The Checkout

Begging to Serve Myself

I've spent the last few days setting up my home office. Of course, that has meant several trips to Staples to help me create the perfect environment.

I needed a better phone, a stand for my computer monitor, paper, pads and pencils--and all sorts of handy little organizational helpers that I hope will actually make me better organized, although I doubt it.

Of course Staples had a great selection--in all the things I didn't really need (mostly the more expensive, more frivolous items). But when it came to what I did want and need, I often found empty shelves. That was particularly true when it came to buying my phone. I wanted a simple, single-line business phone. An old-fashioned kind--not a cordless one where reception is spotty. Although the store shelf said it had the model of phone I wanted, there was not a single box of the one I wanted to buy out on the shelf.

Of course, there were plenty of boxes of the fancier, more expensive models.

Frustrated, I searched for a clerk to help. Of course, no one was in sight. I made my way to the cash register and asked that clerk if there might be any more phones in the inventory in the back.

"I don't know," she shrugged. A long pause. Finally she said, "You mean, you want me to call an electronics specialist?"

"That would be nice."

She called for a specialist. No one appeared. She paged again. Finally, another clerk arrived and did go in back to get the model of the phone I wanted.

This could have been any store, not just Staples. It doesn't matter what store I visit, empty shelves seem to be a chronic problem. It can be an office-supply store, electronics chain and especially the supermarket. It's maddening--and even more so when you have to beg for help!

I'm not done outfitting my office--I've already got another list of items to buy. I think I'll try Office Depot next time. But I'm not optimistic. Wish me luck.

By  |  June 9, 2006; 8:40 AM ET Customer Service
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This lack of customer service certainly isn't limited to Staples. Try finding something at Targer or K-Mart. I think the only place where you get instant service is a car dealership. When you walk in there you are virtually pounced upon. Not sure sometimes which is worse.

Posted by: KB Silver Spring | June 9, 2006 9:06 AM

I had the same experience at Staples, but found Office Depot to be much better staffed and helpful.

Good Luck

Posted by: Ken Panza | June 9, 2006 9:30 AM

It drives me nuts when a salesdroid will not have the item I want but will then say sullenly, "We could order that for you..."

They say it with a straight face. Of course if I didn't want immediate gratification I would have ordered it myself, at (most likely) a significant discount over the in-store price, even taking into consideration shipping costs.

If they don't have it they are wasting my time.

Posted by: Gary Goldberg | June 9, 2006 9:33 AM

Stores ranging from Staples to Giant to CVS have made a conscious decision to cut back on staff (both numbers and quality) in order to cut costs, figuring customers will put up with it. Increasing prevalence of self-checkout lines is meant to reduce costs not, as one store spokesperson laughingly put it, to add to customers' convenience. Gas stations are nearly all self service now, but the process is more automated, with fewer questions about prices and fewer errors in prices than in supermarkets.

Posted by: Steve | June 9, 2006 9:37 AM

Target is just as bad. I've been there three times this week to buy a vacuum cleaner. They had a display model of the one I wanted, but they never had it in stock. No one could tell me when they'd get another shipment in period, much less one that included the vacuum cleaner.

I could take my business elsewhere, but unfortunately this is the standard of service everywhere now.

Posted by: Chrissy | June 9, 2006 9:38 AM

Customer service is especially bad at Staples. They are consistently ranked very low in customer service.

But I think it's a region-wide thing. Customer service in the DC area is abysmal. At all levels.

Posted by: Hillman | June 9, 2006 9:39 AM

Last night my husband went to Staples at Pike 7 Plaza in Vienna. It was just about 9:00. He needed a fax machine. There were several customers in the store at that time. A couple minutes after being in the store a clerk approached and asked him to leave. He said he wanted to buy a fax machine. The clerk told him "leave immediately or I will call the police." My husband told him to go ahead and call the police. A couple minutes passed, another clerk approached my husband, asked him what he was looking for. When my husband explained, that clerk said Staples didn't have any; he should check with Office Depot. My husband left and went directly to Office Depot which had just locked its doors. Another hopeful customer and he approached the locked door at the same time. Immediately a manager unlocked the door and helped them both with their purchases. Absolutely true story!!

Posted by: TK Vienna | June 9, 2006 9:39 AM

I had the opposite experience at Staples in Potomac Yard - went in for toner,the one that I needed was not there - all the associates were busy, but ALL acknowledged me. Once someone got to me (after needing to wait to get the key to the toner area), he apologized profusely for making me wait! It was a great experience!

As for grocery stores - SHOP AT WEGMANS!! Perhaps it is all the upstate New York transplants, but they have (and always have had, for that matter) GREAT customer service!

Posted by: SMP | June 9, 2006 9:45 AM

Remember folks, these "sales" help people are your kids!! And they're paid next to nothing. I've been with CVS 12 years and I don't make $10 an hour (I started at $5, which at the time was above minimum wage). Basically, you get what you pay for. I work in the pharmacy, too -- dispensing your prescriptions. And sometimes people are nasty to me. For NO reason. They want service NOW. Regardless of whether I'm on the phone helping someone else or there are several other people waiting. It's not my full time job (who the heck could work for that full time and who would want to with the abuse?), and I sometimes wonder why I'm still there! Then I realize it's because I'm actually good at what I do and I'm already trained. And there are a handful of people that appreciate my work.

By the way, I've never had a problem with Staples nor would I go to a store right before they close!

Posted by: RxTech | June 9, 2006 9:50 AM

My advice: when you get bad service, complain -- not in person, and not to the individual store, but to the company headquarters. I got abysmal "service" at a local Staples and complained via a form on A few days later, the manager of that store called me, apologized profusely, and was extremely generous about making it up to me (I'm being deliberately vague because I don't want other people to take advantage of the store, but basically it was so generous that I was embarrassed to accept it). Complaining works!

Posted by: Good Complainer | June 9, 2006 9:54 AM

You clearly needed to push your "easy button" as Staples so often advertises.

I was pleasantly surprised at Best Buy recently, when I not only found a helpful employee, but a knowledgable one. I did have to order the model of camera I wanted, but it came with the features I was looking for (and the sales clerk understood the terminology and knew which had what). Ditto Dick's sporting goods while shopping for running shoes (except for needing to order it).

