Why We Gripe: Is Friendly Retail a Lost Cause?

Although the comments are full of the self-congratulatory jerking that we bloggers do so well, there are some interesting points raised in response to a post by Mike Sansone about a bad experience at CompUSA. Specifically, “Does complaining about an employee online do anything besides push down cloying training materials from the PR and sales departments of large retail operations?” (Actually, that’s our question.)

Here’s the gist of Sansone’s complaint: He went to CompUSA and was treated poorly and given bad advice by disinterested employees. He went to Best Buy and had a good experience.

We are of the persuasion that disinterested employees are endemic to retail across the board. It’s just what happens when you pay people—often kids—a low wage. Even good-intentioned employees have a bad day. (God knows we blew off our fair share of customers in our retail years, and we tended to enjoy the ‘helping people out’ aspect of the job more than anything else.)

Blogging about the bad experiences is a start, but is there any need for shrill commentary like, “Is anyone at CompUSA blogging Mike? They need a voice in this conversation if they want to rescue their brand.” We’re right there with you, commentor Michael Wagner, but we try to save the hyperbole for our anal sex play metaphors.

So yeah, we’re totally calling the kettle black, but this is where part of our understanding fails on this particular issue. What can we expect from CompUSA in response to a single customer’s experience? Clearly, we all expect something, but if the last thirty years of modern shopping is any lesson, once retail became something other than a career, has any company discovered how to keep their employees engaged with the customer all day, every day?


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  1. Papercutninja says:

    I think a lot of it has to do with the dreaded “eBay effect”. eBay has changed the consumer’s ability to turn their transactions into a dialogue. Because people were able to leave negative feedback, they now feel like they should do the same thing for other online retailers or for B&M retailers.

    It’s almost a sense of entitlement, whereas in the past consumers faced with a bad experience could only complain to their immediate friends of their dissatisfaction. Now, because they have the ability to post it on the internet, they feel it actually means something and may affect the retailer in some substantial way.

  2. SamC says:

    Ever taken an ‘interview’ for one of these? The one for Best Buy is an automated phone quiz.

    Employees get less-than-mediocre pay, little training, and few benefits.

    Maybe if the big chains started treating their employees like people, those employees would be more interested in helping the consumers.

  3. The Unicorn says:

    Unfortunately, treating employees like people can often run directly counter to “customer service” — like in instances where a customer is being obnoxious and unreasonable. A manager who’s primarily invested in employee morale will stand up for the employee, but a manager who’s primarily invested in the store’s bottom line will always take the customer’s side.

    And honestly, it’s the customers who really wear down one’s ability to provide cheerful, relatively sincere service. Once you start resenting the people you’re meant to kowtow to, and you’re under a management structure that just sees you as a warm body in a particular coordinate, your capacity for customer engagement ends up coming down to your own interest in playing that role.

    More importantly, big-box retail is *so* micromanaged that hardly anyone who’s working in the store is invested in the organization’s growth, which means that the best & brightest have no motivation to stay with the company. To use myself as an example, I used to work at Borders. I have a degree in English & am pretty well-suited to customer service. I was also the best cashier that they had. Periodically, someone in management would mention how I was “going to get a promotion” at some unspecified future point or how I “should be a manager” — but nothing ever came of it. I knew it never would, because it was in the managers’ best interest to have a fast cashier who was nice; it wasn’t in their best interest to move me to a different part of the store & start paying me more money. If they’d courted me, who knows, I could be working up my way up the Borders ladder right now, doing good things for the company. Instead, I found a job where I never had to deal with anyone shooting out a window or peeing in an elevator, and somewhere some suit in Borders’ HQ is trying to figure out why their sales-floor turnover rate is so high.

    To be fair, I don’t think I would’ve stayed in the retail biz very long regardless, but you never know — and I’m sure there are countless people in similar situations who *would’ve* stayed with the company on a long-term basis if there was any reason to do so. But if you’re just a cog in the wheel…enh, fuck over the customers, stay uninformed, be a pain in the ass to deal with — why not? It’s not like you give a shit about your job.

  4. flyover says:

    I work for a small restaurant company (16 restaurants in 4 states; 6 different concepts) and the (un)fortunate thing is that ONE letter of a poor experience does have some power to change a lot within my environment. Which is both good & bad.
    This means that one person can make a difference, however that one person could be in the minority in their claim, especially given the community they are from. So, someone writes a letter about subpar service in West Virginia, and it can affect me in MI.
    One final note; it is amazing how much is done with a complaint letter and how little with the complimentary ones. You can get reamed out by every person in a management ladder if there is a problem, but are lucky if the guest that had the best meal of their life gets any notice from those above.