Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hey, Retailers!: Ace is the Place with the Annoying Hardware Man

Am I the only one who gets annoyed and stressed at over-helpful shop clerks? Because to "serve me better," these guys are making me freaking crazy... Today I actually snapped at a clerk at the local Ace Hardware store. I felt bad about it. They were trying to help, and simply, I'm sure, acting on the training and dictates of management, but they were still part of a vast conspiracy to drive me insane. After becoming the third person to ask if I needed help in about 45 seconds of walking across the store, I simply lashed out. Sorry 'bout that...

I live in a small town where, if you want hardware, the main choices are one of the two locations of the local Ace Hardware, or driving 50 miles or more to get to a Lowes or Home Depot. (There's actually another small chain store in town, but their in-stock selections are limited, and they cater more to contractors and builders than do-it-yourselvers like me.)

That's actually not a complaint. I actually really LIKE our local Ace franchise. They have most of what I need, the people generally know their stuff, and while the prices don't always match the big-box stores, they generally aren't bad. What I DON'T like is being stalked by sales clerks from the moment I walk in the door. It's a stupid policy, bad customer service (though in an an unusual form) and bad business.

At this point you may be asking yourself, "Steve, if you find the employees to be knowledgeable and helpful, why is this a problem? How can it possibly be bad customer service? How can it be a bad way to do business?"

Okay, here are a few points for those of you in the retail world.

1. There's a fine line between friendly and cloying. I love that there are friendly people at my hardware store. Local people, who smile and greet me, and sometimes know me by name. That's great. But I don't need them in my hip pocket every moment I'm in the store.

Greet me at the door. This makes me feel good, and makes me welcome in your store. This is also a the BEST time to see if I want help. Even if I don't you can then assure me that your employees are there to help at any time if I need it. Ask me once. I really don't need to be asked by EVERY employee in the store.

After that, be aware that I'm there, and look to see if I seem in serious need of help, or especially if I'm trying to FIND someone to help But don't loom. Give me some space and the quiet to figure out what I'm looking for and what my needs are, or (SHOCK!) just to SHOP. Plus, as annoying as your people can be, Murphy's law still applies. When I REALLY have a question or need help finding something, that's inevitably when nobody is around. They're all busy pestering other customers...

2. Don't make me unwelcome in your store through excessive attention. Come on, you know what I mean here. I worked in retail once upon a time, and the customer that ALWAYS got tons of help was the one you were suspicious of. The troublesome-looking kid off the street. The person who had had a little too much chemical self-alteration and seemed to have just stumbled into the store. The nervous potential shoplifter with the giant backpack.

When employees start attaching themselves to me like lampreys, it sends a subtle message, "take care of your business so we can get you out of here." The more welcome I feel in your store, the more I'm going to be happy and in the mood to buy. The more time I spend in your store, the more likely I am to think of something else I need, discover something I didn't KNOW I need, or make an impulse purchase. Don't hold me up, but for goodness sake, don't rush me out the door either...

3. I am, like millions, possibly billions, of other Americans, an introvert. I am not, by nature or personalty, a people person. It doesn't mean I don't LIKE people, but it does mean I like my alone time and the company of my own thoughts. It also means that social contact, especially with strangers, creates stress and discomfort.

This is a minor thing, but very time one of your "helpful" employees tracks me down and insists on an exchange I don't want, the stress multiplies. Times are, I literally emerge from the hardware store, my jaw clenched from stress, feeling like I've been through the wringer.

Many of your customers simply DON'T go to the hardware store for the chit-chat and the social interaction. Some, sure, but not all...

Worse, the more persistent and inquisitive you train your employees to be, the worse this situation is.

Train your people to take "no" for an answer. Better, train them to take a HINT of a "no" for an answer. If the customer has clearly heard you and still isn't making eye-contact, isn't talking back, isn't engaging the clerk, then that's a good time to say, "I'll be over that way if you need anything," and move along.

4. Despite what you may think, no matter how well you train your people, no matter how good they are, YOU CAN"T HELP EVERYONE.

Oh, sure, you can help most people. Most people have common, household, problems. They need to put up a mailbox, fix a leaky faucet, or replace an electrical outlet. Your employees can take those people to exactly the thing they need and show them what to buy and how to use it. Good on you.

But there are other kinds of customers that aren't so easy to pigeon-hole, and who are really more inclined to help themselves.

First of all, it's a new world these days. The building/remodeling boom is over for the moment, and there's a growing movement of people who make, repair, and build things on their own. These people could be building a windmill, or a rain-barrel, or converting an old shopping cart into a go-cart. You just can't know. All you can know is that there is no "Shopping cart upgrade" section in your store. They may need some lawnmower parts from your garden section, some screws from hardware, a piece of metal conduit from electrical, a muffler-clamp from automotive, and some plastic pipe from plumbing.

