A few months ago at the Shop.org Annual Summit, I attended a session where e-commerce executives discussed the future of digital retailing. The conversation rode the waves of many intriguing topics, but for me, the most compelling moment of the session went something like this:
The moderator asked how big digital giants like Amazon are thought about in more traditional retail organizations; what strategies are retailers deploying to prevent losing market share to pure play leaders that offer price, speed and convenience? There was an awkward silence in the room. The silence itself said as much as the few participants in the room who spoke up to answer the question.
As this year's holiday season has unfolded, the importance of this topic has only intensified in the minds of retailers, as they watch customers scanning bar codes in their stores being rewarded to buy on Amazon instead, and as the Kindle Fire (design flaws and all) offers consumers an affordable device that integrates content and commerce.
I rely on Amazon for cat food, Kindle books, and a wide variety of "long tail" items that are too hard to find in the "real" world. But, there are things that Amazon can't do for me, despite the recommendation algorithms, the endless selection and the ease of buying with one click.
Last week, I was reminded of what makes great retailers truly great. My experience didn't take place online on my usual e-commerce shopping haunts, but in the brick and mortar world of a digitally savvy, customer focused multi-channel retailer. Here's the story:
It was Wednesday morning and I was in a rush. I was leaving on a 2pm flight for Europe to complete a client assignment. I've been a business traveler nearly all of my working life, but I have yet to master the art of truly being prepared for a trip. Always the last minute thing to buy or pack, the long mental list of things I need to remember (passport, converter, adapter, power cords, eyeglasses, International data plan, instructions for pet sitter and on and on and on). So, as usual, I was in my stressed frenzy, running out to take care of my last minute errands before leaving for the airport.
As I hurried to cross the street, I felt a snap. It was sound no woman ever wants to hear: the death of my black tote bag. The handle had popped off of the bag, leaving me with a useless sack of leather. Any female business traveler out there knows the critical importance of the black tote bag. It serves as both your briefcase AND your purse on business trips so that you can still carry on your suitcase. It holds your laptop and work in addition to the usual wallet, cosmetics, phone, power bar and keys. There's no point in even discussing the possibility of making a trip without it.
With less than an hour before needing to leave for the airport, I cast all decorum aside and simply went into a panic. Luckily, I was a block away from Nordstrom, one of the better places to have a meltdown. I rushed into the store and walked a blue streak to the handbag department on the first floor.
Hyperventilating, I went to a fixture and opened the first tote bag I saw. Too small. Ugly too, but I can't be picky. I went to the next fixture and reached for another bag. Then I heard a voice. A woman pulling a cart full of handbags called to me and said "You need a new tote bag and you're in a panic!"
I looked up. I showed her the amputated handle of my tote bag, and in between frantic breaths I blurted out something about the bag falling apart and needing to leave for the airport. She smiled confidently. "Ok, no problem. Let me put this cart away and we'll get you a new bag. I'm going to credit you for the one that broke and we'll get you into something that will work. Just breathe. Be glad that this happened now instead of while you were on your trip. You might want to look at these two bags to start, but I'll be back in just a minute to help."
She was good on her word. We looked at every tote bag on the floor. She was able to quickly point out every feature of each bag (inside pocket here, secure zip closure there). While I looked at one bag, she brought me another. I was like a choreographed dance. We settled on the best solution and she whisked me to the register. She looked at my broken bag. "You bought that here maybe 3 or 4 months ago, right?" I said I couldn't remember, but that was probably about right. She looked up my account at the register and immediately located the purchase of the old bag, giving me full credit. I moved my belongings into the new bag right there at the wrap desk, scraps of paper, half eaten power bar and all. As we were finishing the purchase she said. "I could just tell by the look on your face that you were in trouble. Hopefully now you'll be able to have a great trip." I thanked her (I really wanted to hug her but held back) and walked out of the store, honestly a bit wobbly from the experience. I thought, "What just happened here…?"
Well, now that I've had a week to reflect on it, I'll tell you what happened.
- I had the good fortune of having a merchandise crisis a block away from one of the best, if not the best service retailers around
- Within seconds of my arrival in the store, an amazing sales associate tuned in to my needs and without even asking, knew intuitively exactly how to solve my problem. She stepped in to help without waiting for me to find her.
- She knew her product. She could tell me the price and features of every bag without missing a beat. She asked me questions about features and styling and immediately helped me zero in on the right options.
- She had the technology at her fingertips to look up my old purchase and credit me on the spot, and she had the benefit of a service policy that allowed her to process the return, no questions asked, no manager sign off. Note that I never asked for or expected a refund. It just happened.
- Not only was I sold a great bag, I felt genuinely and personally cared for during the experience. This was truly retail therapy.
- I walked out of the store in about 15 minutes with a beautiful bag, a normal breathing pattern and a smile on my face.
Keep in mind that all of this happened during the holiday season, when the store was busy and both customers and sales associates are taxed.
For those of you multi-channel retailers out there, ask yourselves: can your organization do that? If you're worried about the battle for shoppers' attention and the aggressive actions of Amazon, think about this:
While I will likely always be an Amazon shopper for some things, Amazon can't do for me what Nordstrom did for me that day. They may personalize the site, but they can't know what I need by looking at my face or reading my emotions. Despite Amazon's stellar self service, in this case it's no substitute for the real deal; of a person who really listens and knows their stuff. Technology, while not at the center of the experience, beautifully enabled the person helping me to do her job efficiently and process my return seamlessly. Amazon delivers fast and is getting faster all the time, but 15 minute delivery with the kind of experience I had isn't in their reach.
The holiday shopping season is almost over. For most e-commerce sites, the final hours of shipping deadlines are on rapid approach. For those of you in brick and mortar, your stockrooms are emptying and likely so are your personal energy reserves. It's time to refuel and gear up for 2012. Based on my experience last week, my holiday wish this year for all retailers, large and small, online and multi-channel is that you will each find your own ways to bring unique magic and joy into the shopping experience of your customers. Yes, Virginia, there is a Nordstrom. May their magic inspire retail greatness everywhere.