#shopping #bigbox #service
Being fifty-two I still remember the days when people bought typewriters. Doing the many chores that now can be handled on a phone required electric typewriters, answering machines, fax machines, and Dictaphones. The elite sales staff, who represented this type of equipment, wore suits. They marched with pride through the aisles because they knew that they were valuable employees. They could demonstrate every single feature of the various pieces of equipment with ease. They were treasured by their customers because they offered clever advice. Then came the days when all of us tackled our first computer and printer purchases in the late eighties – beginning nineties. We received great service then, too.
Today it is a whole new ball game. The other day, my printer went on strike. This particular unit, the HP Photosmart 5510, has an excellent photo scanner, which still works perfectly, only the actual printer does not. I decided to buy a small cheap printer and run it via wireless connection. I don't print a lot because favor paperless transactions. So I went online and checked a large office products retailer’s offerings. Then I called the closest store and asked to speak to the subject matter expert. I asked him a few questions, starting with whether they had the unit in stock and if he foresaw any problems for my plan to run both printers. Lastly, I told him that I would be getting into the car as soon as I hung up. I would arrive at the store in fifteen minutes. Was he going to be there in fifteen minutes or would he possibly be at lunch then? The reason why I asked was that I wanted to test what kind of service this store offered. It was 1:45 pm. He replied, he could not guarantee that he would be at the store in fifteen minutes, because his manager just “sent people for lunch”, there was no specific time frame. I asked him to be there; surely he could tell his manager that a customer, who might have some last minute questions, was on the way to purchase this printer. He said he would.
When twelve minutes later I arrived at the store he had gone to lunch. Coincidentally the lady who greeted me was the manager. She said he had never talked to her, and, I should just wait for thirty minutes. [Who has thirty minutes to wait around? Does this manager live and work in the same world as I do?]
Another employee volunteered to help. I asked him if everything I needed to install the printer was in the box. (I know that this sounds as if I ask strange questions but bad experiences have gotten me that far.) The clerk told me that, no, I would have to buy a certain cable to set up the printer. Surprisingly, that very minute the other employee returned from lunch early, carrying a paper bag from a fast-food restaurant. He too agreed that I needed the cable. Why had he not told me that when we spoke on the phone? I asked if we could open the box to check, but was told, no, we could not. When I was finally at home and installed the printer, it turned out that I did not need the cable. I will have to make a second trip to return it.
This was only the latest experience in a series of events with incompetent people at three different office supplies store chains.
A few days earlier, before I realized that my old printer did not work anymore, I went to a different chain of office supplies stores to buy an ink cartridge. Unfortunately I had forgotten to look up the ink cartridge’s number but I knew my printer’s model number. So I asked the sales person in this department to please look up that information. He checked in a thick folder and told me. [Would you believe that Hewlett Packard produces two printers with the number 5510, the Officejet 5510 and the Photosmart 5510? I wonder what they thought when they came up with this concept…. ]
Apparently neither did the sales clerk know of this fact. Looking at the cartridge box I questioned that the package seemed to look different than the ones I purchased in the past. The person who works in this department every day assured me that it was the right cartridge and that only the box had been changed. It turned out he was just saying … something… You guessed it – I had to make a second trip.
A few weeks prior to that event, an employee at yet another office supplies and printing services chain told me that he would have to charge me $5.00 for deleting one single line from a file for my new business cards. I suggested that he should reconsider; after all, the effort was no more than pointing a mouse at one line and clicking the delete button. This action which does not take longer than ten seconds could not possible cost almost as much as the hourly pay at minimum wage. When this employee did no reconsider charging the fee I reconsidered the purchase and gave that approximately $160 print job to an online store. I saved 50% in the process.
In the recent past I also wanted to buy an armrest for my desk. Visiting the same store, where I had bought the wrong ink cartridge I asked an employee, if the store carried armrests. While I thought that this was as simple question it wasn’t - for the about 20-year old employee. He guided me to the furniture section of the store and began to search. Obviously, he had no idea what products his store carries, even though he spends eight hours per day on the premises. I think that is because these employees, who earn barely more than minimum wage don’t care what products they sell. Then again, why should they, at their pay rate?
Additionally, at the same store I had also ordered scans of oversized pictures 11x17”, on two different occasions. While the first time the employee saved the file correctly as a jpeg, the second time another employee simply saved it as a pdf. Obviously, this second “printing services expert” has no idea of the difference between these two types of files.
At my visit, when I exchanged the incorrect printer cartridge, I happened to see the store’s manager, who was cutting paper in the printing services section. (Is this store understaffed or was he trying to look busy because he really does not know what a manager is supposed to do?) When I tried to tell him that his employees needed better training because they neither knew what merchandise the store carries, nor could they look up correctly what printer cartridges belonged to which printers, he said, “Ah… aha… I am sorry.” He looked neither interested nor managerial. If anything, he looked a beaten man. No, I don’t shop there anymore, which is why I bought the printer at another store, which turned out to have equally bad service and a manager who thinks that buyers have time to wait around.
These five experiences played out at three different stores of three different office supplies chains over the course of five to six months.
The other day one of my friends told me of similar experiences. She too believes that the reason for this epidemic of incompetence lies in the fact that most of these employees get paid at a rate of $8.25 an hour. After swallowing a lot of anger she has now made it her mission to cheer up the poor, underpaid, and frustrated employees. My friend is a much more spiritual person than I am; she also studies yoga and Buddhism. It seems to help with these situations.
While all of us know that the level of service has fallen at pretty much every retail chain in the United States, office product stores are more vulnerable to elimination than others. When we purchase foods most of us like to see and smell the foods before we buy, when we purchase clothing most of us like to try it on, when we buy furniture most of us like to try it out, and so on. When we buy at these other types of retail stores selecting our purchases involves some kind of sensual experience, which is why we visit there in the first place.
In contrast, office supplies are always sealed in thick plastic wrapping or boxes (which according to the employees cannot be opened), thus there isn't really anything to try out or to touch. The only reason why many of us go to office supplies stores is because we need a certain product in a hurry or we’d like to get ADVICE… Right! Advice. I wonder if any of the managers or employees has ever considered that.
But, setting my own and my friend’s unpleasant experiences aside, there is a bigger danger to office supplies stores than the actions of people of our generation. The next generation of buyers has grown up with computers and printers. They buy online from their cell phones. While most of these young people cannot read a map and cannot find their way without a GPS, they already know everything about computers and cell phones.
To attract these and all customers shopping needs to be a sensual and exciting experience. The potential buyer needs to FEEL that employees want to sell him their exciting products like it happens at the Apple stores. If office supplies stores won’t manage to do that, sooner or later little niche businesses will. Big box office supplies stores will be history. I wonder how these corporations’ corporate and common stockholder see this. Do they ever shop at these places?
Multi award-winning author and life skills expert Gisela Hausmann is the author of 15 books. Born in Vienna Austria, she graduated with a masters degree in Arts of Film and Mass Media from the University of Vienna.