Do You Want My Money: A Tale of Two Stores

I make my living from the results of software I’ve written. I have two LCD monitors in front of me and, when I’m working, am often logged into 3-4 computers that could be in different locations in the city or state. When I lose my Internet connection, often I have to stop working. Even if I’m on only my workstation computer, I still need the Internet for reference and other uses. Make no mistake about it: I am a true computer and network geek. On the other hand, I held out for years, avoiding Amazon and eBay. Why? I’d rather support the merchants locally. At one point I had a part time job I loved in a small retail store. I didn’t need the money, but I liked the book store, liked their attitude, and liked helping both the store and the customers. They opened a new branch store in a mall not far from me. Once I was helping two women with a lot of questions and recommending the appropriate books for each question they had. Then I said something about one being discounted. One woman said, “Oh, we wouldn’t get it here. We’d get it on Amazon.” To this day I regret that I didn’t say, “Then see if Amazon is here to help you and patiently answer all your questions in six months. If we’re gone then and you have questions, you’ll know it’s because people bought from them and not us.” I didn’t say it because I didn’t want to prejudice their view of a store I believed in and I didn’t want to hurt the reputation of the owners. Interestingly enough, within six months, that branch store was closed due to lack of sales.

So why would I, a strong supporter of local stores, come within an inch of saying to someone in a store, “That’s okay. I’ll get it on Amazon?”

When I was a teen, my second job was working at a local grocery store named Ukrops. I learned a lot about business by watching how the store worked. While I still think, as an adult 3 years (okay, stop laughing and stop adding a zero to that three!) later, that the manager of that store had some issues and did make work harder for some of us than necessary, overall, I learned how to treat customers and employees. The store closed at 9:00 P.M. That meant at 9:00, we’d lock the door. Then one of the managers would step over to one of the intercom phones at all the cash registers and page the store and say, “Joe, turn off the lights.” I saw them do it even if Joe or Bob or whoever they paged was only 3 feet from them. However, nothing was ever said to a single customer about us closing the store. Joe (or Jeff or me or anyone else) would go around and turn off the lights in the coolers and freezers, but the overhead lights were left on. Most lights were still on. If customers asked for help, we helped them. Then we’d get a customer count and they’d keep only as many cashiers and courtesy clerks (the polite job title for grocery baggers who also carried the groceries to the customer’s car) as needed. I remember waiting over 20 minutes on some nights for customers to finish up and check out before I could take their groceries to their car. One friend told me he waited 45 minutes one night.

It didn’t matter how long we had to wait, we were patient. We didn’t complain. We helped the customer. There was a woman who would show up at 8:55 three or four nights a week and rush in and would often finish about 9:10 that night. We called her the “Nine O’Clock Lady.” It wasn’t a mean name. The Front End Manager might say, “Hal, get a customer count,” and I’d come back and say, “Just the Nine O’Clock Lady.” He’d roll his eyes, as if to say, “I should’ve known!” and dismiss all but one cashier and courtesy clerk. One rare night she bought enough that she wanted me to carry her bag out for her (she usually only bought a few items). We chatted and she told me she was a nurse in home health care and she worked with a woman at her home and could never leave before about 8:45. The reason she was in so many evenings at 8:55 was because she was on a long shift and that was as soon as she could get there. She didn’t want to keep us late, so she didn’t want to pick up much at a time.

We just never know what is going on in someone else’s life and Ukrops made life much easier for this woman by staying open and not kicking her out of the store at 9:00 each night. If we were more aware, and if I, or any other courtesy clerk she had talked to, had thought about it, we might have made sure that we were expecting her one night a week so she could shop without rushing.

