Saturday, January 08, 2011

Christmas Retail Lessons

(News-Herald, January 6) Some of the hard data is in for the 2010 Christmas shopping season.
Some of it isn’t all that useful. Super Saturday 2010 (the last Saturday before Christmas) shopping was way up over 2009, but in 2009 there was an East Coast blizzard on Super Saturday.
The narrative about how Americans have mended our spendthrift ways and are now huddling in our bedrooms, stuffing carefully preserved dollar bills under the mattress—well, as it turns out, not so much. According to the folks at MasterCard Advisors Spending Pulse, the pre-holiday fifty day spending total was $584.3 billion. In 2007, prior to the current crooked-banker-induced wave of financial debacle, the total was $566.3 billion.
Of that, $36.4 billion was spent on line (same source). That’s a 15% rise over 2009.
I was part of that trend myself. I came into a bit of e-money, so in addition to my usual local retail fieldwork, I did more-than-usual shopping in the cybernetic storefronts, and I’m beginning to understand some of the appeal.
It’s not just selection and the fact that many on-line stores can “stock” anything (or even something, since the bookstore chains have decided to get out of the bookstore business). That just makes it harder to browse. It’s not price. Once you factor in shipping and handling, an online purchase can be pricier. And bargain hunters have had their parties largely pooped by online retailers—online competition virtually guarantees that retailers all arrive at the same price point. But there are other lessons that Venangoland businesspeople can learn from the webland sellers.
First, no service trumps bad service. There are plenty of websites that provide no help at all. For example, Barnes and Nobles is a major book retailer, but trying to find anything on their site is like searching for a needle in the scrambled haystack in the dark uncleaned attic over your crazy aunt’s garage. There are many other selling sites that also leave it to the customer to solve the Mystery of How to Buy Something.
Traditional brick and mortar stores used to think they had an edge because they provided a warm human touch. But that edge only exists in stores where the human touch is actually warm and helpful. Unfortunately, too many Venangoland retail workers clearly wish that customers would stop asking for help, messing with the merchandise, and just generally intruding on the employee’s personal time.
It’s not that I don’t understand the source of many salesperson’s irritation, because that’s another things that makes online shopping attractive. I refer, of course, to other people in the stores. Most seasonal shoppers are perfectly fine, experienced, wise and considerate. But there is that ten percent, oblivious, inconsiderate, just plain rude, that make major annoyances for the rest of us.
When you click “proceed to checkout” on line, you don’t get stuck behind the person who wants to stop and chat for an hour with the checker, or the person who thinks store employees are stress-relief punching bags, or the person who is always apparently surprised when they’re asked to pay for the merchandise, or the person who wants to pay in check filled out with quill and ink. Nor do you find yourself in a store where management is trying to save a buck by hiring one tenth the employees they really need to handle the traffic.
The real irony about on-line shopping is that web-based retailers are spending big bucks to implement features that bricks and mortar stores can have for free. Online retailers hire people just to answer customer questions, investing in personnel, phone systems, and on-line chatware. In a physical store, the employees are already there—they just need to be trained, empowered and encouraged to help. It should be so easy for real stores to beat web stores at the human game, but many web stores are trying really hard, and many real stores are trying not at all.
I love love love many of our local retailers, the specialty shops, the places where there is a real personal touch. But the history of retail is the story of people who can’t afford to get comfortable. Franklin and Oil City downtowns ruled the roost, and then there was a mall. The mall thought it had a lock on the local market, and then there was Wal-Mart. Some folks adapted, and some folks folded, and we achieved a new equilibrium. But before anyone gets too comfy, they’d better take a look at the internet.

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