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Retail in Crisis: Target, Office Depot In-Store Experiences a Disaster

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As a staunch defender of stores and local buying I was shocked by two really dismal, back to back retail experiences I had this past weekend. I had to do some quick back to school shopping for school supplies and sweatpants for my younger daughter.

Admittedly the stores were busy and the employees might have felt somewhat overwhelmed. However, both stores were a mess and employees — this is the critical part — were both ignorant of their own inventory and lacked any real motivation to help. Their indifference to customer service was striking.

In Office Depot, when asked where index card holders were, one employee pointed across the store over his head, muttered “over there” and walked away. He was incorrect about the location. In Target, after I asked where I might find girls’ sweatpants (I had not been able to find them myself), the sales associate said she wasn’t sure and if it wasn’t where I had already looked then they probably didn’t carry them.

One of her co-workers came up to her at that point and immediately turned her attention to some internal discussion. I subsequently found what I was looking for on my own.

While I may sound curmudgeonly, these in-store experiences matter to the survival of these chains. While Target isn’t going to go away any time soon, Office Depot is in a much more precarious position. Regardless, poor customer service from employees who have no real incentive to help and are poorly trained — the result of years of deskilling and downgrading retail jobs — will send me to Amazon every time.

The only thing, in an increasing number of cases, keeping me from shopping at Amazon is the need for something today or the next day in this case. (In fairness to Target, they are trying to innovate with curbside pickup and delivery. They’re also one of the few retailers that has any app adoption.)

Another issue is inventory availability. Despite Google product feeds and PLAs it’s often too difficult to find out whether a nearby store has a desired item. My contention is: if more local store inventory were online there would be more shopping in local stores. Many stores have resisted this for multiple reasons. Another reason people shop at Amazon is that they have confidence that the item will be available.

Overall, it’s becoming more difficult to contemplate finding an item and buying locally:

  • What stores might carry it?
  • If I call the store will someone actually help me and confirm the item?
  • Do I want to “drive down there” and fight the parking and crowds?

On the flip side, I recently purchased some large furniture items online for the first time and it was not a good experience. So there are still categories of products that one must look at, touch or sit on before buying. But those categories are shrinking.

The retail industry is not unlike the newspaper industry, which watched its own slow-motion destruction over more than a decade without acting sufficiently aggressively. Retail stores have inherent advantages over online sellers that most are squandering by not upgrading the store experience, providing better service and fully utilizing technology.

At the Place Conference we’ll have a session called “After the Apocalypse: The Future of Retail,” which will explore what it will take for traditional retailers to succeed in a next-gen shopping environment. Explore the agenda here

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