Likewise, there are other people shopping in hardware stores for the most unlikely stuff for the most unlikely reasons. They could be crafters, artists, hobbyists, kite-builders, boat-builders, redecorators, toy-builders, amateur-theater set-builders, and a million other things. I build 1/6th scale sets and props to use in my "Minions at Work" photo web-cartoons. We don't care what things are intended to be used for. We're in your store to buy conventional materials for unconventional purposes.

These customers care about what things look like, are shaped like, how they move or fit together, not what their common application is. These folks are into form, not intended function. Your employees are rightfully trained to deal in function, not form, to best help the majority of customers. But for this potentially signification (and possibly growing) minority, they'll just slow them down and get in the way. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to have a persistent clerk insist on my explaining my needs. Only when I do, at length, they simply stare at you slack-jawed, unable to comprehend, or worse, they're scornful or dismissive. "You're building WHAT!?"

I move along only to be intercepted by another sales-person 60 seconds later. Thank you for your support.

5. I don't always KNOW what I'm looking for.

No, you can't always help with that either. Sure, if it's a common job like fixing a lamp or patching a garden hose. But for a moment, refer back to point 4. If I"m one of these "off the map" customers, I may have a good idea of what I WANT to do and what I HOPE to find, but it's really an open problem to be solved in the confines of your store. I need to wander through a bunch of departments and figure out what I need.

For example, maybe I need to make two linear supports and connect them at right angles. Maybe the supports can be wood, or plastic, or metal. Maybe they'll be plastic pipe, or angle-iron, or wooden-dowel, or 2x2 lumber, or electrical conduit, or threaded rod. Maybe they can connect with some kind of bracket, or a bolt, or screw, or a connector junction, or a nail, or a clamp, or glue, or even tape.

Probably there are a dozen or more solutions to this problem in your store, so I'm going to look for the one that is the best and cheapest. Your employees probably can't help here. Back off, and let me figure it out for myself. Yes, I'm wandering aimlessly looking like I can't find what I want. IT'S BECAUSE I HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I WANT! DON'T ASK! I'LL KNOW IT WHEN I SEE IT!

And look, this applies even to customers with more conventional needs. Often I'll walk into your store with the vague idea that I need something. I know I'd run into one of those common household problems the other day. "I should fix that," I said to myself. I remember that much, but not the details. Was it something to do with electrical? Plumbing? A sticky window? If I wander for a bit, maybe I'll spot it, or at least something that reminds me of what I needed to fix.

Even if I do know the primary thing I'm after, I'm a home-owner, and at any given moment, there are a HUNDRED things that need fixing. Just give me some time, I'll think of the ones bugging me most and make some more purchases. Stop derailing my train of thought every time I get close.

Worse, don't frustrate me to the point that I leave your store before I've figured it out. I'm GOOD at procrastination. I don't need any help.

6. Shopping is not a crime.

I know, this is crazy talk. Easy in, easy out is your motto.

But if infomercials have taught us anything, its that we can't buy what we don't know exists. I know for a fact they your buyers spend lots of time looking for nifty and clever new products to stock your shelves with. Trouble is, I don't KNOW what you have in your store unless I see it. And I'm going to let you in on a secret: often neither do your employees.

I've got a specific example: I was in my local Ace Hardware one day on a totally unrelated mission when I wandered past a rack of light bulbs. There, I was excited to spot a couple pegs of LED light bulbs. Now, I knew LED light bulbs existed, and I was excited about the prospect of the technology. After all, they last a very long time, and make even the most efficient compact florescent look like a power hog. But last I knew, they were still expensive specialty items, costing $50 and up a bulb.

But here they were, in a local store, and priced at under $10 a bulb! And according to the packaging, I could well save over $100 on power over the life of the bulb. So I grabbed a couple to try out. A clerk stopped me to ask if I'd tried them, and how they worked. So did the person at the register.

So, it turns out the LED bulbs work well in the application I have for them (lighting my large office/studio) and I go back frequently over the following weeks to buy more, replacing old bulbs as they burn out. Over and over, the folks at the checkout are amazed. The clerks ask questions (which I really mind FAR less then the unwanted "can I help you find something" queries). I bought another one today, and the person at the register commented on how strange it looked, clearly never having encountered one before.

I've spent about $100 on these bulbs so far, money I'd NEVER have spent if I'd waited for an employee to direct me to the product. Heck, I'd never have thought to ask the question, even though I knew that the product existed (though not at that price). I found the product by SHOPPING. Let people browse your store freely, and they'll gladly spend money they never would have otherwise.

And fact is, some of us, even men, like to shop. The old hunter-gatherer instincts are still strong. We like tracking down the rare and elusive prey. That works strongly to the retailer's advantage, if they'll just let it.

That's my rant. I'm not going to stop shopping at my local Ace Hardware (not that I have a lot of choice). But I know I'd spend MORE there if they'd just back off and let me shop.

"Can I help you?" I think I just did...


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