At Your Service – Really?

Employee screening, hiring and training can ensure retail workers know the value of shopper retention. It ought to be so easy, so why is it so hard?
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Posted June 7, 2018

I was in Kroger early the other morning, doing my weekly food shopping. It was just about 8 o’clock on a Saturday. The store was not yet terribly crowded, like it would be in a few hours.

As I pushed my cart along familiar aisles, the in-house music stopped, replaced by a series of recorded statements from Kroger employees about how much they love their jobs – how rewarding to help customers, how no request is too much, how meeting people’s needs is what they come to work for.

As this cheerful message was filling the air, I encountered a series of seemingly unhappy employees who weren’t smiling; who gave  curt answers to shoppers’ various questions; who rolled their big merchandise pallets in my way – without yielding – as if the main business of Kroger is to move merchandise from the back to the front. (I know it’s a critical part of the supermarket’s circle of life, but the main business? Not if people decide it’s just as easy to order from Amazon. If the aisles are empty, it’s a lot quicker to roll those aisle-clogging carts – but they’ll soon find they don’t have to do it as much. Which, I’m guessing would suit many of them just fine.)

Look, I know we're all not chipper chipmunks at work all the time. Not everyone wants to smile at every encounter in a supermarket aisle. But these are tough days for bricks-and-mortar retailers. Even what seemed like the impervious grocery sector is under attack. If a retailer feels it's important enough to cut in on Three Dog Night with professions of how important customer service is, it would seem almost automatic to have a hiring and training program that emphasizes the high stakes of making customers' journeys more pleasant and more efficient.

I know retailers are tired of hearing all the good things Amazon does, but a sales interaction there, even some $10 widget, is followed up with thanks and information – here's your tracking number, your order will arrive in three days, here are some other items you might like based on your previous searches and thank you for your business!

I don’t mean to gang up on Kroger. It just happened to be where I was. I’ve had the same cheerless employee contacts at Walmart, Best Buy, Dillard’s, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond – even at Target and Whole Foods.

Grocery, big-box and mass merchants are only one kind of encounter, though. I guess it’s easy to lose your smile and focus in the overwhelming bustle of a big store with so much square footage and so many SKUs. I’m always surprised, though, when I get lackluster service at a specialty apparel store, where service ought to be the name of the game.

It’s a sign of the state of the industry when a really good encounter with a clothing salesman stands out in my mind after 20-plus years. But I still remember a wonderful associate at Jos. A. Bank, when I first arrived in Atlanta in 1994. And there was another excellent salesman at Harry Rosen when I used to travel to Toronto with some regularity. And a man at Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue who actually remembered my name, what I had previously purchased and where I lived (Cincinnati, at the time), though I came into the store only once a year.

It ought to be a no-brainer. I grew up in Chicago, where service was simply the name of the game at Marshall Field. It never occurred to anyone, on either side of the counter, that it would ever be any different.

Here in Louisville, there’s a specialty apparel store called Rodes that has been doing business in this city for 104 years! It’s a beautiful space with a high level of fashion-brand apparel, but it’s the confident and knowledgeable people working there who bring people back.

This has my attention because of a recent article in The New York Times about Boyds, a Philadelphia fashion bastion celebrating an 80th anniversary. The menswear world has changed. Professional men don’t need a closet full of suits and ties for work anymore. There has to be a reason why Rodes and Boyds are thriving. In Boyds’ case, according to the article, it’s simply a premium put on service.

“Such tradition and continuity across generations was once commonplace in retail apparel,” said The New York Times’ article. “But in this age of dressing down and click-and-buy, in an environment where the big chains have killed off the mom-and-pops and Amazon is killing off the chains, Boyds now feels like a shopping experience out of time.” Ah, the “E” word!

It was interesting how many readers wrote in to comment about the specialty stores they grew up with, many now long gone. (For me, it was Baskin’s on the University of Illinois campus. Then Paul Stuart, when I first came to New York.) What they remembered was the level of service.

Clearly, the level of service practiced at Boyds and Rodes cannot be for everyone. It’s a lot more satisfying to help a man through a $10,000 purchase of tailored Brioni suits, silk shirts and European shoes than it is to help a senior citizen find the cereal aisle. The point of all this is not the level of service. It’s the awareness of service.

Remember the television show, “Downton Abbey”? It portrayed the expectations of the manored-class, and the filling of those expectations by the servant class. A few years before, Julian Fellowes – who created the series – wrote a classic view of the upstairs-downstairs relationship in the movie, “Gosford Park.” The point was, these servants often felt irritation or mistreatment, but it was a calling as much as a job, and they were practically born into it.

Retail employees are rarely “born into service.” It is a job, just a job, but it’s a paying job. And that pay depends on happy shoppers. I never could understand, and never will, why stores’ sales associates don’t understand the confluence of time and space. If shoppers are in your store, they’re not in another store. If they’re spending their consumer dollar with you, it’s not going to another store. They could be somewhere else – today, they could be just about anywhere. But they’re not. They’ve chosen you. They’ve walked into your store.

Eye contact and a smile seems like the least you can do.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.