Stores from Hell

hschupak@cahners.com

Any retail expert will tell you that customer service makes or breaks a business. That?s because customer service matters to a time-starved populace?it?s what draws people back to your store, and it?s what will prevent brick-and-mortar retailers from falling prey to the Big Bad Internet.

But let?s skip the lecture about good service and begin with something even more basic?good manners. I know it?s hard to find help in a booming economy, but surely one doesn?t have to pay a premium for people who know how to say ?please,? ?thank you,? and ?may I help you??

Recently, I needed to replace the filter basket on my Melitta coffeemaker. Melitta has a company store in the King of Prussia Plaza mall, so I figured it would be easy to pop in and buy a new basket.

I was wrong. A long line of customers was waiting to buy coffee from a lone attendant, who had no idea whether or not the company even makes replacement baskets, let alone if the store stocks them. He told me to call back when the manager was there. I had to ask for a business card.

When I called back a few days later, a sullen voice answered, ?Hello.? Not ?Hello, Melitta Coffee World??just ?Hello.? I asked for a manager. The phone was banged down, and ?Hello? went to get one.

The manager knew the answer: ?No. We don?t order parts. You can check our Web site.? I had to ask for the site?s address.

Yes, I can check the Web site, but will I? While I hate the idea of wasting an otherwise good appliance, and I have nothing against buying replacement parts online, I?m annoyed at the store personnel?s lack of manners. Right now, I?d rather go to Starbucks!

How many of you think this would never happen at a good independent retail store?

Wrong again. Even if I could make a big pot of coffee at home, I couldn?t invite anyone to sit and drink it with me. In my kitchen stands a tall, sculptured metal table for two, with a glass top and two matching chairs?only one of the chairs has been missing for five months. The set came from a small, independent gallery that specializes in unique, hand-made furniture?the home-interior equivalent of a good designer jeweler.

The chair broke at two critical welds. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and the store owner shipped the chair back to the artist to be repaired. But the artist obviously feels no sense of urgency to fix it, and the store owner is either unable or unwilling to nudge him along. Nor has he called me to report progress. Every time I call him?and I?ve done so every few weeks since the end of January?he says the chair is coming ?next week.? He hasn?t offered to supply a new chair or lend a replacement. He says he has nothing available, and he?s stopped dealing with that artist because he?s had difficulty with him in the past. But that should be his problem?not his customer?s.

Compare his attitude with that of Marie Helene Morrow, owner of M.H. Reinhold Jewelers in San Juan, Puerto Rico (see JCK?s Luxury International, June 2000, p. 345). One of Morrow?s sales associates once accidentally sold a Tiffany gift that was on hold for a customer. Morrow didn?t have another one, so she went to Tiffany, bought one at full retail, and supplied it to the customer?at no profit. If she?or any of the fine jewelers I?ve been privileged to meet during 15 years at JCK?owned this furniture store, that chair would have been fixed long ago.

I apologize for giving you an editorial full of gripes, but I?m proud to say I think our industry has a better idea than other retailers of what customer service means. Sure, we have our own bad apples, and I?m probably being unfair to the rest of the retail world, but I can?t help wondering if I would have gotten a better chair?and better service?online.