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It’s that time of year again when everyone begins the traditional
“dreaming of a white Christmas.” Even in Southern California they try
to emulate the real thing by selling “realistic icicle lights” and
“flocked aluminum Christmas trees.” At the end of the 20th century
children have visions of Pokemon and Barbie dolls, computers and
mountain bikes, or videos and CDs, not visions of sugarplums.
Yet, we are nostalgic for the good “ole” days when life was slower and
Christmas was celebrated with a few handmade gifts and a stuffed goose
for dinner.

Time marches inexorably onward and children, as well as today’s
adults, have much higher expectations of what Santa will put under the
tree. It seems that Santa and all his helpers (the grandmothers,
grandfathers, uncles, aunts, and countless friends and neighbors) are
all willing to help and provide the gifts, but … there seems to be a
lack of willing, qualified, and enthusiastic help in the shops.

A Christmas shopping experience at a leading national bookstore in
Santa Barbara brought this lack of customer service to the fore again.
I covered this topic in July
after several bad family experiences. But it seems it doesn’t matter
whether you are on the East Coast (during a blazing heat wave) or the
West Coast (during the busiest shopping season of the year), no
customer service is fast becoming a tradition. Joyce Mann’s article for
Knight Ridder News Service entitled “A dearth of happy shoppers” made me
realize that our misadventures mirror the experience of many, many other
unhappy frustrated shoppers.

Upon entering the three story “super store” no personnel could be
found to help us discover the proper floor to shop for children’s books
and music, and after finally discovering the area in the basement, the
available stock was extremely meager. But the final straw was
checkout. A cheerful holiday purchase turned into a one-hour plus
“Scrooge had a point” experience. “Super store” became another
oxymoron.

Maybe that was why all the cashiers looked as if they were literally
having a bad hair day. It all started when one of them asked if I would
like my purchase gift-wrapped. Pleased with the opportunity to save
myself the gift-wrapping hassle, I, of course, said yes. My 5-minute
time-saver turned into a 20-minute wait for the gifts to be wrapped
twice — once with the price tags on, the second time without!

Yet nothing could top my daughter’s experience. She put her books on
the counter and then asked about gift certificates. The store offers a
clever gift certificate in various denominations that looks like a
credit/debit card. She purchased 5. As the clerk rang up the gift
cards, my daughter asked if they had stores near Pensacola, Fla., and
Fayetteville, N.C. The answer was no. Thinking to salvage the
gift cards, she then asked whether these gift cards could be used
online, since they were for her teenage nieces. The first answer was,
“I don’t know, let me check.” Ten agonizing minutes the answer came
back — an unequivocal, “we aren’t sure, but probably not.” That led to
a decision to return the gift cards.

That request sent the checkout clerk into a tailspin. “Nobody had
ever asked for a refund on a gift certificate.” Her neighboring cashier
quipped, “You CAN’T void a gift certificate.” Not knowing what to do,
she went in search of a manager. I guess it’s not in the cashier’s
training to use the telephone so conveniently located next to the
register. No, they must walk around a 5,000 square foot multi-level
retail store crowded with holiday shoppers on the weekend after
Thanksgiving to find a manager to tell them what it was the manager
failed to cover during temporary holiday cashier training.

Forty-five minutes into our checkout encounter my daughter suggested
that I wait in the store’s café and enjoy my free cappuccino coupon — a
holiday shopping bonus. I went over to the Café, presented the coupon
and 50 cents only to be told that the coupon I had just received was
only valid after Jan. 1, 2000. They must be counting on a Y2K failure
to avoid redeeming all those cappuccino coupons, for which they took a
tax credit this year before Y2K strikes.

Yet, it’s not only Christmas when Americans yearn for service.
According to Ms. Mann many retailers “have set up their service
providers for failure by not having the systems in place to create a
rewarding, fulfilling, shopping experience.” Thus we have come to have
lowly expectations when we go shopping.

Many people would gladly pay for full service, if they could truly
get full service, when they purchase gasoline and other products. The
reality is that full service takes more time than self-service. The gas
attendant, after filling your tank, has to run a couple hundred yards
back to the office to get the portable credit card machine, in order to
swipe the credit card you gave him when you first ordered the gas.

The brick and mortar retailers, who have benefited greatly from an
expanding economy, should acknowledge that customer service is their
Achilles heel. Why go to the store when everything is available with
the click of a mouse.

According to the Wall Street Journal the 170-store Saint Louis, Mo.,
Galleria has a new policy which prohibits any in-store signs that
“promote and encourage the purchase of merchandise via e-commerce.”
Although this prohibition is foolish and generally ignored, the mall
owners understand that the threat from e-commerce can affect their
bottom line.

So Santa’s new helper is e-commerce. A growing number of shoppers
would rather cope with the hassles of getting online to buy, than have
personal interactions with untrained cashiers, grumpy clerks and surly
managers. Retailers may think that the Internet is the Grinch that will
steal their Christmas profits, but it isn’t the Internet; it’s a lack of
attention to what every shopper wants: well-stocked stores, trained and
available sales help, and a cheerful environment.

Unless stores bring back super customer service, e-commerce will take
over bricks and mortar retailing. And our children and our
grandchildren will hear tales of the good “ole” days when we went
shopping in a “real store” with Christmas decorations and a Santa Claus
for the kids.

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