I’m Not Sold

Price is not the only reason people shop online.
The key to keeping a thriving retail environment is recognising the value of service. I don't mean the shoppers, they already know this. It's the retail stores which need to have a rethink about what customer service actually means.

There’s something wonderfully comical about watching Gerry Harvey, one of Australia’s richest people and probably a fair bit richer than you or I, being given a platform on morning television to complain about Amazon arriving in Australia. The host of the very same TV show, David Koch, made his fortune by tracking the fortunes of companies and selling summaries of that information to a speculative market.

Everybody’s selling something. The trick is to never let the mark in on the secret.

It’s a bit rich when Gerry gets wound up over a little competition heading his way. I’d love to know how many smaller stores were put out of business by the rise of Harvey Norman. You can be sure he’s not defending the downtrodden consumer – he’s defending his retail empire and the wealth it has brought him. How much wealth is enough for one man?

Gerry isn’t in business for the sake of a better consumer experience, he’s in it for himself. If you can remember that then you can apply it to every single retail situation for the rest of your life. Unless there’s direct proof to the contrary, the person who is selling you something has a financial motivation to do so. How legitimately helpful they choose to be is a factor of their personal character, and the structure of their salary.

Dem Good Ol’ Days

My most common retail interactions take place in camera stores. I used to buy all my professional gear from a great little mob in Lonsdale St who sold far more second hand gear than new. They were quirky, knowledgeable and utterly rare. For over a decade I could walk into the store and actually learn something about cameras every single time. Every so often I’d buy something. Anytime I wanted to get in the queue for a new camera model I would head to this store and know I was getting a price based on service rather than maximum retail potential. They had integrity as well as quirkiness.

This kind of store was the ideal retail outlet. It’s nostalgic to recollect all those years of being a customer there, like flicking back through a museum collection of photos taken before colour film. Indeed they moved out to the suburbs and cheaper rent and then diversified beyond the camera market. They became just a little bit too quirky and all those clever lads who could talk for an hour about what Leica were designing in 1953.

Now I’m left with a dozen dreadful camera stores on Elizabeth St and a perpetual tug of war between discount pricing and behind-the-counter sales incentives.

I know a few guys who work in such camera stores. Their working conditions are not great, as the owners of the store are the only ones who really win out of all this. Margins are tight, income is heavily based on commission and the typical customer who walks into the stores can flip from happy to hateful in the blink of an eye. (I would describe their employment situation as brutal, but I’ll reserve that title for the plight of train drivers in Sydney who can’t even say no to overtime hours without being threatened with jail.)

Knowing a little about the situation behind the counter is useful when you’re a shopper. Basic respect goes a long way and you should never forget that some fella working a sales pitch is a human being too. This awareness also arms you with defences against the onslaught of well honed sales techniques. Some of these guys have decades of experience that you do not possess, some are tooled up with the latest techniques, and most are operating under a reward scheme where one particular product delivers a far more rewarding incentive. To them, not you.

Trust Me I’m A Professional

I once wrote an article for a photography magazine about the process of shopping for a $1500 camera, using a simple of idea of testing what a typical retail outlet would advise. I walked into a Harvey Norman and was treated to one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. The experience was so bad I couldn’t publish most of what the guy said for fear of being sued. This salesman boasted about his professional credentials and proceeded to explain why everything I thought I knew about cameras was wrong.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him about my credentials. I kept wondering if this technique really works on people, and if so do they deserve everything they get?

I’ll leave it for you to mull over why such a “successful wedding photographer” would be working behind a counter at Harvey Norman on a Sunday arvo. I can also attest that his predictions on the death of certain camera brands has not eventuated. It took all my resolve not to point out the straight up lies in his sales pitch, else it would give the game away.

His advice was appalling and deceitful and I will never know what factors where in play inside his mind. Was he getting a massive commission for that brand of camera? Was his ex-wife brand manager for one of the other brands? Do his children mock him every night for having bits of food in his beard? Who can say. I just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible and avoid ever going back again.

There are a lot of reasons people shop online instead of in a store. Salesmen are one. There are two kinds of shoppers in this world, those who enjoy standing around listening to salesmen talk rubbish… and those who don’t. The retail industry is captivated by their apparent success with conversational techniques, without realising that half their potential market doesn’t even want to walk in the door.