Posted by: LH | June 9, 2006 9:56 AM

Customer service is terrible everywhere; that said, as a D.C. transplant to Miami, every time I go back home to the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area, no matter how unfriendly or unhelpful store employees are, they're still about 80% more friendly and 80% more helpful than ANYWHERE in Miami. Even a sullen "Have a nice day," is still better than a heavily-accented "NEXT!"

For the first few days I go home, EVERY TIME, no matter where I go, and no matter how abysmal the treatment was to D.C. standards, I always leave stores thinking how nice it is to shop in D.C., when compared with doing anything in Miami. Doing anything down here would make your head spin three times before exploding. Miami is truly the worst customer service market imaginable - it makes New York look patient and doting.

Posted by: Jay | June 9, 2006 10:02 AM

Don't go to Circuit City if you want knowledge or service. A few years back they decided to do away with sales commission staff and went strictly hourly (which wasn't much). Instead of offering some sort of decent pay to the really good salespeople guess what they did? They let all the high earning commission people go and kept those whose sales weren't that good meaning that they could pay them less and keep them. My husband used to work there in operations until they eliminated his job as well. Circuit City used to be the most knowledgeable customer friendly store and they killed that culture so stockholders could have a few cents more on their dividends. Most of those salespeople went to work for Best Buy.

Posted by: Dlyn | June 9, 2006 10:07 AM

Customer service is the one thing that's hard to instill in new (young workers) because they almost certainly haven't experienced good customer service. (And, yes, more mature employees don't always demonstrate customer service because they simply don't have it, management/supervisory people haven't instilled it or made it part of the job, or they've become jaded with or by customers who can't be pleased).

From the time I was a paperboy every employer I've had made me understand that the customer is always right and that it's easier, less expensive, and more productive to keep the customers you have (and who spend money, and keep you in salary) than it is to develop new customers. Well, I did have one boss who said "The customer's always right. As long as we agree with him." And that boss, who was right in that though, taught me as much if not more than anyone.

Another thing I was taught in a variety of jobs, within government, in the military, and in the private sector was that if someone called me, not to hang up... They're the customer; allow them to complete and terminate the call, no matter how much you might want to hang up on them. In all likelyhood they'll come back around nicer the next time. And you've got another satisfied (maybe not happy but satisfied) customer.

If you walk into a store or service provider, it means you're there to spend money; you're there to give them your money; you're there to pay them their salary. The least you should expect is that they want to help you spend your money as much as possible. There is simply no excuse for not assisting the customer as quickly as possible, unless the customer starts off with, "thanks, but I don't need any assistance yet."

Posted by: Jeff | June 9, 2006 10:07 AM

Try the CVS on 14th at Thomas Circle and you will be amazed at how bad customer service can get.

Posted by: DC | June 9, 2006 10:11 AM

It's true, kids may not have good role models for providing good customer service...unless they volunteer. Most volunteers provide the kind of helpful, considerate assistance we wish we could get from CSRs. But there's still no excuse. My daughter sees me take my time to give directions to people or otherwise help people and she is already quite helpful and considerate at age four. Parents are the best role models. (Duh.)

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | June 9, 2006 10:16 AM

Good Complainer wrote: "when you get bad service, complain -- not in person, and not to the individual store, but to the company headquarters."

I disagree. Somewhat. My first thought, and it's been productive, has been to contact the lowest level of supervision or management and work my way up. That level of supervision and management is responsible for his/her unit. If you don't get satisfaction (and satisfaction doesn't mean you get the answer you want, but rather it means the "right" answer), then go up to the next level. Most people, believe it or not, are responsible.

Going too high up simply means that, in most cases, you either get a generic response (even if it means they send you coupons, other good will items, etc.) or they send the issue back down to where the problem is and tell them to solve it.

Sending a MicroSoft complaint to Bill Gates (okay, that's an extreme example) is the same - in most cases - as writing your Congressman because your social security check was two days late. Even though you think you know your Congressman, it's a staff member who writes you, or who forwards your "concern" to the appropriate agency via the Congressional liaison offices, and the appropriate agency then forwards it to the responsible action person or desk to respond to either the Congressman or directly to the constituent; either way you probably would have gotten the same result if you wrote the appropriate agency in the first place, and you would have gotten a response sooner because you're dealing directly with the people involved.

The few times I've felt I needed to go higher all probably could and should have been resolved at a more working level. But then I make it a point to explain myself clearly, not ranting or raving or complaining about their lack of whatever... I treat them as professionals who made a miscue, not as if I'm absolutely correct and they're absolutely wrong.

Posted by: Jeff | June 9, 2006 10:22 AM

As someone who recently moved to a small town from the DC area, I can say that the rudeness is far worse in DC than here. The salespeople here are generally kind, friendly, and helpful, and seem to be happy at their jobs. I wonder if they aren't as overworked here-- or if their pay is relatively better because of the lower cost of living. Or maybe the customers here aren't as stressed out and they don't get yelled at as much. Either way, I love it.

Posted by: Country mouse | June 9, 2006 10:25 AM

Customer service in DC does tend to be worse than average. When I visit family in Cleveland, I find that, although you can find indifferent people (esp. in chain drug stores), the service is about q00% better. There are worse places than DC, though, such as Atlanta (incredible passivity and lack of knowledge about anything) or Los Angeles (general indifference) and New York (which is friendlier than its rep) tends toward extremes of horrible and very helpful service.

The staff in most retail establishments has always trended young and I worked in both a discount store and a Hecht's-like store at different timer during college. Both places generally offered high quality service. The discount store staff took pride in not being like KMart or Zayre (Wal-Mart wasn't around then). The pay was not great in either place, although the discount store (which was unionized) had pretty good benefits.

Stores need adequate staffing and decent line management. Both seem pretty absent. It doesn't take long to learn merchandise--I sold everything from paint to designer menswear. Customer service really just takes a level of politeness and social skill that shouldn't be difficult to spot in potential hires. There used to be more of a career ladder in retail--you could get into management, even at semi-upscale department stores, from the shop floor w/o a degree. A lot of that is gone and the glut of college grads at different point in time has made a college rather than practical experience the entry tool for managers, which is not necessarily a good thing. Complaining is the only recourse and doing it in a way that doesn't make it sound like you're a crank or someone who instigated a problem with an employee.

Posted by: RJ | June 9, 2006 10:38 AM

This is why I shop on the internet. I do all my research on what I want and then I find the lowest price. I ship back about 1/4 of what I buy, and even though sometimes they cover return shipping, I still spend a bit more money. But it's WELL worth it. I have given up on buying in actual stores.

