Last weekend, I visited three stores. The first was a national sporting goods store. I walked in, went back to one of the counters (I was looking for a new Leatherman tool) and found the one I wanted. I was in a glass case behind the counter, locked securely away. After about five minutes of browsing, I looked around for someone in the vicinity to help me out. There wasn’t anyone. I waited a little longer until finally I got frustrated and went down a mile or so down the road to a competitor’s store, found what I wanted and bought it.
The first store lost a $30 purchase mainly because they made it difficult for me to shop their store and their customer service was beyond poor. The second place I went had what I was looking for and it was easily accessible. There wasn’t much more help around, but they made it easy to shop their store. Neither experience floored me, but they revealed some important things to me.
Compare those experiences to the one I had when I dropped by a nearby Eddie Bauer store. I have had my eye on a duffel bag they were selling on their website over the past several weeks. I thought about just buying it from the site; however, I really wanted to get a closer look at it. So I headed to the store. There were two incredibly nice women working that day. They smile and greeted me, despite being incredibly busy.
I walked around the store, found the bag I wanted, but not the shirts I had also seen in their catalog. I went to the counter with the bag. First, the cashier pointed out the price on the bag. She had marked down the bag 50% earlier that day. Then she said she had on in the backroom that had never been opened and she quickly ran back to get it for me. As we were talking, I mentioned the shirts I had noticed in their catalog. She immediately knew which ones I wanted. She pulled out a copy of their catalog, flipped to the page and said, “What size and colors do you need?” She then disappeared into the back and reappeared with the exact shirt I wanted.
All of this happened in the span of about five minutes. I bought the bag and two shirts. I almost purchased a third shirt just because I was so happy with the service I had received. The saleswomen were amazing. They took great care of me and everyone that was in the store. Though they are a little on the pricier side, I will be doing business with them from now on.
It has been interesting to watch businesses as they have been hit with one of the worst recessions in history. The former two examples that I mentioned (the sporting goods stores) are fairly typical. Many retailers have slashed their customer service staff. My sister used to work for one of the sporting goods stores in question. When she worked there, they had an amazing policy that was focused almost entirely on serving their customers. When things got tough, they made cuts in the one thing that made them different from everyone else – service. Now they are just like all the other mass market sporting good stores and for us consumers, it is very easy to go elsewhere when we don’t get the help we need. Now, their only differentiating factors are convenience and price – neither of these are great strategies to build a long-term, successful business platform on.
There are a handful of retailers out their that have committed to providing exceptional customer service regardless of the economy. Eddie Bauer seems to be one of these. They make quality products. They provide great service. They charge a premium price. And they seem to be doing quite well.
The lessons are simple:
- Meaningful differentiation matters.
- Selling quality products matters.
- Customer service will make or break you in the long run.
- Customers will pay premium prices if you give them a good enough reason to do so.