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Retail and the Lost Art of Customer Service

Beware: beneath these clothing racks, a sales person is lurking.
Beware: beneath these clothing racks, a sales person is lurking.

This past weekend, I decided to take a trip back to my old stamping grounds, the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. Working there off and on from 1996 to 2013, I spent a lot of time wandering the building's hallowed shopping-mall halls (when you work retail, you do a lot of on-the-clock ambling and hiding behind racks of clothes to avoid authority figures). After quitting my job at Shirt Folding Store, I had only been back to the mall a handful of times, but I recently fell into some money and needed to stock up on my freelance writer essentials of stretch pants, Uggs and a new laptop case.

Upon entering the first store of my mall return, I set off what would be the beginning of many retail greeting booby traps. If you've shopped in a big-box store or mall-only chain store in the last ten years, then you should be familiar with this phenomenon, too: Once you cross the threshold into a retail outlet, someone hidden deep on the sales floor shouts "HEY, GUYS!" at the top of his or her lungs. You try to spot the source of the scream, but are tricked by well-dressed mannequins and racks of shiny things. They scream again. "GUYS, be sure to check out our awesome T-shirt promo going on alllllll weekend!" This is the state of customer service in retail in 2014.

See also: Is that condescension in my voice, or am I just happy to see you?

I can't knock this approach: I would sometimes have to apply the retail scream to my own customer greetings if a manager was watching while I was stationed at my various posts around Shirt Folding Store.

But working in retail for the segment of time that I did allowed me to see the many highs and lows. Things were grand at Shirt Folding Store in 2006: Money was flowing for this global clothing company, and the store where I worked had a "living room" for customers that was stocked daily with fresh copies of the Wall Street Journal. We handed out bottled water to shoppers. We spent time with customers (sometimes hours) finding exactly what jeans they were looking for, even if it meant calling Canada and ordering them. We were non-commissioned but happily committed.

We worked like a happy hive of shirt-folders, staffing a few thousand feet of retail space with dozens of cheerful employees. We even had cable TV in our break room, Internet access and an employees-only balcony for breaks from our hard work folding shirts. Every hour or so, a new shift of salespeople would be "on-boarded" (retail stores have their own specific jargon), and we would be given a daily tour of the store and its current stock, like the place was a fuckin' museum.

Then, in 2008, the recession hit. No more bottled water. Couches in the store were replaced with giant sale racks. The deals, coupons and BOGOs (that's short for buy-one-get-one) rotated every single day, irritating customers to no end. Prices were slashed so dramatically and so often that nothing sold at full price because shoppers knew to wait for the next sale. The staff was whittled down to bare bones; there was no greeter at the door to scream "HEY, GUYS!" We were lucky to be scheduled eight hours a week. Also, customer service went out the window.

While sales seem to be much better than they once were, the whole model of customer service has changed forever. I set off many a "HEY, GUYS!" greeting this weekend while I shopped, but the way salespeople interacted with me was bizarre. Maybe it's because I have been out of the game for so long, but there was a casualness to the whole experience that left me feeling creeped out.

First, I went to a boutique store in Cherry Creek North to look at getting some new glasses. The salesperson was a bubbly millennial. I point out this generational characteristic because when she picked out a pair of glasses for me to try on and I said they made me look like a babysitter from an '80s movie, she replied, "I wasn't even born in the '80s, so I don't really know what you mean." She then proceeded to tow me around the store, having me try on ugly pair after ugly pair of glasses, her in-your-face, buddy-buddy honesty about what styles she liked best driving me right out the door with no glasses. I felt exhausted, and all I was trying to do was buy something.

Back inside the mall, I visited another prescription-glasses outlet. This time, I was helped by another too-chummy salesperson, but this guy was the talker-over kind; he would ask me a question about what I was looking for in frames, and then talk over me when I tried to answer. Again, it was like this weird casualness that I was not looking for in a clerk. I wasn't looking for a friend or a bro; I was looking for a decent pair of glasses.

 

Basically, this is what the interaction with my cellphone salesperson was like.

I gave up on finding new glasses and headed over to the cell-phone store to see if I could get my phone looked at. Cell-phone stores are the DMV of retail: You always have to wait forever, often you don't get the desired outcome you came in for, and there is never a time when going to them doesn't suck. I went in looking for an answer as to why my sixteen-month-old iPhone only holds a charge for an hour. What I got was a guy who looked and acted like Pal from Uncle Buck (see above video), but without the toothpick. It was an excruciating experience.

After sleazing his way around the register to recline on the counter to help me, Pal referred to my sister and me multiple times in the course of ten minutes as "girls." Then, after asking me a bunch of questions about my phone, his assessment was this: "Well, Apple products suck." That was his answer. A guy from the same storefront that sold me an iPhone was telling me that the thing one of his fellow cell-phone jockeys sold me sucked.

I get that as a culture, we are used to paying several hundred dollars for a communication device that is set to fail or explode within two years, and we willingly fork over the same amount of money again for a new version of our sucky phone and sign our lives away after those two years, all so we have the option to check Facebook in the car and text our moms. But his nonchalant approach was gross.

I did have several pleasant experiences at the mall this day -- I went and visited a friend at Neiman Marcus who is my go-to salesperson when it comes to perfume (which I purchase once a year if I can afford it). Stores like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom operate under the old-school model of service, harking back to a time when sales was a respected profession and customers made appointments at their favorite stores to shop with employees who knew them well.

Yes, this is still very much the way the upper-class shops -- but it wasn't so long ago that it was an accessible sales model in stores made for the rest of us. Now, we are greeted by "HEY, GUYS!" verbal bombs and fist-bumping salespeople.

There are many parts to this problem, especially in the world of fast fashion, where clothing is being pumped out of overseas factories at an alarming and inhumane rate, only to be freighted in and dumped on the floor for customers to dig through. Leggings for $3.90 and buy-two-get-two-free T-shirts don't necessitate or afford the help of a knowledgeable salesperson. They require a backhoe and a customer who doesn't care where her clothing comes from. I am certainly of this ilk myself.

The answer to this whole American conundrum? I don't know. Buy less? Buy more, but at higher prices and avoid Forever 21-like retail warehouses? Buy local? Buy nothing? Quit shopping at stores where the salespeople employ these tactics? After leaving the mall, for the first time in my life, I didn't want to go back. As a person who has long admired and enjoyed the mall-culture experience, it might be the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies



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