Adventures in Retail Tedium

by Kentin Waits on 18 February 2011 13 comments
Photo: JenCon

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?

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Guest's picture
Lilly

Oh, so totally agree, but you have left out the one most literally irritating, and possibly health hazard of all, if not for the glassy eyed patron who so bravely puts himself/herself in harms way and to the poor employee to endure. The frequent and volatile odor of the branded aroma that fogs the place to the point that my daughter and I make a plan on how to get in and out as to not send us into an allergic episode. I actually ran in yesterday to return an item I had ordered online (additional plus point in doing this-minus headache induced smell-o-purchase experience) and actually witnessed the cashier dousing the hanging merchandise with the smelly stuff in abundance. I wanted so bad to yell “STOP, wait till I leave at least,” but was afraid that if I opened my mouth I would not get the taste out for days, like the smell in the clothes after you buy and wash them. I also wonder, what if there is a spark, would the fog of preppy chemicals ignite, sending the west end of the mall to kingdom come??? I’m sure that all the little cloned retail personnel have permanate nasal and brain damage from the hours of spraying and inhaling. Is this why they spray multiple times an hour, is this in the daily scheduled tasks right after ‘fold and refold” , or is it to induce a scented shopping coma to all that walk in to buy those 3 little shirts for $59.50 each, because you need three to wear together as the fabric is to thin not to. The company must manufacture double the amount they sell to be able to maintain the spraying that goes on in this place… OK, just saying…..irritating literally.

Kentin Waits's picture

So true -- branded odors have become part of the 'experience' haven't they? Kind of makes you wonder where the branding will stop. Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture
Olivia

Makes you want to just buy it online next time.

Guest's picture
Kristina

I run an ag processing plant during harvest season, and I'm reasonably sure that the decibel levels in many stores are higher than I'm allowed to subject myself and my employees to without ear protection. I always wonder how they get away with that, especially since I'm sure the allowable noise threshold is lower when one employs teens.

When you consider how much time and skill goes into making that $59 shirt and how far it was transported, it's hard to believe it costs that little, really.

Andrea Karim's picture

"[I]s this heaven, or is this an inescapable retail play loop that makes the nearest exit vanish down a long film-noir tunnel of doom?"

OK, so THAT'S my new favorite sentence ever written on Wise Bread.

Guest's picture
Sharon Warden

I read with amusement your saga of shopping until I got to the last part -- I always prefer to have the receipt on me, my person that is. I keep track of every cent I spend, cash, check, credit card or "other" (rewards cards etc) so it's important that I have the receipt on my person rather than floating in a bag somewhere. It irritates me when the clerk just throws the receipt in the bag without asking. JMHP.
Sharon Warden
Hollister, FL

Guest's picture
Guest

I can appreciate this article. I almost break out in hives when it comes to buying clothes and dealing with 'fake' greetings at the store, etc. Why is purchasing exactly what I need with no muss or fuss becoming more difficult in the retail world?

Guest's picture
coffeetalk

This also applies to those loud, crowded chain restaurants where the waitstaff practically attack you before you sit down and crack open a menu and everyone is addressed as "you guys" and they are forced to grin and no one can hear. then the waitress or waiter bends down sometimes and writes his or her name on the paper tablecloth. All to give impression you are having "fun" while overeating and overspending. Remember "guys" TGIF's went out of business in this area, they suffered from over- Hyped up terrible food no doubt

Guest's picture
Guest

OK. As a retail manager, there are two things about this article that really grind my gears.

First- we're not greeting you at the door to "up" our sales. We're greeting you so you know that we know you're there. In interviews done with professional shoplifters by my company's loss prevention team, the thieves admitted that they didn't like being acknowledged. Once the clerk was alerted to their presence, they would be less likely to steal.

Second- we've been trained by customers to ask if you would like the receipt in the bag or with you. If it was up to me, I would put the receipt in the bag every time. 6 out of every 10 customers would prefer to keep the receipt in their wallet/pocket/purse, and if you put it in the bag they then spend time at the counter digging it out and filing it away. It just saves both of us time to ask at the point of sale.

All the other stuff you're whining about (shoddy merchandise, donation requests, surveys, i.e. "bounce-back coupons") are increasingly becoming more common because more people are choosing to shop online. Get used to it.

Guest's picture
Dave M

"All the other stuff you're whining about (shoddy merchandise, donation requests, surveys, i.e. "bounce-back coupons") are increasingly becoming more common because more people are choosing to shop online. Get used to it."

I think you have the causality backwards there.

Kentin Waits's picture

I appreciate your comment, but your argument may just prove my point, albeit in a slightly different way. The greeting at the door is partly artifice -- if not to up the sales, the to prevent shoplifting. The 'hello' then becomes a falsification for 'please don't steal anything.' Admittedly, this article is a tongue-in-cheek look at retail environments and each store is different. Thanks for your feedback.

Guest's picture
Guest

You forgot to mention that all those people who say hello are never around when you need help or to get another size while in the changing rooms.

Guest's picture
agirlnamedkylie

Ugh haha. These are the same reasons I stopped *working* retail. Regurgitating the inane "customer service" policies of the department store that I worked for made me feel like a trained monkey, and I could see firsthand how all I was doing was annoying 9 out of 10 customers. I'm pretty sure the other one increased the dollar amount of their purchase just to get me off their back :\