Customer service is a lost art. As your Staples example showed, a store can't even be bothered with stocking their shelves anymore. I have been given attitude so many times, that I am conviced that stores no longer preach the idea that the customer is always right, that you should try to make them happy. As I have said to many managers, I am coming into your store and TRYING TO SPEND MONEY. I have money to spend, and it should not be that hard. I should not have to work hard to spend my money in a store.

Posted by: Brian Ford | June 9, 2006 10:38 AM

I have also experienced the "empty shelves" phenomenon much more than I would like recently. My impression, however, is that the underlying problem is not so much customer service, but some kind of "just in time" ordering system of products that in fact is not "just in time." I have rarely experienced the situation that you describe in which there are actually extra quantities of the desired item lying around in the back store room. I also have the impression that retailers like Target, Best Buy, etc., place priority on breadth rather than depth -- i.e., they carry 7 different varieties of widgets but are frequently out of 3, as opposed to having 2 kinds always in stock. I used to leave the District to go to Target on the theory it was so big they would have whatever I needed in one trip; I am now instead returning to the smaller neighborhood hardware stores and pharmacies, where the choices may be smaller but the supply seems more predictable.

Posted by: cranky shopper | June 9, 2006 10:41 AM

I totally disagree with going right to company headquarters with a disagreement about customer service. There are plenty of stores that can get in serious financial trouble from being reported. Management can never have full control over stores, especially when you are talking about young people. Can you really say to yourself that your receiving prompt and friendly service is worth more than someone's job?

Sure, they should be doing a good job, but there are people in this world not as well-prepared for life as you. This is the best that some of these people will ever get: $6.00 an hour. They are not trained. They have little future. People act like they want 5 star service, but all I have heard from these workers is "They don't pay me enough for this." They don't pay enough to help you after the store closes (no overtime here! Do you think it is a good cost/benefit to help some shmo who should have come in 15 minutes ago after you have been on your feet all day and won't get paid for extra work?). They don't pay enough for workers to train themselves how to find things or to talk to people in shipping departments.

Professional people are the worst in this regard. They expect that customer service people put as much into their jobs as an owner would, but they have no retirement, no investment; heck, they aren't even guaranteed a job!

Please give customer service people a break. I agree that poor customer service is very frustrating, but that is the way our economy is built. If you want better service you will have to pay for it.

Posted by: ceb | June 9, 2006 10:42 AM

The customer is _not_ always right, but he/she is always the customer. Customer service people should do what they can to help out the customer, but there's a reasonable limit. You want to return that shirt because you wore it only six times and decided it was ugly? Sorry, maybe you can unload it on e-bay. You paid with a check yesterday and want a cash refund today? It's a store, not a check cashing service. The store closing time is nine and it's 9:30? Please, let the people close up and go home. They're out of what you wanted? It wasn't personal, please don't take it as such. They offer to order something for you? Say yes, say no thank you, whatever, but there's no need to be angry about it.

Posted by: on both sides | June 9, 2006 10:43 AM

"A lot of that is gone and the glut of college grads at different point in time has made a college rather than practical experience the entry tool for managers"

Many retail places do this now. I know a store manager at Target who worked his way up from stock boy. He is one of the best managers they have but he would never be given the opportunity today because he does not have a degree. They recruit on college campuses for their "Business School" to train their managers. I used to work there and believe me some of those new college grads who didn't even work a part-time job in college are the worst. I don't understand how companies believe just because you got a degree it makes you management material. Now, on the other hand, those graduates who worked while going to college are the complete opposite and usually understand hard work and how to relate to a customer and employees.

Posted by: Dlyn | June 9, 2006 10:53 AM

One of the very first things I noticed after I moved from Southern California was this lack of customer service and empty shelves. The people I work with seem to think I'm just hard to please, but they have obviouslsy never experienced real customer service. The difference is stunning. A co-worker recently had surgery performed in San Francisco and had to stay two weeks for follow up. She e-mailed me in amazement at how wonderful it was to live in a place where there was "no attitude".

Posted by: Donna Henry | June 9, 2006 10:54 AM

Try going to the Target in Potomac Yards sometime. It is a ridiculous exercise in futility. Shelves are constantly empty of almost anything that you might need. Even worse, try the Safeway next to the Bradlee Center in Alexandria (corner of King and Braddock Rds). I have never seen more empty shelves in my life. The only response I get there when I ask the manager is "sorry about that." I was sorry too - I drive out of my way now to go to the Harris Teeter in Pentagon Row. They have excellent customer service and almost always have everything in stock.

Posted by: Laura | June 9, 2006 10:59 AM

I completely agree with the comment about Wegman's! My wife and I have been shopping at the Fairfax since the day it opened, and we are STILL amazed at how many checkout lines they keep open. Years of shopping at Giant will do that to you! The best testament to their service--I once had a curt checkout clerk, and she stuck out from how different everyone else is there.

Posted by: Michael | June 9, 2006 11:07 AM

I get very tired of hearing how little the employee is paid as if that is tacit permission to be rude or unhelpful. I've heard the same excuse made for stealing at work....well, they don't pay me very much so I deserve to take this produce or piece of equipment or spend my time making personal calls on my expensive cell phone. I started working at minimum wage when minimum wage was $1.25 an hour (admittedly a long time ago) and if I had not been courteous or helpful to a customer, I would not have had that minimum wage job to learn what it means to have a job, to be on time, to be responsible and to work my way up through a system to a better paying position.

Posted by: D M Harvey | June 9, 2006 11:10 AM

I will note that many of the consumer retail stores have put in the option to "pick up," like ordering a pizza for carryout, or "check stock" on their web sites. However, this service is imperfect at best. At Best Buy, which I'll use as an example here, at least 50% of the time that I order and go to pick up, the order, which is supposed to be set aside for me (and I get e-mail notification that it is), is not, thus eliminating the time-saving component of the order and pick-up.

Posted by: Bob | June 9, 2006 11:18 AM

I believe that my experience working in the customer service industry before and during college taught me to be friendly to customer service representatives except when they are just really rude.

I rarely go to a store just before closing time and I try to avoid shopping on holidays.

As for empty shelves, I encounter that too often at several Wal-Marts here. I didn't experience empty shelves in Wal-Mart while I lived in the midwest.

