Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Wal-Mart and the customer service problem

A Business Week story titled "Wal-Mart: A Snap Inspection" broke this morning. It analyzes the company's difficulties in growing market share and boosting a lagging stock price if its front-line workers are disinterested or indeed actively hostile to customers. You can read the full story here or by clicking the link above. Disclaimer: Behind the Counter was featured in the Dec. 11, 2006 issue of Business Week in the "Blogspotting" section.

The story lays out the facts that Bentonville's brain trust can cut prices all it wants but a bad store experience, poorly laid out, unattractive stores, out-of-stock merchandise and surly, unhelpful employees are going to drive shoppers away faster than "Save Money, Live Better" can reel them in.

Well, duh. That took an investigative journalist to figure out.

I'd like to address some of the things the reporters from Business Week either don't know or apparently forgot to find out while researching the article.

They repeatedly complain about store employees being unable to offer assistance in finding out if an item is at another store or if a shipment is coming in. Let's break down how this works at the Wal-Mart.

1. There exists in the Wal-Mart computer system a method of telling if an item is at another store. However, a member of management has to SPECIFICALLY give you the option in the computer system to use it. Regular sales associates DO NOT have those options and wouldn't know it if it slapped them. Plus, there are about 100,000 different items in the store. I need the 10-digit UPC code.

2. "Shipments" is a laughable term. We get two to three trucks a night. If Bentonville decides to send it, we get it. Sometimes, we don't even get bags to put the damn paid-for merchandise in and we have to GO TO SAM'S AND BUY BAGS.

3. The phrase I dread the most is "Can you call another Wal-Mart?" Yes. I can. I don't want to, because they are just as bad as mine.

4. The staff is hostile. Well, let's examine that for a moment. I'll tell you why the employees are hostile.

Two Sundays ago, I went in at 2 p.m. The "wonderful" magic scheduling computer had two people on the Service Desk from 7-3 on a Sunday and just me all night till 11 p.m. My first break was essentially long enough to buy a Coke and a bag chips and go to the bathroom. The registers literally lock you out after five hours and 45 minutes because federal labor laws do not allow you to work six hours without a lunch. I finished the customer I was working on and walked to the time clock.

They begged a girl to stay an extra 30 minutes and came and found me and told me I had to come back in 30 minutes because it was busy. I ate and went back and didn't stop again until 11 p.m. In the entire time I was there from 2 - 11 p.m. I had about 30 minutes off the clock, plus about 10 minutes for my break. I never snapped at a customer or lost my cool, but I can and will say that I probably gave less than my usual HAPPY-HAPPY as the night wore on.

5. Items are locked up or not available for touch-me-play-with-me displays. Please refer to the recurring "Five Finger Fridays" posts for why this is.

Look. It's a Wal-Mart. It is filled with the ghetto trash of humanity looking for a place to buy cheap plastic crap by the buggy-full. House of Wal shoppers are NOT discriminating customers. Until the people in Bentonville figure this out, nothing is going to change. Until they staff it and get better loss prevention methods in place, the computers, iPods and televisions need to be bolted down or they will continue to walk off.

Heck, we can't even leave our DISPLAY power tools out any more. The Hardware department manager got a new set of Black & Decker displays on Thursday and put them out. The displays have the cords cut off at an inch long and are attached to the shelves by metal and plastic security strips. She came in on Monday to find FIVE drills, saws and nail guns all gone. If it is not under glass, it is free for the taking.

6. Lack of service in some areas. I'll second that.

Our electronics department is now empty after 9 p.m. every night of the week now, because hours were cut across the board at our store. Last month, all full time employees got 38 hours. Three weeks ago, they got 36 hours. Two weeks ago, they got 32. Last week, they got 29. They will continue to get 29 until our sales go back up and they can justify giving them more hours. Well, the Catch-22 is that the service our customers are getting is so bad our sales are going to stay down. Typical Wal-Logic.

7. The "do you have this?" question. Look. I know. You're in a store looking to buy something. We're a Customer Service slave. We're there to help.

However, you need to understand. You're in a Wal-Mart. I'm making less than $9 an hour and I probably don't speak real good English. Nor do I have affordable health insurance.

Also, whoever you asked that question gets asked some variation thereof at LEAST 200 times a day from people who are completely incapable of looking three feet to the left for the shampoo or the coffeemakers or the blue shirts.

If Wal-Mart wants to cater to the upscale target demographic, it needs to hire better employees, train them better and pay them enough to care. Telling them to care simply isn't going to do it.


Nicholas Weaver said...

Or, better yet, don't bother trying to go upscale, or at least don't call it Wal*Mart.

Wal*Mart works because there is a nontrivial fraction of the US population which really needs Wal*Mart. There are those who, the $.02/roll cheaper toilet paper is essential. Where Wal*Mart's "check" card is the best deal they can get.

Wal*Mart made it big serving this fraction of the population. But they aren't going to be able to get even the Target market ("pay 1% more, don't feel unclean"), let alone anything above that.

On my way home from work, I had 10 minutes to kill before the bridge's carpool lane would be no-toll. So I stopped at a Wal*Mart flagshship store in Richmond, where they went into the old Macy's location at the mall.

