Terrible (and Not) Retail Experiences

Last night I had another terrible retail experience which has solidified in my mind the reasons why retail stores might ultimately disappear from the face of the planet.

The Experience

I needed a printer. In today’s printer world there are a PLETHORA of options. You can get inkjet, laser, or solid ink technology printers in black only or full color. Each has their pros and cons. Then, to make the decision even more difficult, there are all these multifunction printers as well, which combine scanning, faxing, and copying in many different configurations. Then there is the question of connectivity. USB? Network? Memory card readers? Legacy parallel connections? The list goes on.

I have been putting off the new printer purchase for some time now. I’ve been waiting for the color laser multi-functions to come down in price and mature in quality. I could wait no longer, so I decided to go to Fry’s Electronics and get (at least for now) some simple black laser printer that would get me by for the short term, until I decided on a color-laser-network-scanner-copier-faxer-with-auto-document-feeder-and-network-connectivity-which-is-fully-mac-compatible bohemuth to spend my money on.

Now, I am all about having a premium retail experience. For example, I enjoy shopping at Target instead of Wal-Mart for one reason alone: in Target, they don’t come blaring over the loudspeaker every 2 minutes bellering for so-and-so to pick up the blue line. These small things make all the difference.

When I walk into Fry’s the place reeks of hierarchical struggles. There is a “Person in Charge” podium at the entrance, as well as “Person in Charge” podiums around the store. Usually someone dressed in a suit is standing behind the podium watching the many minions mill about.

Each of the employees at Fry’s acts as though they have some gun pointed at their head; like they might be fired at any minute for any reason. Even stockers and cashiers, who have very simple, limited jobs walk around with a cloud hanging over their heads. I’m not sure why this is, but it is a tense, uncomfortable energy that pervades throughout the store, which puts consumers on edge.

So after perusing the printers for a while, a salesman came over and asked if he could help, and after answering a simple question about where I can find the printers (they weren’t clearly sectioned off into Laser and Non-laser or clearly labeled on their tags as Laser, Inkjet, or other), he left me alone to peruse. After he showed up again, I started telling him what I was looking for in a printer. I only wanted to spend $3-400 if I could get a good multi-function package, otherwise I just wanted a cheap black and white. It was also very important that the printer be Mac compatible, as ALL my systems are Macs. I knew I was in trouble when he responded to my compatibility query by saying, “yeah, well they all should be [compatible].” I know for a fact that most printers are Mac compatible, but multi-functions are basically a coin toss. When I pointed this out to him, especially that scanning software wasn’t always compatible, he offered to get the boxes for the printers I was interested in so he could check specifically.

As I was about to give up and go back to researching online, just by chance I glanced underneath at the boxes that were in stock (rather than the display units), and saw a Color Laser with scanner and network connectivity for $500. It was the CM1017 by HP. “OK this will work,” I thought. When we still couldn’t tell if it was Mac compatible, he invited me to go to a nearby computer to look up the details on it.

When I looked up the printer on HP’s website, I found they were listing the same printer (CM1017) for $474. So I asked if they would match the price ($25 less… come on!), and he looked as though I had just called his mom a four letter word. “No we just can’t match websites… that doesn’t include shipping… we just can’t match websites.” I laughed a bit and was being understanding until he said, “Yeah… we can’t even match our OWN website.” Then I realize, Oh my crap… this corporation is totally backwards!

I showed him that with shipping and taxes from HP.com it still was only $508, as opposed to the $540 I would spend at the store. He held his no website matching ground though.

After thinking about it I thought, “you know, I can spend $30 extra, have it in my hand today, and this guy has been helpful to me despite having absolutely no knowledge about sales, mac compatibility, or finding the right product to fit my needs.” So I said I would take it.

The gentleman got a cart for me and loaded it up, then did a “ticket” (the way he gets his commission on the sale). I walk through the aisles toward the register weighing my choice… did I really want this printer? Was it worth the $30 savings to ditch the cart and go order it online? Somehow, I made it to the register with the cart still in hand.

The lady at the register scanned the “ticket” the guy gave me, then scanned the product itself. Then she muttered something to herself, then went to go call the salesman. I looked down on the box, the printed price label said $699. She had muttered that he had gotten the wrong box, and that he’d be back to replace it. I said, “No. This is the right model. This is the printer I want. The sales tag underneath it said $499, the HP website lists it for $474, and now you’re trying to sell it to me for $699??? This is crap. I’m just going to buy it off their website, you guys need to get your act together.” When the manager lady saw I was losing my grip, her reaction wasn’t to try to explain, she just said, “Okeey.. Dank you. Goo bie.”

I ran into the salesman on my way to the exit who was running back to fix whatever problem he had created. I said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but all I know is I can get that same printer for $40 cheaper online, and you guys need to get your program together.” And I walked off.

It turns out, yes, the salesman HAD gotten the wrong printer. They were not going to let me out the door with the CM1017 without selling it to me for $699. It was the CM1015 that was $499 (the only difference being the network connectivity).

So I went home, and in less than 30 minutes of searching, I found the same printer (CM1015) for $280, and the CM1017 for $360. I bought the CM1015 online.

Why Retail Stores Suck

So… this retail store lost because:

  • Total lack of knowledge about the products you sell.
  • Lack of ability to match needs of customer with product you sell (this is what salesmanship is, BTW)
  • Lack of competitive pricing and website matching (even matching your own company’s website… hello!)
  • Relying on impulse buyers and people who don’t know better to buy their over priced products.
  • A generally uncomfortable atmosphere set by uncomfortable employees and supervisors.
  • Lack of good communication with the customer.

I don’t just want to end by picking on Fry’s. Here are my other big box retail store #1 complaint summaries:

  • Best Buy: Prices are not competitive, but sales staff are generally knowledgeable and less pushy than Fry’s.
  • Wal-Mart/Target: Stock is typically out of date.. as much as a year. And they still sell them for MSRP, when much newer better models are already available. Also, there is NO sales knowledge or customer service.
  • CompUSA, Staples, Office Supply Stores: High prices, but there is a better chance that sales staff are professional and knowledgeable.

So what do you do? What is the answer? Go to best buy if you want to play with the product, go to an office supply store to ask a question about it, then go home and buy it online.

The Exception (the Not)

Now, there is one exception to this rule. (And I swear I don’t work for these guys) But Apple has saved retail! They really have rethought it.

  • You will always pay the same in an Apple store as you will on Apple’s Online store
  • Apple’s employees are INCREDIBLY knowledgeable (about mac products), and if they can’t answer your questions, they will show you to the “genius bar” where the really smart guys are.
  • I can get my corporate discount at any Apple store or online at apple’s store.
  • I don’t have to wait for clearance sales, collect discount coupons, or find redemption codes. None of these exist for Apple. They do not discount merchandise until a replacement product comes out.
  • You can receive Apple support in the Apple stores. Rather than calling India for help, you make an appointment (they respect your time), and you take your Mac, iPod, or iPhone in and they fix it for you on the spot.
  • Apple’s stores are modern, well stocked, easy to visually parse (not too many products, aisles, or shelves), and accessible (if you’re in a major metro area)
  • The staff totally love their jobs, are encouraged to be individuals (not uncommon to see piercings or tats), and genuinely believe in what they’re pushing.

This is a store I can spend my money and time in.