Our society has changed lots in the last 100 years, technology is often the focus of these changes and many times blamed for them. From workplace automation killing jobs formerly filled by humans, to the decline of bookstores thanks to e-readers, technology is almost always left holding the candlestick in the library with some rope for good measure. Recently Amazon.com and other online retailers have been designated the destroyer of brick and mortar stores, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Macy’s, BestBuy, Sears and even Walmart aren’t immune to the sting of e-commerce. But what if this change or evolution in the way consumers buy goods is only partially due to technology and more of a symptom of something bigger and greater? While everyone is trying to compete with online giants like Amazon and increase their online presence, perhaps they should be looking no further than their own stores and realize they forgot how to do something. Customer service.
Years and years ago, before I was even an organized mass of proteins and nucleic acids, my stay at home mom would take care of the household while my dad went to work. Wearing a black tie, briefcase in hand and glasses perched on his nose, I’m willing to bet he’d kiss my mom on the cheek before leaving for the day (I won’t ask her because reality is cruel). He worked as a contractor for NASA and was literally a rocket scientist. While he was building guidance systems and working overtime when the whole Apollo 13 thing happened, my mom would take the family station wagon to the local grocery store and buy groceries for the week. Aside from it being a scene straight out of Ozzie and Harriet, the darker side of this was it was one of the few times my mom was able to leave the house. Shopping was her escape in a way, some time for herself and back then it was truly a pleasure.
People were nicer back then and customer service was practically part of being Baptist. People knew who you were and they wanted your business even though you probably didn’t have much of a choice of where to shop. My mom remembers a sunny day in Huntsville Alabama when she forgot her wallet and didn’t realize it until it was time to pay at the checkout. From personal experience I can tell you that when this happened at Winn Dixie we would suspend the order on our NCR cash terminals and tell the customer we’d hold their cart in the produce fridge until they could come back with money. In my mom’s situation they laughed and told her not to worry about it, that she could pay them the next time she was in the store. WTF? Seriously? You mean they actually trusted a customer to do the right thing? What was this humanistic approach to shopping? How did they survive?
Well of course they did survive and became major corporations, making billions and billions of dollars annually. Customers started to become just numbers and even cashiers, who’s job it was to ring up groceries, suddenly had to process everything from food stamps to credit cards, WIC checks to personnel checks all while making sure to scan 19 items a minute (an actual metric we strived for at Winn Dixie). Productivity became more important than customer service. Greeting the customer, asking them how they were doing and thanking them for shopping suddenly didn’t matter much. Cashiers began to act as though they were doing you a favor by scanning your order. After all, they could be doing much more important things like chatting with the cashier or bag boy next to them. Customer service completed died.
This past week I tried AmazonFresh for the first time. If you haven’t heard of it, allow me to sing you the praises of this way too convenient way of buying your groceries offered by mega-online retailer Amazon.com. I didn’t think I was going to like buying everything online, but almost immediately I was drawn into the ease of the process, the pretty pictures of the items I love, the variety, the reviews of each item….. all from the comfort of my home computer. I could have been laying in bed and using my iPad or tablet for that matter. Hell, I could have been on the toilet making room for the stuff that was just about to arrive!! I know, pretty raunchy but you get the point. I also noticed I was only buying the items I really needed, I wasn’t just randomly pulling crap off the shelves that would end up lost in the back of a cupboard until being re-discovered three years past it’s expiration date. Wow I was saving money.
After completing my order and even being able to use points from my credit card to pay for it, I almost forgot I had actually gone grocery shopping. A couple of hours later, exactly within the time slot I pre-selected for delivery, my phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it because I thought it was a telemarketer. My groceries were downstairs waiting for me!! Eric and I were super excited, it was like freaking Christmas in July for us. We ran down and met our delivery guy, a heavy set Latin man with a thick accent who happened to be very courteous, and I think somewhat amused at our amazement. He handed us our neatly packed items, almost like brown paper bags but with firm lids on them. Even though we knew what was stored inside of them, we couldn’t wait to see what we ordered. It was crazy.
The packaging couldn’t have been better. Items that needed to stay cool were placed next to cold packs, and frozen items were sent separate with a block of dry ice. The dry ice would later make for some interesting beverages to celebrate our newly discovered lifestyle of online grocery shopping. We were so cool and just much too important to be bothered with grocery shopping at a store. I mean who does that anymore?
Yeah we were hooked and it was easy to see why. Many of the stores that marketed themselves as being a pleasure to shop at just weren’t. They had forgotten the level of customer service that had made them successful in the first place. Something I was contemplating while waiting in line the other night at Publix at almost 11 PM, buying dog food so the kids would have breakfast in the morning. Blank tired faces, robotic movements, a very forced ‘thank you’ and no eye contact was my experience. It wasn’t any more a pleasure to shop there than it was to work there obviously. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they send a subliminal statement of defiance by not accepting modern forms of payment like ApplePay.
Today, women don’t need a reason to leave the house. They have jobs, careers and families. In fact now, people don’t want to leave the house because they have been out all day running errands, picking up kids, taking dogs to the vet, stuck in traffic and texting non-stop. Stores aren’t a pleasure to shop at anymore so why wouldn’t you choose online shopping? It’s a win win for you and setback for stores that thought they had you by the balls and could treat you like shit. Once upon a time, grocery stores only felt threatened by rivals in physical buildings situated across the street, but the game of competition has completely changed. Geographic placement of stores is becoming less and less important since shopping is now truly a pleasure when it’s in the palm of your hand.