Andrij Brygidyr and I are practically strangers, but we’re acting as if we’re anything but. He’s a mystery shopper trained to evaluate retail performance, and I’m a writer visiting 14 Toronto-area stores with him during the back-to-school rush to report on the state of customer service. As we finger forks and soup ladles at a William Ashley outlet, we pretend to be an engaged couple stocking up for our new life together.
Soon after we step onto the high-end dinnerware store’s rich carpet, we’re greeted by a “mature” salesperson (let’s call her 60) whose appraising ice-blue eyes match the colour of her sweater vest. She inquires delicately as to the nature of our visit, and Andrij and I exchange puppydog glances. We want to build our bridal registry, we tell her, but have no idea where to begin.
At first, our retail guide is patient. She is kind. She is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. But after several minutes — during which my beloved and I reveal that we can’t even distinguish Savoy Silverplate from Yamazaki Stainless — she grows weary. By the time we ask about the dishwasher safety of the Kate Spade bone china (in June Lane gold; 40 pieces for $1,377.50), her sweater-vest eyes have glazed over, and she barely entertains our playful request to see “the most expensive set you carry.” We’re clearly not the serious, big-ticket shoppers she deems worthy of her time. The details of setting up a registry, she says sweetly, are in the catalogue. She hands us one and turns on her heel.
And, with that, my “fiancÃ©” and I are left at the altar.
So, too, are millions of other Canadians on a regular basis. Far too many shopping experiences in this country fail to end happily ever after — or even start that way. In our stroll through the retail aisles, we found that customer service ranging from mediocre to godawful is rampant. Happily, that wasn’t the whole story. We also experienced superb customer service that any retailer — and owners of non-retail businesses, too — would do well to emulate.
Brygidyr, president of Toronto-based A&A Merchandising Ltd., has years of experience identifying best and worst practices for his retail clients. His field force of 800 secret shoppers pose as customers to surreptitiously gauge retail employees’ service skills, product knowledge and compliance with corporate strategies. (A&A also manages in-store demonstrations, merchandising and incentive programs, as well as designing and producing point-of-sale displays.) Its customer-service checklist rates in-store staff on essentials such as an initial greeting, eye contact, a “positive acknowledgement” of any delays a patron has suffered and an invitation to shop there again.
Canadian retailers are getting better at merchandising and at providing information in-store to help shoppers make buying decisions, says Brygidyr. Where most of them haven’t improved is in training salespeople in areas such as product knowledge that matter to customers, or in how to determine and understand customer needs. And Brygidyr says many retail staff are no longer really salespeople, but clerks and order takers with little or no training: “Does anybody really want to be stalked in-store and told the obvious?”
Still, many retailers do understand the critical role that customer service plays in making a sale. “It’s an agreement,” says Brygidyr, of the give and take that is decent service on the one hand and a decision to buy on the other. “You give me this and I’ll give you that.” Brygidyr and I, as it turns out, have much to give as we swim in a sea of back-to-school shoppers in late August. How well retailers are holding up their end of the bargain is yet to be determined.
What went wrong at William Ashley?
Admittedly, we weren’t the sort of customers to make a salesperson’s day. But Brygidyr says that’s no excuse. He says the rep should have “qualified us,” determining whether we were serious shoppers rather than simply assuming that we weren’t: “If I were the store owner, I would have liked to have seen the person find out more about our needs and when we were planning to buy, before moving on to another customer.” The rep’s failure to do so is reflected in the store’s low mark on PROFIT’s Retail Report Card.