Adventures in Retail Tedium
I usually try to avoid shopping retail for a long list of reasons. The prices offend me, the crowds annoy me, the selection overwhelms me, and often the quality disappoints me. A few days ago, however, I was forced by chance and time constraints to venture inside a large retail clothing chain — and that’s when the fun began. Allow me an Andy Rooney moment to tell you all about it.
First, some retailing think tank was obviously paid big bucks to figure out that sales increase .000214% when customers are greeted at the door. So, Clerk A greets me initially, Clerk B shortly follows suit, and Clerk C (not to be a policy-breaker) greets me a bit later. I know it’s a forced greeting. They know it’s a forced greeting. It smacks of compulsory cheer, and it annoys me beyond words. (See also: Seven Lessons Learned from Working Retail)
After the onslaught of chipper hellos, I notice next the loud dance music. I can only guess that the catchy techno-beats are played to encourage me to dance in the hopes that it may dislodge my wallet or induce a trance-like state where I begin to believe that paying $59 for a cotton oxford shirt is entirely reasonable. I dance my way through the rustic decor and elaborate signage — carefully designed to give the impression that the jeans and sweaters manufactured in Macau are actually handmade by happy artisans in rural Vermont.
Eventually I make my way to the counter to pay (or rather, over-pay) for my item. Since I’ve now been greeted three times, the staff and I are practically old friends and the clerk asks me if I’d like to save 15% by signing up for store credit card. I imagine this pitch works more often than not (how can one resist the logic behind a one-time 15% discount for the privilege of charging future items at a permanent 21% interest rate?). I decline with slightly clenched teeth, but a surprisingly upbeat tone.
But the checkout script has only just begun — there’s still the matter of the latest cause-marketing promotion. Would I like to round up my purchase and donate the extra dollars and cents to Cause X? Again, I decline. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for supporting charitable causes, but I always wonder exactly what financial role the store plays in this promotion. And is it absolutely necessary to make every commercial transaction an occasion for a charitable request too?
The checkout script continues. Next the clerk explains that the survey link printed on the receipt provides me with a chance to give my valuable customer feedback online and potentially win a free gift (and I thought I was just coming in to buy a shirt!). A squadron of greeters, dance music, discounts, and now a prize — is this heaven, or is this an inescapable retail play loop that makes the nearest exit vanish down a long film-noir tunnel of doom? I dutifully acknowledge the survey opportunity with the hope that I will be allowed to leave quite soon.
Still, there’s one last detail on the retailer’s script that is the ridiculous cherry on the absurd sundae. It’s the question that must be asked. It’s the question that makes "paper or plastic?" seem nearly existential in comparison: Do I want the receipt with me or in the bag? I’ve always wanted to answer this question by asking one of my own: Won’t the bag be with me, and therefore, by default, the receipt will be with me too? I wonder what kind of record-keeping calamity might be wrought if my receipt ended up in the bag when I had expected it with me, or vice-versa.
It should have been simple: All I really wanted was to trade cash for a shirt. Yet I continued through the retail obstacle course, scaling figurative walls, zip-lining over mud puddles, running like mad on a floating log — and all for a prize of questionable worth. Why do we reward companies that create artificial complexity around what should the clearest and simplest of transactions?
I realize that this entire performance is designed to cultivate a retail "experience" — to commodify interaction with the goal of increasing sales. But what does this approach suggest about the merchandise itself? If items are well-constructed, reasonably classic or well-designed, and priced fairly, would we need five or six canned interactions to support the purchase of a pair of chinos or fleece pullover? Or could we be left to our own devices and would our better consumer be allowed to shine through?