Like all Americans, I am an expert in things I really know very little about. My single experience with the retail biz (except as a customer) is that I was student store manager in my senior year of high school, the single least prestigious position in “student government” (one of my favorite oxymorons).
But I was a pretty good student store manager, and the main thing that I did right was that I was always there. I opened the store before school, at break, during lunch and after school. You could talk to me and ask questions and I was a human (and humane) presence in my little shop.
The grown-up retail world is in a bit of an uproar these days. JC Penney is suffering a steep decline as it attempts to find its niche in the marketplace. It’s not as high class as, say, Macys and not as inexpensive as Kohls, and nothing at all like Target.
JC Penney has been in this community for many years. A store opened in Garden Grove’s Orange County Plaza in the mid-Fifties and was an anchor for that mall until bigger stores took away a lot of its appeal and it closed in the Eighties, I believe.
There’s been a JC Penney in Westminster Mall for quite a while. They have always been nice, moderately-priced establishments that did a lot of things just right. But nothing stays the same.
The Internet has transformed much of the retail world. Amazon.com, for example, is seen as the principal cause in the decline of Best Buy. The notion is that people use Best Buy (which also has a store in Westminster Mall) as a showroom, then buy their electronics online for less money.
Big retailers like Target and Wal-Mart have expanded horizontally, and now you can buy everything from big screen TVs to swimsuits to peaches at a Target (two in Garden Grove, two in Westminster).
So why would I want to go to JC Penney? Or any of the traditional department stores? You walk in, and outside of the cosmetics area (overrun with people in white coats wanting to swab chemicals on your face) the floors are depopulated of staff. Maybe you’ll find a cashier and maybe you won’t.
As far as asking for help, good luck. “Do you carry such and such?” A blank look and then “What’s that?” Sometimes, in an imitation of assistance, a clueless worker bee will call over another helot, who will be similarly befuddled.
I might expect this at a discount department store where price and variety is the chief attraction, but not at an establishment struggling to create a memorable identity.
Here’s my fantasy. I walk into a JC Penney (for example) and I am greeted by someone who offers to help. “Men’s jackets? Right this way.” Instead of an indifferent wave “over there” I am escorted to an area where a knowledgable and friendly associate with some fashion sense offers useful and thoughtful advice.
Impossible? Something similar happens at the Apple store. They have dozens of employees ready to pounce when you walk in, and they are generally (but not always, I am sorry to say) smart and energetic. You get expert advice and they sell you lots of stuff. Apple stores are the most successful retail operation in the nation and their sales per square foot are through the roof, so to speak.
What it comes down to is the customer experience. It’s “boots on the ground,” in military-speak. High-tech innovations have their place, but it’s that old interpersonal contact that carries the day, even in the sale of high technology.
It’s ironic, but multi-billion dollar companies spend small fortunes on advertising and marketing, and are as cheap as Scrooge when it comes to staffing. They pay them dirt and their vetting and training are sloppy. Many is the time at a JC Penney store the cashier was dragged in from another department and could answer no questions other than store hours. Others spoke in such deeply-accented English I had to strain to understand, or make myself understood.
There is no substitute for attitude. Any business that thinks that friendliness and service are luxuries will eventually find itself alongside The Broadway, Montgomery Ward, Bullocks, Buffums, Ohrbachs and Mervyn’s in the retail trash heap.
Woody Allen once wrote that half of success in life is showing up. As I walk through some department stores, it’s clear which ones aren’t showing up. They’ll probably be the ones who don’t show up at all in 10 years.