove. Mitch is desperately making it seem like online retailers have all sorts of advantages without mentioning the disadvantage of a consumer having to pay shipping and handling on any item purchased online.

Once a thriving business with hundreds of bookstores, it eventually sunk under the weight of a shrinking market and the cost of operating giant stores.

And yet Barnes and Noble has found a way to stay in business while still operating a giant store in a shrinking environment. Borders didn't adapt to a changing environment and that is completely their fault. Book stores aren't exactly thriving, but if Borders had good management and had learned to adapt then the company may still be in business. Sorry if I don't feel bad for a corporation that goes out of business. It's somewhat ironic Borders went out of business when the arrival of a Barnes and Noble or Borders in a town most likely put a few independent book stores out of business.

Sure, online booksellers are thriving. But what does that do for your neighborhood? Or, for that matter, your neighbors?

What? When a bookstore closes another business attempting to be successful steps up in its place. It's the circle of business life. Businesses fail and other businesses move in. Obviously if a lot of businesses fail in one certain city then it affects the neighborhood, but I don't know many cities in the United States that are reliant so much on a Barnes and Noble or Borders that the entire city's economy would be affected by the closing of one of these stores. They aren't manufacturing plants or anything like that.

And Borders was a multinational chain when it went down. Imagine life for the mom-and-pop shop.

I know Mitch is desperately trying to paint the Internet as evil, but business is changing and the Internet is a big part of this change. It's fine to support a mom-and-pop shop, but a consumer who is looking to buy a product at a cheap price is smart to look for it on the Internet.

Lack of human interaction

The same guy who is bemoaning a lack of human interaction gets all pissy and angry when the barista asks him to confirm his order. Mitch wants human interaction as long as it doesn't involve actual interaction with humans. Let's look at Mitch's "most customer service sucks" column from this past summer to see how much he values human interaction:

Or does no one in the service business listen the first time you speak? It seems that any transaction now requires at least one repeat. Sometimes two.

And I know it's not volume, because I have been accused of having a voice that can be heard across a football field. But I still get asked, "Medium or large?"

The Starbucks fellow smiles.
"How can I help you?"
"Medium coffee, room for cream."
He fills a cup. He stares at it.
"Do you want room for cream?" he asks.

You can clearly see that Mitch Albom not only values human interaction when going to a retail store, but he also respects those people who work there. I think Mitch prefers the IDEA of going into a physical store to buy an item as opposed to purchasing the item on the Internet, more than he prefers actually interacting with a business's employees in a retail environment. People are too annoying for Mitch to deal with, but everyone else should go buy products in an actual store. 

Once developers clustered hundreds of stores in a single place (with ample parking), the American Main Street all but disappeared. People stopped seeing each other in the center of town. They felt less connected to their community -- certainly less connected to its businesses.

Mitch wants us all to feel connected as a community...just don't ask him to repeat whether he wants cream in his coffee or not, because he will shove an ice pick in your eye for daring to make him interact with you by repeating his order. We need to be connected, but just leave Mitch alone. He's too important to waste words on you.

A recent IBM study showed that nearly half of all online purchases were a result of "showrooming," meaning local stores get the tease, Web stores get the tally. It also found that 35% of consumers weren't sure whether their next purchase would be retail or online.

They aren't sure? How can this Republic stand against such indecision? 

Yes, business is cutthroat, and retailers may need to match online prices to stay afloat and integrate the Web more into their shopping experience.

There's no "yes" required at the beginning of this sentence or any type of hedging necessary. Consumers have a right to find the best price and if retailers aren't going to provide this best price in a store, then the consumer will find what they want on the Internet. It's that simple. 

But the one thing the Web still can't deliver is the one-on-one touch, the smiling face, the conversation in the fitting-room area, the "see you next time" on the way out.


Don't diminish such things as silly. They are part of an endangered category called "human contact."

I don't go to a retailer to have human contact. I go to purchase a product. Human contact isn't necessary for me to purchase a pair of shoes or decide which iPhone case I am looking to purchase. I'm not looking to socialize at Banana Republic. I am looking to purchase the clothes I want and get out of the store. 