Online retail simply offers a far better retail experience for many of us, one where we don’t have to be subjected to the silly games of salesmanship. Price and choice are also big wins for online retail, which is why Gerry Harvey is on the warpath. I’ll have a wild guess that he’s not worked out that not having to deal with his sales team is another big win for shoppers.

I’m happy to be sold to, but do not enjoy being ‘sold at’. Their game of “Let me sell you something that I need to sell” is at odds with my game of “I need this thing to solve a problem and then get home again”. I’ve lost track of how many salesmen I’ve caught out lying and thus ended the entire sales process.

Nailed It

One of the reasons Bunnings achieved the success they have is because us blokes who just want to browse a selection of ladders can do so without having to sit through a salesmen’s life story. We can walk in, pick an item and walk out again. Don’t even need to chitty chat at the cash register, just a smile and a nod and you’re on your way. If you do need advice, which is not uncommon at Bunnings, there’s usually someone around who definitely knows more than you and is NOT getting a salary dependent on what you buy. Their advice is typically worth listening to.

As a side note, Bunnings is also good at respecting the intelligence of women. This is a big challenge for most retail sectors, but Bunnings were smart enough to realise that the ladies are just as keen and capable to tool up and get handy. I regard this as basic respect for customers, but regrettably needs to be pointed out in our current society.

Last week I stepped in to Paddy Pallin to buy some trekking gear. My ground team in the Himalayas really like the stuff I come over with and had asked if I could pick up a few treats for them. Osprey is the brand, and they’ve lasted really well and have lots of great design features. I waited to see if the Boxing Day sales held any bonuses for me, but no.

I checked online and found I could save about $200 on my purchase if I order them online from Brisbane.

Think Local

I feel bad about the wasted resources to send a bag across the country when a store 300m away has what I want. I visited Paddy Pallin and asked if they price matched, and showed them the website on my phone. They said yes and I picked some colours and went through the strangely slow and convoluted procedure at the register. It seemed to take a long time to punch in codes and de-tag the bags. But then things got even slower.

The manager of the store was having a bad day, and had just finished a terse run in with a very unreasonable customer. Just as my payment was ready to go through the manager steps in and says they will only honour the price for the exact same colours on the competing website.

So we halt the transaction and I have to decide whether to give my buddies a green bag or a navy blue one. It’s a small thing, but we’d already been through it and the stipulation was not made at the time of shopping. It took another 20 minutes before I finally got out of the store. The summary of my experience was that I would have saved a LOT of time to buy it online. It also meant that when I went elsewhere the next day when I realised I also needed to buy a pile of trekking socks. It will likely be a while before Paddy is back on my route.

I understand their position, why should they offer a matching price if I can’t buy that particular colour online. Well I’ll tell you why. As a bricks and mortar retailer you would tell me that service is the difference, and that service is worth paying for. Having walked into the store, the value of that service was removed by insisting on excluding a particular colour. Paddy Pallin literally took away the ONE advantage they had to offer me, and wasted a tonne of my time. So why would I shop there now?

As the guy finished ringing up the bill he gave me a short monologue about the struggle for retail outlets to survive against online stores. He meant well. Liam was a nice fellow and genuinely helpful, and if not for his manager the day would have ended much better for all of us. I listened to his argument about online vs retail and then asked him, “So do you shop online?”

I think you know the answer to that.

Faster Horses

If we’re going to debate the merits of retail shopping we need to be very clear about what that experience is. There has to be a benefit. Some goods are best purchased in person when you can assess the value, style or fit for you. Many are not.

I have a hell of a time trying to find a store in Melbourne that sells any level of choice in professional CF card readers. In the absence of choice I shop online, and typically save money in the process. I certainly save effort and spare myself the odious task of having to entertain a salesman as he pedals out those tired old techniques and wearisome stories.

When the world started driving cars instead of riding horses there was an entire kind of job that ceased to exist. The men who were paid to shovel horse droppings off the roads had to go find another form of employment. The growth in online retail may also put an end to some blokes who spend all day shovelling horse droppings on their customers. So be it.

What I don’t want to hear is the owners of these retail outlets having a whinge about customers choosing to shop online, when they have failed to deliver the service a customer wants. This is how free markets work. Anyone who can genuinely listen to what their customers are asking for has a pretty good chance of succeeding.

This page was last updated on January 27, 2018


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