Retail Challenges

I have long enjoyed shopping, but not lately. And the use of the word “shopping” is intentional. By shopping, I do not necessarily mean buying. Shopping has been an outlet for me. I used to enjoy shopping for hours and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Perhaps it was the variety of goods. Or it could have been the beauty of the items or how they were arranged or displayed. Or the enjoyment may have been just losing myself in the stores, without having to do anything but enjoy the experience. If I was looking for something in particular and I found it, the shopping could have culminated in a purchase. But it did not have to for me to enjoy the experience. But not lately.

As one who has long advocated for customer service, speaking and writing about it, this is not the first time I have noted deficiencies in customer service. But things may be worse now. I am noticing a definitive lack of the basics of customer service. I think it may relate to COVID and the staffing shortages as a result of all of the challenges COVID fraught in retail. I wonder how long we will be able to blame all of a business’ problems on COVID?

Since we are in a new home, shopping for some things has become a necessity, or if not a necessity, something that seems like a necessity. Since we left our trash cans in the house we sold, because they were a part of the cabinetry, purchasing new trash cans seemed like a necessity. And since we are in much smaller quarters than we left behind, and we have not scaled down all of our possessions, such as shoes and clothes, it has been necessary to buy some items to make the closets manageable. I know, a case can be made that if we culled the clothes and shoes, we might have avoided buying new bins, etc. But that was not the choice we made. So, shopping for some things has felt like a necessity.

While shopping, I noticed a lack of the basics of customer service. Staffing is insufficient. It is difficult to serve the customer when there isn’t enough staff. But I, and I think others as well, have been fairly tolerant of that. What I am not tolerant of is poor attitudes and lack of friendly service from those staff who are present. Two recent examples come to mind.

I was in a store several times recently for containers including shoe holders and trash cans. On each occasion, I had to lasso someone to help me, and there was an attitude on the part of the staff, and it was not a friendly attitude. I felt like I was an unwelcome interruption in the staff’s day, while I think the main reason the staff is present is to serve the customer. After experiencing this several times, I decided I had to say something. While checking out I said, “Your merchandise is not inexpensive, and I have made several purchases in the past few days. On each occasion, at least one staff person has been less than friendly, and some rude.” The response was not what one would hope for, which was an apology, or something said to turn around a bad experience. The response instead was “We do not have enough help.” While that may be true, the comment did not address the problem I was describing, which was an air of indifference or hostility of the staff that was present. I let it go at that, for I did not have any time to spend trying to help the store fix a problem management was allowing.

At another store recently I had an unfavorable customer experience. I went into a fabric store with just a few minutes to spare, to locate one item in particular. There was two staff busy rearranging displays. Neither spoke to me. They were more focused on what they were doing than serving a customer. I looked around for a few minutes, not bothering their work. After a few minutes, I asked if there was anyone who could help me. The man replied, “We are short-staffed today, and we have to finish rearranging these displays.” Translation, no one could help me. What they were doing was more important than serving the customer. So, I looked around some more, and after a few minutes, the man came over, reiterating that they were short-staffed, and asked what I needed. I told him what I was there for, and he directed me to the area I needed and went back to work on what he had been doing. I actually did find what I was looking for, made my purchase, and left. The feeling of not being served well by the staff left with me.

What is a customer to do, given the increasing lack of service? I have several thoughts about this, although none of them will solve retail’s problems. The solution for retail’s problem(s) is with management. That will be the subject of another blog.

We must be accepting of the lack of service, for it is everywhere. Otherwise, we could explode. This problem is not going to go away quickly. It is our current reality. While I do not like to have to admit it, our expectations for service are not going to be met soon, if at all. We may find we are living with this lack of service dynamic. 

While we are accepting, we need to give our business to those stores that serve us best. We need to reward the stores that do have friendly staff, who do have enough of them, by giving them as much of our business as we can. We should help those businesses stay in business.

We should speak up when it is warranted, yet do so in a kind manner. We should not turn a bad situation into one that is even worse by exhibiting negative or unfriendly behavior.

We should have more patience, allow more time for the shopping experience, and expect delays. If things take longer, and they do, we should manage our expectations and plan for them.

Perhaps we should shop less, which may compound retail’s problem. More stores will go out of business, and maybe they should. If something isn’t working, why keep doing it?

There is always online shopping. Amazon always seems to have enough help.

About Patti Fralix

Patti Fralix inspires positive change in work, life, and family through Speaking, Consulting, and Coaching in three specialty areas: Leadership, Managing Differences, and Customer Service. Her leadership firm, The Fralix Group, Inc., has been helping clients achieve practical and tangible results for twenty-two years.
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