Attention Shoppers: Quit Whining
Customer-service complaints about mass retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target are pointless and silly. These are mere commodity-delivery warehouses stocked with low-cost imports, and pecuniary U.S. consumers need to realize that extras cost more.
Pro: Concierge Service Won’t Come at Cut-Rate Prices
On the Web site complaints.com, a writer gripes that at her local Wal-Mart (WMT), the sales associates won’t load her cart unless she asks. Consumers often try to nag Target employees into giving them full refunds on merchandise for which they cannot produce receipts and after they’ve exceeded the 90-day return period.
When it comes to big-box stores, consumers should stop complaining and face the timeless reality: You get what you pay for. Wal-Mart, Target (TGT), Home Depot (HD), and other discounters can offer low prices precisely because they don’t spend enough on good service. If Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) hired more employees, with better pay and training, its 440-thread-count sheet set would likely cost $109.99 instead of $79.99.
"To get you the lowest price, the Wal-Marts of the world have to cut their costs any way they can, and that includes sales associates," says Standard & Poor’s senior industry analyst Joseph Agnese.
And shoppers born during the baby-boom years and earlier need to accept that the days of a Thom McCann salesman tenderly unwrapping a new pair of $12.99 slingbacks and placing them on one’s feet are over. So much service for so little money is fast becoming extinct, especially as younger folks increasingly fill sales-associate positions.
Generation Y grew up with "different family dynamics" and "pervasive technology use" that creates a "struggle to make connections with customers and meet their service expectations," says Bill Withers, a Wartburg College professor who studies customer service.
Finally, regardless of generation, sales associates are human beings, doing their best to do their jobs politely while they support themselves and sometimes their families at jobs that pay $8 to $13 an hour, often without benefits. In recent years, Home Depot employees coped with chronic cost squeezes under ex-CEO Bob Nardelli that led to higher turnover as many experienced workers left.
Then they seethed as at the same time, Nardelli collected millions in guaranteed bonuses. At Wal-Mart, 1.6 million female workers are pursuing the largest-ever civil rights class action lawsuit, contending the company paid them less than men and denied them promotions. These circumstances hardly attract employees who have the time or inclination to go the extra mile for shoppers.
Con: Low-Margin Models Don’t Mandate Shabby Service
Treating a customer well is the foundation for any successful business enterprise, regardless of the product or service sold. Big retailers spend huge sums to improve the shopping experience and it’s not just to be nice: A quality customer experience translates to higher sales.
Consumers deserve a superior service, not despite the commodity goods these big-box shops purvey but largely because of them. Here’s why: In the current era of ubiquitous mass retail, stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe’s (LOW), and Home Depot sell a remarkable number of identical products with similar prices.
In such a situation, the shopping experience—price, store cleanliness, convenience, parking, etc.—and not the products becomes the critical way to set oneself apart and encourage return visits. Granted, price often affects the kind of experience one can anticipate. Just as you don’t order a 1996 Chateau Petrus Pomerol at a roadside diner, you don’t reasonably expect the same service experience at the local Sack N’ Slurp as at a fine diamond jeweler. These businesses operate with completely different profit margins and cannot offer the same concierge-style attention for every customer.
But different service doesn’t have to mean poor service. Would we tolerate raw sewage in a supermarket? Of course not. Our expectations for many big-box stores deteriorate only because "we have become accustomed to being treated poorly, or in most cases, not being treated at all," Brad Worthley, a customer-service expert and consultant from Bellevue, Wash., writes in an e-mail interview.
That doesn’t mean we ought to simply accept it and shut up. A motivated worker with proper training can deliver a superior customer experience regardless of income. "I do not care how a company strategically places themselves in the market when it comes to pricing, if they want to stay in business very long they still better focus on customer service," says Worthley.
Most major retailers spend a great deal of time and money to improve operations and bolster customer service, which they track closely. Home Depot, for example, says it spent $350 million last year to improve its retailing operations. Moreover, many people define a great experience by their perception of a bargain or how much time they save when procuring everyday staples quickly. That’s why, when it comes to lower prices and quick check-outs, many people find that big-box retailers excel at service.