Charging $5 to look around may be short-sighted. But as the owner told a Brisbane newspaper,
 "I'm not doing community service."

The thing is, she actually is.

Then she should charge for browsing. Consumers aren't doing community service either in paying more money to support a retailer that can't compete in the market. Retailers are the ones who want consumers' business. It's not the other way around.

But if people don't see it that way, she won't be for long.

The owner could use that big, fancy website she has running to sell the products...which is something she is already doing by the way. It's funny that the example Mitch uses of a business that charges customers for browsing in their store has a website set up to prevent consumers from having to come into the store to purchase the products they could usually purchase in the store. The owner of Celiac Supplies seems to get it. I wonder why Mitch can't?


Ericb said...

"And Borders was a multinational chain when it went down. Imagine life for the mom-and-pop shop."

Granted I'm talking about New York City which is hardly a typical environment but, anyway, 10 years ago all the big chain music stores (Tower, Virgin, HMV) went belly up but the smaller, more specialized music stores seem to be doing fine to this day.

Bengoodfella said...

Eric, part of the problem is those big chain music stores really don't offer the music any cheaper than you can find them online and they don't carry as much of the diverse selection you can find at a more specialized music store.

That's just my hypothetical for the situation. There are those dedicated to helping specialized, smaller stores, while the Virgin/Tower charge $17.99 for a CD that can be found other places. I could probably go on and on, but it just seems the big chains never really had a huge price difference from the smaller chains. I would pay $1-$2 more to go to a smaller music store if it meant helping the store keep the CD's I like in stock.

Snarf said...

This is really an article that all MBA professors should print out and distribute to their classes as an example of how not to think and approach business in a dynamic marketplace. Creative destruction is a good thing. The money consumers save from this online option, rather than paying for a brick and mortar experience, can be spent on new goods and services that could be provided by those who worked in the bookstore industry (obviously not a one-to-one backfill, but you get the point). Does Mitch lament the demise of the typewriter manufacturer or buggy whip maker? More importantly, did the exit of these companies from the marketplace leave a permanent hole in the economy?

Long story short... he's an idiot.

Snarf said...

Don't diminish such things as silly. They are part of an endangered category called "human contact."

I don't go to a retailer to have human contact. I go to purchase a product. Human contact isn't necessary for me to purchase a pair of shoes or decide which iPhone case I am looking to purchase. I'm not looking to socialize at Banana Republic. I am looking to purchase the clothes I want and get out of the store.

While I get your point and the idea that it partially has to do with tearing down Mitch's shitty article, he does accidentally stumble into a point that he's not at all trying to make here. The value proposition that brick and mortar stores offer here is that there is human interaction (specifically with those who are supposedly knowledgeable about the product) and the ability to try on, touch, see, etc. the item. In your example, you're not looking to socialize at Banana Republic, but rather than ordering something online, you are able to try it on, see how it looks not on in a stylized picture, and converse with a salesperson who may know more about the product (how a pair of pants will fit, if the colors will fade, etc.). This is similar to the situation mentioned by Ericb above regarding specialty music stores.

If traditional stores want to remain afloat, they will have to focus on offering something of value to the customer rather than simply complaining about the advantages possessed by online retailers.

waffleboy said...

You know Andy Rooney didn't start writing bitter columns about how awful all change was until he was in his 80's. Just thought I'd point that out.

Bengoodfella said...

Snarf, there is some sentiment for brick-and-mortar stores, and I get that. Still, bad businesses fail and good businesses don't. You generally get to stay in business if you sell a product the public wants and there is no right to keep your business open. The consumer decides what they want and how they want it. That's how it should be.

I see your point about trying on the clothes. Of course in that situation I wouldn't go to another store to buy the product because it is most likely a product exclusive to Banana Republic, so they won't lose my business to another retail store unless I find a better product at another store.

I don't buy clothes online, so brick-and-mortar stores are always going to have that advantage with me. They have to create that value and I'm not sure charging people to roam the store is the solution. Maybe it works, but even the store in Mitch's example has an online store you can shop at.

Waffle, perhaps I don't remember a time when he wasn't 80 or so? Are you sure it wasn't in the 80's, instead of him being in his 80's, that he started complaining about change?