Posted by: ProfessorB | June 9, 2006 11:19 AM

I had a horrible customer service experience at my OB/GYN. The lady at the front desk was absolutely horrible. Rude. I am writing a letter to the head physician to ask for her to be repremanded. There is no need to be rude to someone when they think they are sick.

Posted by: AG | June 9, 2006 11:26 AM

Typical complainers. You should go somewhere else and do your shopping if you don't like a store ... there are options. Me me me.. that is typical of the well-off and and the washingtonian mind set. Be grateful you can purchase those things. Most of the people that work in retail can't afford the same items that they sell because they are under-paid. The stores that save you a penny take from the training money to make those employees better. Education would not let them be there "serving you". Shop online and avoid the empty shelves.

STOP making a big deal out of nothing. Easy on the sarcasm as well... hopefully you don't use it on your kids. No one wants to feel dumb.

Remember there are better ways to say things.

Posted by: Stop Complaining | June 9, 2006 11:29 AM

I used to work at Staples and this story was incredibly familiar. I could have been that clerk. It's not just that clerks are underpaid, it's that they're undertrained.

I know when I worked there, I would get a lot of specific questions ("Where are your glu-sticks?" "Does this printer come with ink?" etc.) and I would have liked to help, but I simply had not been told how to deal with anything except ringing up purchases. (I would also get in trouble for leaving my post at the cash desk to help someone, despite entreaties from customers to "just come over here and help!") So there was always a lengthy wait while I called or paged someone, and the customer would begin to get angry with me when they didn't show up. And I get that it's just a stupid question and they should have been able to get an answer right away; but the system is at fault, not the unhelpful cashier who may only seem slow, sullen, and wilfully unhelpful because he (a) couldn't help you if he wanted to; (b) is just as frustrated as you are with this situation; and (c) has been dealing with similar situations over and over all day.

Posted by: Laura | June 9, 2006 11:31 AM

I live in the Southwest, which actually has pretty good customer service most of the time, if there are enough staff available. I like Target's merchandise & style, but my observation about shelf supply is that Target is very driven by its weekly ad pages. I think the higher up distribution folk order some items for the weekly sales in a certain quantity, and once those run out, that's it. (There are other items they probably keep in stock, like batteries, light bulbs, electronics, video games, etc.) But the seasonal clothing & decorative items just arrive once and once they are sold, that's it.
We also have a "Super Target" in our neighborhood; it is a gigantic store. It actually has good quality fresh food, bakery, etc. but I seldom shop there, because of the service (not attitude). To check out, the customer has to lift the items out of the cart & put them on the conveyor, and also put the loaded bags back in the cart; and there is seldom carryout help. Across the street, our longtime local grocery (now owned by Safeway), has checkouts where the cashier selects the items out of the cart, bags them, and has courteous carryout (some are learning disabled adults who have worked there for 10-20 years & who give great service!)
So on supply issues, I think it is worthwhile to escalate that to regional management, but service of particular people should be escalated within the store.
(And the best think we could all do is to write letters or make calls when we get great service; a lot of these stores have reward programs that recognize people for getting kudos; positive reinforcement really works!

Posted by: Lindy | June 9, 2006 11:33 AM

The Staples in McLean on Route 7 across from the Westpark Office Complex is always fully stocked and has people there to help. I've always been in and out quickly with everything I needed. Also, try the one in Glenmont (if more convenient) at the intersection of Georgia Ave. and Layhill Rd.

Posted by: aj | June 9, 2006 11:34 AM

To Stop Complaining: Most of the complaints in this blog are not about high end stores/items. We are talking about simple places like Target/CVS/grocery stores which sell necessities. Many people don't have the option to go to Saks where I bet they DO get great service for a price. I wouldn't know since I can't afford to go there.

Posted by: DC shopper | June 9, 2006 11:35 AM

"We also have a "Super Target" in our neighborhood; it is a gigantic store. It actually has good quality fresh food, bakery, etc. but I seldom shop there, because of the service (not attitude). To check out, the customer has to lift the items out of the cart & put them on the conveyor, and also put the loaded bags back in the cart; and there is seldom carryout help."

No offense, but if that is your biggest complaint about the store, then I can see why the term lazy american is so in vogue.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 9, 2006 11:39 AM

I have been in retail for a couple of decades and I agree that service has slipped. There are too many choices when it comes to employment opportunities so the worker has become transient. Finding highly qualified employees have become very challenging and I work for a fortune top 100 company that trains well, has great benefits, and pays way above average.

Customers have also received what they have asked for. Do you want a better selection? More parking? More convenient locations? Cheaper prices? Everything under one roof? Multi-retail locations? Shop on the internet? Have it shipped to the store? Free installations while you wait and right now? Free special orders? Free Demos? Corporate social responsibility? got it and the side effect that you get is less stock predictability, higher traffic flow, less staff to customer ratios, tighter expenses(i.e. payroll) so that your favorite retailer can still make a couple of bucks.

While service can still be a lot better many places you can't tell me that you didn't get everything else that YOU asked for.

Posted by: carlos | June 9, 2006 11:53 AM

Dieties help you, if you plan to hit Office Depot. The last several times I have been there -- several stores in NoVa -- the service has been dreadful.... and I was picking up items ordered online a day ahead!

Posted by: bigolpoofter | June 9, 2006 11:59 AM

The corporate big shots who are cutting back on customer service to add 2 cents to their dividends are killing themselves. Ever since Giant started cutting back on service and merchandise offerings, I took my business to Shoppers. So did a lot of others. It does work. Can anyone say Hechingers?

Posted by: Steve | June 9, 2006 12:11 PM

Poor customer service is the fault of the consumer, plain and simple. There was a time when friendly, helpful customer service ruled the day. Your local hardware store or grocery practically knew everyone's name and had nearly everything you needed (or would happily go out of their way to get it). However, a man named Sam Walton thought of a way to provide the same goods at a much lower price, by reducing labor costs and operating in huge volume. And people flocked there like sheep. Hence the "Big Box" Store was born and drove all of the little guys out. That model now permeates our landscape, from office supplies and household goods to hardware and auto parts. As the competition dwindles, they have to do less and less for the customer. There are exceptions, of course. Hechinger's got sloppy and Home Depot burried them with better CS. Now Home Depot is getting sloppy and Lowe's is starting to challenge them. Wegman's and Harris Teeter are steadily eating into Giant and Safeway's margins. But as long as we only have a few players in these markets, they will all eventually sink to the lowest common denominator. You want to lowest prices, you got 'em, but everything comes at a price.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Posted by: We asked for it | June 9, 2006 12:16 PM

Business 2.0 had an article on Wednesday lavishing praise on how Staples had turned around. While I have included the first few lines from the article below, for the full story check out

Eight to one. That was the abysmal ratio of customer complaints to kudos at Staples stores in 2001. The company's slogan - "Yeah, we've got that" - had become laughable. Customers griped that items were often out of stock and said the sales staff was unhelpful to boot.

