Why People Hate Retail

Maybe it’s the fault of the MBAs who don’t have to deal with actual customers.

by Stewart White

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In September 1998, I had cause to patronize a local vendor of athletic footwear. It was an eye-opening experience.

Surely, I thought, the employees of this establishment would be able to describe for me the fine variations within their dizzying variety of products and help me choose exactly the right pair for my particular needs. What I found was a staff of teenagers, at least two of whom were clearly more interested in talking to their acquaintances than to a customer (gee, that never happens…). The fellow who looked like he was in charge was no more than a year older than the rest of the staff, if that, and he showed no inclination to redirect his employees’ non-customer-oriented conversations. This “manager” turned me over as quickly as he could to one of his associates, a male not a day over 17.

This rare orchid of the American sales force, decked out in the full regalia of the national chain he so proudly represented, did not approach the task of helping me with anything resembling enthusiasm. I inquired of him the differences between the various shoes: what was the arch support, what distinguished a jogging shoe from a walking shoe from a racket sports shoe, etc. His knowledge in this area was, to be polite, spotty. I tried on a pair of purported walking shoes, was suitably impressed and decided to make my purchase. Okay, so I had to sell the damn things to myself—disappointing but, okay.

Ah, but then came the moment my customer service specialist and the corporate marketing department that issued his marching orders had been waiting for. Immediately upon finding that I was concerned about sufficient padding to do strenuous walking, the employee of my dreams walked over to a display and pulled down a package of cushion inserts. Suddenly, a stream of features and advantages came pouring from his mouth. Finally, he had found a topic he could expand on: suggestive selling. He didn’t know the first helpful thing about the principal product, but yessir, he sure knew how to push that all-important $11 add-on that would apparently make the shoes do what I had thought, for $80, they should do anyway.

Don’t expect this situation to improve anytime soon. Having expended three years of my adult life in this vital national institution called retail, I know well that the pool of potential employees that mall merchants have to draw from consists of people who necessarily give something less than the last full measure of devotion to the job. And shopping is so important to our economy and individual psychic well-being, it’s hard to imagine that the contempt felt by corporate home offices for the customer will ever be warmly reciprocated by the shoppers themselves.