It's Cyber Monday. Actually, if you've looked at the results for most online retailers lately, 2010 could be called CyberYear. More than ever, shoppers armed with their digital device of choice are turning online to research, compare and buy. Smarter shoppers mean that working in retail (never an easy job to begin with) has gotten harder. Unfortunately, I think that being a shopper has gotten harder as well. As someone who has spent plenty of time on both sides of the cash register, I understand the need to get customers to buy. I understand competitive forces and the impact of economic downturns. Here's how it's playing out for me as a shopper this holiday season.
In seemingly desperate acts to get my attention, retailers are bombarding me with catalogs, email, text alerts and yes, discount after discount. I have discount overload. I am numb to free shipping, 30% off of everything in the store, group coupons that give me some crazy amount of product for a fraction of the price, sales that only last one day, one hour. And please, don't make me get up at 3 am to get the discount. Sure, I like to save money as much as the next person, but personally, I think that retailers using all of the amazing new technologies and tools that we have to keep discounting products is a waste of the technology (not to mention margin). How about using the technology to be personal, relevant, magic and meaningful? I'd gladly pay full price for that. Here's a quick trip back in time to illustrate the point.
When I was about 25 years old, I was an assistant buyer at a department store. There was no internet (at least not one that the average human could use) and PCs had not made it into the mainstream workforce. If you were a shopper, stores and catalogs were it.
It was the holiday season, and I was exhausted. For three out of the four weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I, like everyone else in the buying office, was assigned "store duty". After putting in a long week at the office, I pulled myself out of bed early on Saturday morning, put on my dress and heels (this was, believe it or not back in the day when women were not allowed to wear pants on the selling floor!) and headed to the store to wait on the onslaught of customers doing their holiday shopping. Needless to say, such a schedule kind of put a cramp on my own holiday shopping. So, there I was, the weekend before Xmas, getting off of my selling floor shift at 5:30 and heading out to try to do some shopping of my own.
I walked into Nordstrom, figuring I might be able to find a scarf, earrings or something (anything!) for my mother. I was in my dress and heels. I was carrying my purse, briefcase, coat (it was brutally hot in the store) and 2 or 3 small bags from other stores that I had gathered in my desperate attempt to get my shopping done. The store was packed. I tried to wriggle my way up to the jewelry counter amid the sea of heads and elbows. I don't think I used the term "this sucks" back then, but I am sure I uttered something of equal sentiment.
Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and a handsome young man in a tuxedo smiled at me. "Would you like a shopping bag for some of your things?" he asked. He was carrying a dozen big, strong Nordstrom shopping bags on his arm. He held one open for me while I filled it with my coat, small bags and purse. He smiled again and wished me luck with my shopping. I stayed in the store for a couple of hours, and wound up doing much more shopping at Nordstrom than I had planned to, most of it at full price. Yes, of course, I am still a customer and probably always will be.
What I think is remarkable about this story is that I have remembered it for years. In a low cost, low tech way, I had a magical, personal moment. Someone in the store was watching me, seeing me struggle and reaching out to help me. When I shop in stores and online today, I keep looking for that kind of a moment again. Personal. Helpful. Relevant. Magical. I am impressed when store associates are aware of online offers, when I can scan a barcode in a store and do price comparisons, when e-commerce sites send me an email highlighting the item I just looked at, which is miraculously now on sale. I have no doubt that these tactics drive business and I know that they require some technical heavy lifting. But they don't excite me or make me loyal. I'll take the guy in the tux over a 20% discount any day.
What's your magic, your "guy in the tux" this year? Chances are, he's hiding under a pile of discounts, but he's what your customers really want.