After weeks of focus groups and interviews, Staples's executive VP for marketing, Shira Goodman, had a revelation. "Customers wanted an easier shopping experience," she says.

Posted by: MV | June 9, 2006 12:16 PM

Carlos is right. When I set up my home office 30 years ago I had to go to at least 5 different stores to get what I needed: Office furniture store, office supply store, IBM store for electronics, I ordered my desk set from Sears and it only took six weeks. The service was terrific because the owners were the ones helping me. They had expert product knowledge about all 3 aisles of merchandise they had. They were open until 7 on weekdays, 5 on saturday, and closed on Sunday so it took a few trips. They had all my choices in stock: white phone or black, big papaerclips or small, portable or desktop typewriter.
While it's nice to have so many choices that I can shop from 24 hours a day, I would rather have the old mom and pops back...I'll take the black phone, it shows less dirt.

Posted by: Hegman | June 9, 2006 12:21 PM

Just try going to a computer store like COMPUSA or some other major computer supplier. A computer costs a lot more than a telephone and has a much greater impact on your business success or failure, but just try and get someone to help you with the technical advice needed to purchase the right model for you. Winning the lottery would be an easier proposition.

Posted by: Reuben Johnson | June 9, 2006 12:29 PM

Yes, Carlos is right. Stores (especially big box) mottoes should be:

Cheap labor equals cheap prices!

I got out of retail because as a manager I was paid well with good benefits but it was hard to see my good employees be treated as expendable commodities and when I fought to get them better raises or more hours (which I really needed for me to get the work done) I was basically told we have to keep our costs down so we can have better profits than another store. Basically my bosses got bigger bonuses when their stores were more profitable.

Also a side note, if as a consumer you are nice to an employee they usually are nice back to you and will do more for you.

Posted by: Wishing for service | June 9, 2006 12:32 PM

Let's face it most people in customer service are not exactly making a killing maybe 7 or 8 bucts an hour...not many rocket scientists out there willing to work for that kind of pay. Generally stores are understaffed to cut back on the overhead, and thus raise the profits. Maybe if they could pass their expenses off to the consumer, we'd be complaining about paying 3 dollars for a candy bar in the aisle, instead of 75 cents...LOL

Posted by: Crystal | June 9, 2006 12:46 PM

I was actually glad when Circuit City got rid of its commission sales people. Way too often, once a clerk on commission realized you wanted a cheaper model, they totally lost interest in helping you.

Of course, the bigger question is why Circuit City never has anything in stock! Everytime I've been in to buy a TV or DVD player (not even a sale item) they've needed to offer me the display model at a discount.

Posted by: tallbear | June 9, 2006 12:48 PM

"Way too often, once a clerk on commission realized you wanted a cheaper model, they totally lost interest in helping you."

Then they weren't good salespeople because most of the profits come in the extras they can sell you and the more extras they can sell the more commission they could get. They were just being lazy.

Posted by: Dlyn | June 9, 2006 12:56 PM

I worked at Target for several months. If you shop at a discount store, you get what you pay for. The HR managers at Target are given a quota of hours per week and the store is penalized if the weekly schedule goes over that many hours. Wal-Mart operates in the same way. The managers have no autonomy to call in extra staff if a store is especially busy one day.
Another problem is that retail workers are transient. It doesn't matter if you get fired from your $6 hour job at Target for poor customer service, you can just go get the same basic job at Wal-mart, Home Depot or Staples or any other number of big box retailers. Consumers have demanded the convenience of big box retailers and now want to complain about what they have sown? Please...cry me a river.

Posted by: Nikki | June 9, 2006 12:57 PM

It is a sad commentary on society that employees need to be trained in being polite and putting effort into their work. Helping others, doing a good job, pride in accomplishement - these qualities are not restricted to certain pay grades or occupations. It is called work for a reason. If you are on the clock or being compensated, you will need to put forth some effort.

If circumstances are beyond your control or you don't know how to handle them, a simple acknowledgement of a customer's frustration can work wonders to diffuse the situation. Politeness and respect are not expensive nor excessively time-consuming, but the payoff is large.

Of course, customers need to be respectful of an employees time and attention. Commenting on good service, to the employee and management, is the best way to ensure a repeat experience.

Posted by: KK | June 9, 2006 1:12 PM

When I need anything from Target/Staples/Best Buy/Banana Republic instead of shopping the ones inside the beltway, I drive to where my parents live, 10 miles outside Baltimore (and a good 1.5 hour drive from my apartment). It's the only way I can find things on the shelves.

Posted by: alexandra | June 9, 2006 1:30 PM

"It is a sad commentary on society that employees need to be trained in being polite and putting effort into their work"

There was a time, when I got my first job 20 years ago in retail, you were actually trained in how to talk to and treat a customer as well as how to operate equipment and what is expected of you. Now its a couple of hours with another part time employee of here's how to run the register and make sure you don't work any more hours than what you're scheduled. I love how people were upset last year when cashiers wouldn't say "Merry Christmas". I'd be happy just being acknowledged or simply "Thank you" and a smile.

Posted by: Dlyn | June 9, 2006 1:32 PM

From Stop Complaining:
"Me me me.. that is typical of the well-off and and the washingtonian mind set....Easy on the sarcasm as well... hopefully you don't use it on your kids. No one wants to feel dumb. Remember there are better ways to say things."

Funny how some people love to complain about people complaining, or tell people to be nice in a mean way.

Posted by: Country mouse | June 9, 2006 1:40 PM

do you know where all those hechinger employees went? to home depot! so all your comments about how home depot is better than hechingers..... that could be but i doubt it. the same people are working there.

there are clearing two sides to this. henry ford was sued by his stockholders for spending money trying to help his employees. upshot of the suit was that as ceo his job was to increase profits not improve employees lives.

having worked as a cashier let me tell you:
1. the person who tried to return an item she "bought at our store". the problem - it still had another store's price tag on it. an hour later she was back with the same item this time she removed the price tag.