Tonight I was at a dance party. (I’m taking ballroom dancing lessons and on Friday nights the ballroom dance studios usually have a party for their students to enjoy.) At one point they played a song for the Viennese Waltz. I had never heard this song before and thought it was beautiful. I asked the studio owner the name of the song and she showed it to me on the CD. (For reference, it was written as “Once Upon a Dezember”, but I found it spelled with the normal American spelling for December on the soundtrack for the animated “Anastasia.”) When I left, it was 10:45 and I headed straight to Barnes and Noble, which closed at 11:00. Personally, I strongly prefer Boarders Books and Music, since they have a much broader selection. I think Barnes and Noble has a nice atmosphere, but their selection is quite limited, more like the “Top 40” than an in depth selection for a broad range of book and music lovers. I also tend to prefer the smaller, local stores over chain stores. Still, I don’t hate Barnes and Noble and buy a lot from them.

I got there about 5 minutes before closing and told the clerk in the music section I had heard of a song, what the title was, and could we find it? We thought it was on a Disney CD (I only found out which movie it was from later). I was looking and he helped, but their search system is limited. If you search for “December” in a title, it only looks at the start of the title. It won’t match a title that ends with December or has it in the middle. (From a programming point of view, this is easy to deal with and it’s hard to see how anyone but an idiot would overlook this.) We were looking when the announcement came out over the intercom: “It is 11:00 clock and Barnes and Noble is now closed.” We were still searching and I had started looking for “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to see if I could find it on an album since their search system was crippled. The clerk was back behind the counter and he called out, “Sir, We’re closed.”

I almost hit the ceiling! I didn’t say anything, but I was shocked. Anywhere I’ve worked, you don’t just kick out a customer you’re helping at closing time. You try to finish up with them, but he said I could come back tomorrow. I left, came home, and found the song with 1 search on Google, then got the album on Amazon immediately.

Any wonder why I’m not going to bother going back to Barnes and Noble tomorrow to see if they have the album in stock? They had me in the store and could have had my cash in their pocket, but the clerk said to come back the next day. I’m not going back. I will call the store and ask the manager if it’s their policy to finish helping customers at closing or to shut off the register immediately and tell the customer to go home when it’s possible to make the sale rather quickly. I don’t care what their answer is, since their attitude has already told me just how much they wanted to make the sale. If I don’t order this from Amazon, I won’t buy it from Barnes and Noble. Would you?

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3 Responses to Do You Want My Money: A Tale of Two Stores

  1. Dig says:

    Hal,

    I have given my life (to date) to the wonderful world of retail. There are a variety of reasons, some not so good, for the counter clerk’s action. It starts from the top, usually. If management promotes customer service, as in your Ukrops experience, you would never have heard that comment. Even the most C. S. oriented business may have that cranky, impolitic person who just wants to go home and doesn’t care who gets offended. That was most likely the case in your experience at Barnes and Noble.

    Currently, my practice is to lock the doors and offer direct C. S. assistance to any remaining customers. After 15 minutes, I will dim some lights. We do try to move them out ASAP not just because we want to clean up and go. Most retail related murders occur after hours when the doors have been locked. We do not let customers in once the doors are locked (the numbers REALLY go up then, remember Starbucks in DC back in the 90’s?) and I am vigilant regarding those who we have now locked in with us.

    I would suggest letting the management know of your experience without attacking them. We (unfortunately) get defensive very quickly since 90% of our discussions with customers tend to be problem resolution. It’s a natural instinct that I still fight to suppress after all these years. Give them a chance to make it right. That person may be someone they need to know about and administer discipline. You could be supplying the final bit of information that allows them to terminate that person’s employment (not always an easy thing) and take a step forward in their customer service.

  2. hal says:

    Dig,

    Actually, my intent was to wait until Monday, during the day, when the main manager would likely be in the store, but I ran into a programming issue with my work so I haven’t been able to do that. After a number of incidents, I think I’ll finally be in that area today when I can go out and will likely go by and tell the manager in person. I’ll post what happens.

    Over all, I agree very much with you about how you do business. In my experience, most people know when a store closes and don’t want to be in there late, so most of the time if they’re in the store at closing, they need help deciding or in getting more info on a product. There’s a big difference between helping them and trying to get them out and just booting them out!

  3. Angie says:

    Hi Hal,
    I “met” you online right before your father passed away. I just wanted to say hi and that I hope you’re doing well and for some weird reason thought about you recently.

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