Wednesday, January 25, 2012

respect + reason

I've worked in retail for many years. One thing that will never cease to amaze me is when customers have unrealistic expectations, and a reckless disregard of respect and reason.

Case en point - nothing lasts forever. It is unrealistic to expect that, say, a knife you purchase, will survive irresponsible, incorrect sharpening techniques. It is illogical to believe you can wear handmade lambskin loafers everyday for 3 years without proper conditioning, polishing, and (possible) reconstruction. If you buy a jar of garlic aoli, with a shelf life of three months, that you failed to open until seven months after purchase, the fault lies only with one entity.

There are many issues to consider:

-- money = power. As consumers, we choose where we do business. If we like a brand, a concept, or a product, we make that known by supporting the things we're keen on with recommendations to friends and family, and we support them financially as well. If we're dissatisfied, the inverse action occurs. However, policies are policies. If a store's return policy clearly states that you may exchange or return products within a certain time frame, arguing with the salesperson, who has no part in creating said policies, will get you nowhere. Often times, manufacturers have their own extended warranty, their own technical support channels. Manufacturers directly have much more product knowledge, can brand specific tips and tricks, and may offer replacement parts, or repair, or reissue of merchandise entirely.

-- policies are for a reason. If you're at a private label retailer (a store that sells only one brand of products - like Ikea) return policies are generally set in stone and not negotiable. However, when you're at department stores, or stores who stock more than one brand, the return policies may include a blanket policy on all products and services for a limited time, and then extended warranties and insurances may be picked up directly through the manufacturer. In fact, some brands prefer that you deal directly with their corporate return departments, rather than the retailers. Again, customers are often brought to solutions quicker, receive additional information and education regarding the use of the product and prevention of misuse. Nespresso, my favourite coffee machine, is one of these. With the purchase of every machine, Nespresso has a little "love note" on the inside of every package, encouraging customers to register their product online, and encourages customers to deal directly with the brand, rather than third-party vendors. They know their product best. They know their product's functions, limitations, and design. Their customer service is flawless, every time.

-- policies eliminate confusion and streamline the process. From a management/owner standpoint, having one return policy, and being firm on that policy, eliminates confusion when training associates. When a customer has a return or exchange, the customer can receive fabulous customer service and conduct the transaction with any available associate, rather than waiting for a manager or the designated customer service analyst to become available. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, which generally can be made only by management. But policies are policies. Enforcing them keeps prices low for customers, profits high for investors.

-- a double edged sword. Recently I was in a store, where a customer was trying to exchange a product they had damaged. First, I must say - I was shocked that a customer damaged a product and thought it was the responsibility of the store to replace the product that was originally free of defect. But to top it off, the customer knowingly admitted that the receipt was outside of the normal return policy, and threatened the employee that if the product wasn't exchanged, a nasty customer service complaint would be filed. The employee placated the customer, exchanged the product, and visibly upset, went on to help other customers. This would have been fine - except placating the customer had unintended consequences. Another customer, who appeared to be a regular client, watched this transaction from afar, and expressed their disappointment with the company policies. "If you let anyone return products - especially damaged items, it cheapens the brand and ultimately makes prices go up."

Pacifying one customer, who probably doesn't frequent the establishment very often, negatively impacts those clients who repeatedly shop.

And for small businesses, there is often greater cost to returning damaged goods. Some stores charge restocking or repackaging fees. For specially ordered items, only a portion of the original purchase price may be refunded. When I worked for Christian Dior, if a client was special ordering an item, 50% of the total merchandise was required before the products would be delivered to the store. And this was NONREFUNDABLE! If the client choose not to take the items, they were more than welcome to decide so, less the deposit. The deposit covered all expenses associated with the expedited shipping, packaging, and delivery of said goods. Many items were considered final sales: they were unable to be exchanged or returned.

Products are shipped from the manufacturing site, to a central warehouse, to a distribution center, to a shop, where it's sold to customers. When these products are exchanged or returned, they're collected at each shop, repackaged, reprocessed, returned to a distribution center, where they are then sorted and either destroyed, sold at a discount, or returned to the original vendor. All of this shipping, returning, repackaging, reprocessing costs money. Whether a store charges fees for restocking, or builds these services in to the original pricing, customers end up picking up the final tab.

Buyer be ware. If you're buying something of significant value, do your homework. Check stores' return policies and manufacturer warranties. Many credit cards include separate extended coverage, like American Express. And if you do buy something that must be returned or exchanged, remember that it's not the policies of the employee. "Don't shoot the messenger!" Showing respect, exercising reason, and employing polite manners will get you much further than unrealistic demands, disrespect, and undue attitude.

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