2. the customer complaining that they didn't get the sale price and showing me the ad. ad clearly states a different model number then the one the customer is buying but some how it is still my fault.

i think that the previous poster hit the nail on the head? which do you want cheaper price or better service? the success of wal-mart tells me what most people really want. how many of us have gone to a speciality shop like a camera store and pumped the sales person for info and then gone to some other store where they could buy the item for less.

Posted by: quark | June 9, 2006 1:55 PM

After going thru the management training with Target we were hounded about "Can I help you find something"...which is one of their favorite bragging rights, the kids that were hired could have cared less if they even saw a customer. Wal Mart is the same way, although they say they are trying. In the back rooms there are 10 foot banners that tell their employers to greet and assist any customer that come within a 10 foot area around them. This is absolutly not working, as I have complained to the 2 store managers in our area. They actually were so concerned over my complaints that I was invited in to talk directly with the managers. This felt good but after a week or 10 days, the service is exactly where is was prior.
You, as a customer can always voice your opinion to the management, even if it is by going to the website. They hear you if you send enough info about the time and name of the individual.

thats all I can offer...sorry, but I'm out of stock on a better answer...

Posted by: Frank J, Harrisonburg, Va | June 9, 2006 2:23 PM

I, too, get tired of the, "don't blame the employee because they don't make much money," excuse. Give me a break. I worked in retail when I was in high school and college making next to nothing. I did my best to do a good job.

The problem is that people who are in retail as their career (employees, not managers) are never going to make much money and become jaded over time as a result. Don't blame the consumer because you didn't choose a different career path. Be helpful. If not, you should be fired and someone helpful should be hired in your place.

Posted by: Jennifer | June 9, 2006 2:35 PM

You can read the comments from some of the people on here that work retail and it is obvious they have such an attitude they are part of the problem. I've been on all sides of this issue.

I blame the companies for placing NO emphasis on this anymore.

I've worked retail and never felt it was the customers fault my wages weren't to my satisfaction. That is the most ridiculous chip on a shoulder I've heard in years. I said "Thank You." I apologized if I messed something up. ANYBODY heard anybody apologize lately? I must have had some bit of pride about the job I did.

You can hear retail workers on here that appear to think all customers suck (they don't!) and that it's some rich customer's fault they don't have more money. It isn't. I suspect you are part of what we're complaining about.

IF you do not care for retail and feel your wages are too low then seek a solution. Other people don't owe you everything and most of us have paid our dues as well.

Of course you will have the occasional horriffic customer that you are convinced got up and decided to make some lowly retail clerks' life a living hell. I can recall crying because of a few when I was young. It's a fact there are a few mean people on the planet and there always will be.

Here are some of my favorite bad service moments to help some of you laugh. It's ALL over the US.:

I bought a coffee table and picked it up from the furniture store warehouse. ($45 delivery for one table??) It was the heaviest coffee table on the planet and naturally my husband was gone. A neighbor had to help me get it into the house. I open the box and they've sent me home with the wrong finish. I phone to suggest they bring me the right one within a few days. No I am told. Since I didn't pay for delivery I had to haul it back. HUH?????

I was once told by a clerk to STOP TALKING because she couldn't think. (Actually she yelled at several of us customers.) I was offering another customer my cell to use. They had refused to allow her to use the store phone when she had a situation. It was against policy.

Years ago I fussed at my daughter for running wild at the bank when I told her to stay by me. (Anybody else enjoy that in public? I don't.) The teller said "You're not going to beat her are you?" I was not loud nor did I make a scene. I had her repeat that because I was sure I was imagining things.

At the paint store the clerk failed to make sure he also put an additional quart of paint in my auto as he carried out the rest of my stuff. I got home and found a message that simply said "YOU left your paint and need to come back and get it."

I left Walgreens without an additional bag. I phone to inquire. I am told "Yessss, YOU DIDN'T TAKE THE BAG WITH YOU." He had only handed me the one and I was supposed to check the lower bagging area I now see.

Last week I phoned the Land Rover dealer for service in Indy. I got voice mail. I left a message for him to phone me. A day plus later I phoned and asked for the service manager because I never got a call back and knew he'd be alarmed. He told me the guy was busy. That evening the service guy finally returned my call. Obviously the manager never felt it important to actually manage the guy.

This shouldn't be rocket science - but it seems to be.

Posted by: Sally | June 9, 2006 2:41 PM

You want to put a home office together and get GREAT customer service? Two words: Container Store. Had enough of empty shelves at Staples and safeway; absolutely horrid service at Home Depot; filthy isles and arrogant staff at CVS? Even if you don't have a particular need for anything at the Container Store, it's a refuge harking back to when your dollar meant something to those you gave it to in return for goods and/or services. And yes Carlos, it is a "big box" store that pays its employees an above average salary and constantly provides training. You CAN have both.

Posted by: Craig | June 9, 2006 2:51 PM

So you have bad clerk stories, how about some bad customer stories...

I was once physically grabbed and turned away from another customer by an impatient rich snob who couldn't wait her turn to ask me a question.

I was told FU by a customer who was upset I wouldn't returned her used clothing.

I had a VCR thrown by a customer who wanted to return it because it broke after 3 years of use.

I had a customer actually sh*t in a dressing room because she didn't want to walk out to the mall restroom.

I had customers treat me like I was their personal servant carrying around their purchases because they didn't want the clothes to get wrinkled in a shopping cart.

These are not occassional customers. The occasional ones are the ones who are polite back to you after you ask them for help. People today think that retail workers, especially in discount stores, are lowly uneducated human beings that don't merit much.

My advice to a retail worker is to get an education even just a few classes and find something else.

Posted by: Stories | June 9, 2006 3:00 PM

I should add that I have a Master's degree and am nationally certified. I would love to share that with the ignorant people who think I work there (CVS) because I can't get a job any place else!

Also, the saying treat people as you'd like to be treated rings so true here. If you treat me like I'm an idiot and you're God or Goddess, I may not be as nice to you.

Posted by: RxTech | June 9, 2006 3:29 PM

"Try the CVS on 14th at Thomas Circle and you will be amazed at how bad customer service can get."

