There was a time when customers rightly expected shop assistants to provide superior services, that is to help them with the selection of the right good.
With the advent of search engines, some shopkeepers seem nowadays to expect their clients to do their online homework before they enter their premises. In other words, shops see themselves solely as mere distributors of goods, providing no expertise with regards to selection or comparison.
This is what I call reverse retailing: when customers have to rely solely on the Net to gather information, they simply end up doing the shop assistant’s job.
Am I exaggerating? Read the following real-life experiences:
First story: in a mobile phone store
A couple years ago, a few days after I bought an expensive smart phone, I came back to the shop to ask how I could transfer my address book onto the phone’s built-in memory. The very guy who had sold me the phone started to patronise me. And upon my insistence for clear explanations, he then lost his temper.
It is unbelievably unpleasant to be shouted at by a shop assistant, especially when he happens to be a spotty teenager. To his credit, maybe the use of anti-acne cream made his testosterone shoot up? Or perhaps he had lost his virginity the night before, and suddenly felt invincible. All in all, I was inches away from smashing his face – don’t worry about me, this thought was certainly triggered by the fact that he was short and skinny. In the end, I left the premises, confused and fuming, and looking at a retail brand I had respected for many years… with anger.
Second story: in a photo & video outlet
In this shop located in central London, I had the temerity to ask for the price of the latest Olympus’ shock/waterproof camera. The salesperson replied:
- I need to have the name of the product; otherwise I cannot look in our computer system.
Of course, I did not have the damn name in mind.
I asked him: “surely, there are not so many waterproof Olympus digital cameras on the market. You sure you cannot easily find it in your ‘system’?”.
While I was doing my best not to loose my temper, he suggested with certain aplomb:
- I tell you what: why don’t you go on Google to find the camera’s name?
What exactly was expected from me when I entered the shop? Showing up with printed pages of my research on Google Shopping pages? Or with a photocopy of the magazine advertisement where I first spotted the product in question?
Third story: in another mobile phone retailer
Once I had paid for an iPhone, the salesman, who had been thrilled by my propensity to buy such an expensive good without asking too many questions, suddenly refused to insert the SIM card in the handset. I naively thought that, like in the good old 20th century, part of the service included the opening of the carton box, the insertion of the SIM card, and the usual blabla on battery charging and initial experience with the handset. Well no, in a digital world, self-service prevails.
I ended up presuming that the shop assistant had studied artificial intelligence at the MIT, and that he was therefore far too intelligent to open a carton box.
Back at home, I almost broke the iPhone in anger since it took me ages to find out how to insert the SIM card. It was entirely my fault though – I should have been on the Net to look for explanations… and I would have discovered that, silly me, all I needed was a paperclip. As the cultured readers of this blog post know, there is a tiny hole on the side of the iPhone. Put a paperclip into it, and sesame opens. That simple!
Again, in all fairness to the MIT-graduated shop assistant, the basic task of inserting a SIM card was way below his intellectual capacities. It was therefore my duty, as a customer who, let us remind this, had signed up for a 18-month long contract, worth more than £900, to service myself.
Fourth story: in a car reseller
This time, before entering the store, I did do my homework and spent time researching finance options to buy a car. It looked like leasing was a valuable route… except that there were 7 options on the site. Unwilling to explore in details the minutia of leasing finance on my own, in front of a PC screen, I naturally decided to pay a visit to the local franchise… What a mistake.
The salesman bluntly refused to explain how the leasing options worked. And guess what he told me:
- You need to go on our website. There is a dedicated section on leasing – you will see, it is very well explained.
With uncharacteristic magnanimity and patience, I smiled and told him: “Great. Will do. Thanks”.
In the end, I bought a car from a competing brand, and got a loan from my banker, a reassuringly physical person.
Last example: in an entertainment goods chain retailer
I had heard on the radio a new version of Miles Davis’ famous “So What” tune. While browsing at the Jazz section of this huge store in London, I asked the person behind the counter situated within, let me repeat again, the Jazz section: “I heard this new version of So What a few times on the radio recently. Do you know which artist covered it?”.
- What’s the name of the artist?
- Erm… I don’t know, that’s my question.
- How do you want me to find the track if you don’t know the name of the artist?
- Because you are paid to be knowledgeable about jazz music, otherwise you would be selling, say… paperclips.
As in many industry sectors, the digital revolution happens not only because of its intrinsic benefits, such as always-on, international, instant, practical, cheap, comparable, etc, but also because of the sheer frustrations we experience in the quotidian of our physical world.
What is the point to go ”physical shopping” when the service can be in some instances so rubbish?
You would be better served by robots… Guess what, this is exactly what e-commerce is all about!
eCommerce is highly successful, gaining share of market… but surprisingly, some besieged shops now use the Internet as an excuse to provide less value, and lose even more market share!
If we extrapolate this reverse-retailing trend, we may end up having our high streets cleared of low-value retail chains. Then, what would remain is self-service businesses, such as supermarkets, and niche boutiques that provide genuine added-value experiences.
eCommerce could therefore trigger another retail revolution by helping with the revival of independent shops. What a twist this would be!
We used to be happy to rely on the advices of those experts working in record, fashion or electronic consumer goods stores. Bring them back, or you may perish!