Ruining the Retail Experience

clip_image002The theory of Six Degrees of Separation suggests that everything and everyone can be connected within six or fewer steps. You know a guy, who knows a guy, and so on, who knows me. The theory is supposed illustrate how it’s a small world, maybe it’s supposed to make us feel closer, more connected. Well, I think the retail industry is trying to put the theory into reverse, to create six degrees of separation between them and us (their customers) so that we can’t be connected.

I admit that this theory of mine is inspired by two recent bad shopping experiences, one on-line and one “in-person.” I put in person in quotes, because I’m not sure there were really people involved in the sale. I purchased a refrigerator in a store, from a person, but I was separated from her as soon as she said”

“Give them your phone number at the checkout. If they can’t find you in the system, give them you company name or maybe the company phone number.” Remember the day when that person would have said “here, let me take you up to the checkout and let’s wrap up this paperwork.”

I will also admit that I was once on the other side, the dark side if you will. I didn’t work in retail; I was a consultant to financial institutions – doesn’t that sound better than “banks?” Back in the early 1980’s, at least in New England, most banks had ATMs but you had to go to one of your bank’s ATMs to use it. Projects were underway across the county to build ATM consortiums, or Interbank networks so that anybody could use any ATM card at any bank. Most of us welcomed this as a convenience, but the banks were also looking for a way to save money.

Convenience is the 1st degree of inverse separation – In the ATM / Debit card / Interbank network, you become the teller. You are also the “clearing” operation. Back in the 1980’s banks had people in windowless backroom offices processing every check that you wrote. They would put those checks on a plane each night and fly them to one of about a dozen Federal Reserve check processing centers so the money could be moved from Bank-A to Bank-B. This is the process that allowed you to write a check today, even though you weren’t getting paid until tomorrow. ATM networks weren’t designed solely for your convenience, that’s just how they were packaged.

Similarly, during the convenience of an online shopping experience, you become the salesperson. You’re the one saying “oh that dress looks good on you,” you’re the one pointing out that “and it’s on sale this week.” You might also be the one saying “these shoes would look perfect with this dress,” but I digress. Of course these are conveniences, but people were removed from the process and the distance between you and your bank / store grew by one step.

The 2nd degree of inverse separation came when most companies, stores and banks decided to outsource customer service. Now, when that dress you sold yourself arrives in the wrong color or the wrong size, or it isn’t actually the dress you ordered, you don’t call the store, you call a company in (wherever those companies are today). Let’s face it, the company was barely involved in the sale, why should they be directly involved in the problem? I could share my recent customer service rants with you, but you have your own. I’m willing to bet that you and I could get connected via a customer service problem in less than 6-steps.

clip_image004The 3rd degree of inverse separation is outsourced delivery / installation. I’m not talking about someone at the store where you work part-time selling yourself dresses and shoes, giving the dress to UPS to give to you. I’m not talking about the money that pops out of the ATM in Iowa even though your bank is in Boston. I’m talking about the furniture or the appliance or the big bulky thing that you just bought or the cable TV you just ordered where the salesperson, told you “we’ll call you tonight between 6:00 and 9:00 and give you a window of time during which we will deliver / install this tomorrow.”

There’s no “we” in the sense of a delivery person at that store. Drive by after they close, do you see a fleet of delivery vans? No, “we” is the logistics company who proposed the lowest total cost for delivering your living room furniture, my refrigerator and some guy’s garage door. When you don’t get your furniture, or when I didn’t get my refrigerator, you and I get to call the shipping company, who has outsourced their customer service to (wherever those companies are today).

What’s next? What will be the 4th degree of separation? Well, for some small companies, it’s the outsourcing of the entire company. They don’t really have a store, let alone customer service or shipping departments. Sometimes this is a good thing; a small business owner makes really cool stuff that he or she can sell to anyone, anywhere at any time of the day. Sometimes, this is just some smarmy guy pretending to have a product or service, a middleman between you and the real Internet store with outsourced customer service and delivery. Maybe the 4th or perhaps the 5th or 6th degree will be where retailers will separate themselves out of business.

13 thoughts on “Ruining the Retail Experience

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  1. Upper Picture – That’s the van and trailer my brother and I used to move our mother from Pittsburgh to Iowa. Parking that beast was no small challenge. When we registered at the Neville Island Fairfield Inn, I ask the desk clerk where we could park it. Not only did she give us directions on how to reach that spot, she went out in the lot to prevent anybody from parking in any of those spots. Marriott properties always seem to have helpful staff, this one was amazing.

    Lower Picture – We bought the lumber for the addition to our house from Kelly-Fradet. Not only was the cost 25% lower than the big box stores, one of their drivers delivered it in one of their trucks, and put it exactly where we wanted it.


    1. It is a little scary Dan. We’re still struggling with Lowes to get the refrigerator deal closed. So many calls. Nobody ever calls back, they want me to call their contractors (who never call back). I have to repeat the whole growing story each time. the strategy must rely on the fact that I will give up at some point. Thanks for the comment.

      I guess in fairness, I should write about the great experience I had from a local power equipment dealer when I bought a snow blower last week.


  2. I had a rather bad experience with a lounge suite that cost us just over $7000. I got to the point of having someone come out here to look at the issue so that they could properly ‘assess’ and determine the course of action. 4 weeks went by and I heard nothing. I called up and spoke to someone who had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and apparently no one had ever come to our house.


    I went online and found the managers details and kept ringing and emailing until I got a response. It still took 6 weeks to get a new lounge suite because they couldn’t get in touch with the manufacturer to get the issue resolved.

    I miss personal customer service, and one person who takes care of everything. :(

    It’s very dis-empowering to the consumer the way product is moved these days.


    1. The story that prompted that inspired this was my having to buy a refrigerator for our company. The installers were a day late (after we had removed the food), didn’t connect the water line to the ice maker, they didn’t remove the packing material and they scratched the door. It took days to get back in touch with the store and it took weeks to get a refund large enough to pay the guy who did connect the ice maker for us.

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. I worked in retail (Sears to be specific) for several years before I joined the Army. As a manager, I was trained and my sales people were trained, to bend over backwards for customers. I remember taking a return from a little old lady on a clock radio that was still in the box. Issue was it was over 15 years old. (And I think I am estimating down here.) But hey, it was still “new” and unused and we wanted to make her happy. I look at “service” now and find people rude, impatient and unhelpful and wonder, how can they be in business. It’s almost shocking to get good help these days and immediately take a step back and say, wow! Sad that good service is so rare.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was just in Sears two weeks ago and the sales staff is the most disinterested group of people ever. They hang out at the checkout and their stock answer, when you can’t find something is “you can order it on the website.” I know that, but I wanted to see/touch/try on/.etc. the item first. They complaint that they might have to close stores due to low sales volume, but they do absolutely nothing to improve that volume. Thanks for the additional information (so I could rant some more :)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have shaken my head at visits like this too. Ugh. Makes me sad since I worked there for seven years. But with stuff like that-can they be shocked at closing? I’m frankly surprised some companies are still open.

        Liked by 1 person

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