I'd like to respond to this. This is the CVS closest to my apartment, so I'm there all the time. While the regular staff is nothing to write home about, I've found the pharmacy staff to be exceptionally helpful, especially the head pharmacist -- flexible and thoughtful, rather than rule bound and rude. I just wanted to counter that earlier comment, because people who do give good customer service should be recognized, though then rarely are.

I also recommend the staffs at the Ann Taylor stores at Metro Center and Farragut North -- these are chain stores, but they are FAR more helpful than their similarly situated competitors.

Posted by: Svaka | June 9, 2006 4:07 PM

One other point on CS - I complain when I don't receive good service, but I also compliment (and make sure to email or contact store managers with compliments) when I get good service. I recently took Amtrak on a long trip, and I was so pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and helpfulness of the conductors and porters, I wrote a letter. They made a long trip much more pleasant.

I worked for years in retail (for a large, high end makeup line), so I have seen the good, bad, and ugly on both sides of the counter.

Posted by: ML | June 9, 2006 4:27 PM

Some of these comments are oranges/apples. Of course, there will be rude customers, just as there are rude people in many work transactions. But to excuse employees who don't do their jobs because their hourly wage is low, etc., is ridiculous. During college, I worked summers and holidays at a discount store in cameras/records/jewelry, even though retail wasn't going to be my career. I flat worked hard because I was being paid, and that was the contract I had made. Too many employees just don't understand that contract, and please, some common sense should be in play here. (The only training I had was in the cash-register operation.) My colleagues couldn't wait for me to get there on my holiday breaks.
I had great incentive: Wonderful parents who worked long hours in the textile mills and came home with their hair covered in lint. They didn't even have to verbalize why I needed an education to do better than they: I could see that notion in the lint. They had the same situation as the low-paid retail workers, but they never shirked because they, too, had a contract with their employers. The idea of fulfilling one's responsibility often hasn't been transmitted.

Posted by: Sue | June 9, 2006 4:31 PM

Have to agree with the WEGMANS comment. Having had the luxury of a good, clean, well stocked store with courteous and well-informed floor staff, I can barely bring myself to step into any of the area mega grocery stores. My solution - I shop at the small organic and co-op stores where at least my business is appreciated.

Posted by: Flygal | June 9, 2006 4:42 PM

I miss Publix! They are where I'm from (Florida) but not where I am (Arkansas). Friendly, helpful (always carry-out), polite, good prices, great bakery.... now I have to shop at Kroger, which is inevitably more expensive, dirty, less selection, and incredibly rude service. I was actually told by a cashier (when I apologized for being on the phone in line with my mother with an offhand comment about mothers calling at the most inconvenient times) that "My mother died when I was ten. I'd love it if she called me. No matter when. You should be thankful." I'd give my right arm for a decent grocery store in Arkansas.

Posted by: Rebecca | June 9, 2006 5:00 PM

I think it depends on the individual store managment, not so much which of the chains you visit. I've had bad experiences at Staples, from teenaged help who could care less, but have bought a vacuum cleaner, phone and dvd player at Target, with more help buying the vacuum than the other items. the hardware chains that hire older retirees are generally much better with customer service, at least around SE Ohio.

Posted by: ohio | June 9, 2006 6:16 PM

My father has been in retail for 40 years, and I did it for 7. We made our money on customer service--our prices were almost always higher than our chain competitors. But we offered fabulous, smart service, and people are very willing to pay if there is a real difference.

DC customer service is terrible due both to lack of training, poor management, and the generally poor quality workforce that is willing to work for the wages CVS etc. wants to pay. For those of us living in DC--you are enjoying the fruits of the DC public school system, and the general breakdown of work ethic.

But chain retail can be done both well and well-priced. Wegman's is example one--cheaper than Safeway on comparable goods, much wider selection of high end goods, and a staff that knows what they are doing. Of course, Wegman's also pays very, very well, and clearly invests in its people. But wait...if they pay so well, and have cheaper can they make money??? And yet they are very profitable.

There are still some small pharmacies in DC that survive on service. Would be nice to see a chain give it a shot.

Posted by: Retail Can be Done well | June 9, 2006 6:20 PM

It should be mandatory for everyone to work in retail and to work as a waiter. Once you see the other side, you're understanding and awareness will be that much more intune to good and/or bad service. Otherwise, just go to Costco!

Posted by: kungfukoh | June 9, 2006 6:29 PM

Don't blame the retail employees who are actually present for there being a lack of help or empty shelves. I can only speak for my company (midwestern grocery/dry goods chain, same format as Super Walmart), but we have very specific corporate-imposed limits of how much labor can be used, and it's usually about a third of what we would need to actually provide as much help as customers would like. Sullen, rude retail employees are sick of being blamed for conditions they have no control over while they are trying to do the work of two or three people. Try doing the best work you can under difficult conditions while getting screamed at for things that aren't your fault all the time, meanwhile being paid insultingly low wages, and see how much "service with a smile" you can muster up. Burnout? Yeah, we have burnout. That's also why most of our employees are inexperienced- they can only stand to be there for a year or two at most.
We do have a serious problem with re-stocking, but as I said it's all controlled by the corporate computer system, and depends heavily on imports from Southeast Asia. Our products can take up to three months longer to arrive than they were promised, and our shelf will sit empty all that time. Ask us when the product will arrive, and the answer will be "Um... I dunno"- because it's true!
Frankly, I think the entire big-box operation system is flawed. As other posters have said, Walmart proved that price seems to be the only thing that matters to American consumers, and companies have decided that the way to get lower prices is to slash labor costs and stock cheap, unreliable imports. If you want better service, *please* patronize your local mom-and-pop store, buy non-imported products, and put my company and Walmart out of business. Vote with your dollar. I'm serious.

Posted by: retail employee in OH | June 10, 2006 10:23 AM

It is true, most regular employees, cashiers, stockers, non management workers, have no idea why stock is not on the shelves or when more is coming in. If all you do on your shift is ring on the registar, how can you know whats in the back? If you're the only cashier on duty, you can't leave to check.
If there isn't a customer service desk,
simply ask for a manager, they have the freedom to wander around a store, check the warehouse or knows the right employee who can help you.

Posted by: SV | June 11, 2006 6:38 PM

As I read the bad customer examples by Stories I finally came to the conclusion that maybe there's just too much rude in our country out of everybody! I've had my share, but you might top anything I came up against. My sister complains the most now about trying to wait on people talking on cell phones and how ridiculous that is getting.

To RX. Are you sure you don't just have a big chip on your shoulder in general? People that assume you work there because you can't get better are ignornat? Are you smarter than most? You sound as though all customers are bad to you and you dislike your job a tremendous amount. I have the feeling you're immediately resenting anybody that walks up because of some bad ones. Put a smile on your face if they are ridiculous and work them with some charm. Kindness does win in the end. Perhaps they'll feel like an idiot if you don't take the bate. Please remember as well - you're selling pills. Some of the people you're waiting on might be very ill. You have NO CLUE. Have a bit of empathy.

Posted by: Sally | June 12, 2006 10:19 AM

A couple nice things about Circuit City:

1.) Their web site states whether a product is/isn't in stock at a particular store.

2.) You can order online, and pick the item up at the store, so you don't have to deal with any salespeople.

IMHO, today's retail salespeople get crappy pay and crappy training, so it's hard to blame them for incompetence or lack of motivation.

As for inventory, it's a matter of upper-level managerial incompetence. With "computerized everything", it's appalling that there are so many stock-outs. In at least some chains, local store managers have absolutely no control over inventory, and don't even know what's going to be included in the next shippment they recieve.

Posted by: John Johnson | June 13, 2006 10:36 AM

"If you want better service, *please* patronize your local mom-and-pop store, buy non-imported products, and put my company and Walmart out of business. Vote with your dollar. I'm serious."

I'll second that. I'm fortunate enough to live in an area populated with small businesses; the selection might not always be as good, but things are in stock, the employees are knowledgeable, and service is great. I go out of my way to avoid chain stores when possible.

Posted by: California Girl | June 13, 2006 10:43 AM

The stores would be better off if they would just put up huge vending machines - because that's the level of service they provide. But I wonder if they will be able to keep them stocked?

Posted by: Been there | June 13, 2006 3:23 PM

"You have NO CLUE. Have a bit of empathy."

Trust me, I know what "ills" the customers have! It's very easy to tell based on their prescription profiles.

You have no idea what it's like to work behind a counter of a pharmacy. The phones ring (yes, multiple phones - doctors, customers, other chains wanting transfers or information), stuff comes in through the fax, people want to wait, insurance rejects claims for numerous reasons, refills are in the computer that were automated over night (anywhere from 30 - 50 to just start the morning off) need to be taken care of -- people need patience and many of them need to discuss with their doctors why they're taking so many darn medications. Just because we don't have a line does not mean we aren't backed up! And I do smile and kill them with kindness. But as I said, if you're going to be nasty to me, I'm going to have a hard time being nice to you.

What goes around, comes around. I agree with a previous poster -- everyone should work retail and food services once in their lifetimes. I have done both and you learn to appreciate other chains/restaurants and that people can have bad days from time to time.

Posted by: RxTech | June 14, 2006 1:09 PM

Would you expect the same Staples salesperson who could advise you on a phone also advise you on the what the best Avery labels to buy, what the differences between the printer/copier paper was, what the best shipping tape would be to use for packages, be able to make and bind copies of a document, advise you on the best software for your particular requirement, what pens lasted the longest, etc.? If not, then that would require additional personnel to handle all those particular requirements, wouldn't it? Then Staples would have all these salepeople just standing around waiting for someone to come through the doors because nobody will for Staple's prices would be sky high (in order to pay for these additional people).

It's a balance between service and profitability.

Posted by: ABH | June 14, 2006 1:31 PM

As a former small business ownwer, I have to agree with Ken Panza about Office Depot, though the service and selection vary from store to store there, too. The Manassas (Bull Run Plaza) Office Depot has typically been very good, as has the newer Chantilly location on Flint Lee Road near Rt. 50. I never had much luck with the smaller locations, like Price Club Plaza in Fairfax. Much seems to depend on the manager, as is often true in retailing.

Posted by: Anne in Centreville | June 15, 2006 9:31 AM

I have been in Staples many times looking for items, and told: "Oh, we don't carry that in the stores, but it's on our web site!" Thanks, but that's not helpful to me . . .

On the other hand, I have also had employees help me try to find items on the shelves or suggest other items that might work. (or other stores to search!)
One helpful employee can certainly change your mind about an entire store!

Posted by: ECB | June 15, 2006 10:32 AM

The main reason customer service is so-o-o bad is because the customer takes the abuse. When was the last time you stood in a long checkout line at Giant/CVS/Lowes? Did you complain to the manager about the long wait? I mean did YOU actually get out of line, go up to the manager's office and complain? My guess is no. I have on numerous occassions - with results. As long as you are willing to stand there and take this terrible customer "service", management will continue to dish it out. If the manager says he is shorthanded, ask him if HE knows how to operate a cash register. I'm not nasty about it, but they do get the message.

Posted by: Sheila | June 15, 2006 2:33 PM

I wish I lived in New York or L.A.!!!!

I need to respond to the post about TERRIBLE CUSTOMER in MIAMI. While most of you do not live or visit Miami, please take note anyway. This can save you and the people you know a lot of heart ache and pain.

Miami is a TERRIBLE place for customer service. If you need customer on your vacation, or you want to move to a place with good customer service, then MIAMI IS NOT FOR YOU.

I am a business owner in Miami. I am highly educated. I have been part owner of a successful Customer Service company in Dallas, TX.

People in Miami are generally uneducated and rude. 66% of Miami speaks English as a second language. There are thousands of people in Miami that speak no English whatsoever. Most people who are supposed to provide customer service will just nod their head to you, because they have no idea what you are saying.

I am embarrassed to say as the owner of a business and a self proclaimed Customer Service Expert, that my company turns down a number customers in Miami. Why? Because so many people are so rude and so uneducated, that we can't afford to take their business.

These rude and uneducated people usually cause problems. They always want to negotiate the price, after they receive a service (as if we were in Latin America). Then they want to complain so they can try to get something for free. These people are a huge strain on our employees and resources.

How we cope with bad customers is to tell them, "Thank you for your business. Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to meet your satisfaction in the future. Please do not come again." Sounds like terrible customer service? Well, "Bienvenido a Miami" or "Welcome to Miami."

Posted by: Johnny | June 22, 2006 3:30 PM

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