But even using the slightly-more-decent shelves that Target buys seemed not thought about, because making it slightly nicer overall would cost 1%, and Wal*Mart needs that "we cost 1% less", otherwise their bread and butter customer will go elsewhere

FARfetched said...

The question is: has the memo from Bentonville come down to "care more" yet? Do you expect to see one shortly?

If I owned a retail chain, I'd be rotating people through all the jobs, from cashier to front-line management. Having a manager that knows how stuff actually works, or one that understands the people they're selling to (not to mention the people on the floor), would be like gold.

Ihar Filipau said...

"If Wal-Mart wants to cater to the upscale target demographic, it needs to hire better employees, train them better and pay them enough to care."

As much as I want you guys to made decent living off your work, "pay[ing] them enough" will not magically translate into better service.

But surely, paying less, indeed translates into poor service.

MK said...

So, you worked 9 hours and got 40 minutes for a break? That's normal!!! I often work thirteen hour shifts with a fifteen minute break, so don't complain!

Anonymous said...

Hmm... I have Item Locator and I'm a 16 year old sales associate in electronics.

All you need to do is ask management and they add it. But I do agree that management needs to learn more before becoming management.

Cyndi said...

MK - That breaks Federal labor laws. You might want to check into it.

Unless you're salaried, that is. Then your company has the legal right to rape you for all your worth.

Ol' Lady said...

I wonder why in the Canadian Wal*Mart's the staff get paid above min. wage and the health plan is awesome??? My mother's husband stays working at Wal*Mart just because of the health plan...honest to God

Anonymous said...

Canada has socialized health care, which probably has something to do with why the plan is better--Wal Mart has less to pay for.

The Crutnacker said...

As a Wal-Mart customer from before 95% of the country knew what the heck it was, I can say that Wal-Mart's problem is that it essentially abandoned everything in its history but EVERYDAY LOW PRICES.

20 years ago, my local Wal-Mart was about 2/3 the size of your average Target. It was open from 10 to 9. It was staffed with the same people who all looked at it as a decent career. The shelves were well stocked. It was the first large discount store in our rural area, and as such, was a bit of a godsend. Prices were cheap, and they sold good quality products (Sony, Pioneer, and others back when those brands truly meant something.) In a store that size, it still wasn't uncommon for five or more checkout lanes to be open at all times. And let us not forget the large banners that told you how many jobs Wal-Mart had saved by buying American.

In its infinite wisdom, Wal-Mart closed that store about 10 years ago, replacing it with a SUPERCENTER 10 miles down the road. Every employee that was transferred (after years of working there) quit within a year, now unable to get a halfway decent schedule. The store is filthy and you can fire a shotgun in seven directions and not hit an employee.

I used to love Wal-Mart. Now it's a soul sucking chore to go in there.

j-yo said...

I go to Target because, even though it's a discount store, the employees are helpful, most of the customers are bathed and have teeth, the floors aren't sticky and the place doesn't smell bad. Just driving past my neighborhood Wal-Mart makes me want to take a bath.

As Nicholas Weaver mentioned, a segment of Wal-Mart shoppers really do need to go there because of the prices. The rest of the shoppers are there because they're gluttons for conspicuous consumption, valuing quantity over quality. They see something on TV and they want it, never mind the fact that their trailers need repairs and the kids don't have dental care. With this bunch roaming your their stores, how exactly does the House of Wal expect to attract more discriminating shoppers?

The Crutnacker said...

Perhaps that is the unspoken problem with Wal-Mart (and one that no socially minded commentator will mention). Wal-Mart has become the neighborhood you don't want to buy a house in. You may visit a friend there, but you leave before dark and say a prayer for the fact you don't have to go there that often.

NightShade said...

Ah I remember Wal-Mart well.
I was working at one when
Sam past. He was a decent
guy. For example he
used to pay TIME AND A HALF
(overtime) to anyone having
to work Sunday.

It's literally has been
years since I've bought
anything at WalMart. Why?
Besides the dirty factor
it's about being able to
be checked out quickly.
Goto Target maybe pay
slightly more... but when
it's time to go... I get
to leave! :)

Anonymous said...

Besides being intelligent and insightful, you're the first collective "group" of commenters who've hit the nail on the head!

I'm with you on all counts of why I HATE Walmart!

I truly hope I live long enough to see these bastards FALL!

Anonymous said...

Nightshade is right ,,, it is about being able to be checked out without the 10 to 15 min wait. Several times I have just walked out leaving a full cart of groceries because of only 4 or 5 lanes open and all packed. Self check out, no thanks, I don't work for walmart for free ,,, give a discount for self checkout and i will.

Anonymous said...

Believe me, it is the same stupid ideas at all BIG BOX stores. I used to be a SALES MANAGER( like an assistant, but higher) for Lowe's. Same stupid crap - cut hours but don't let service slip. DUH. Have alot of people working, and keep them happy, and sales will go up. Of course not within a week, but they will go up. I left and joined a small, family owned business where service to the customer TRULY is the most important thing, and we don't have a banner 12 foot by 200 foot saying so. And P.S. - I get paid more as a salesman than I did as a MAnager for Lowe's. Alot less responsibility, alot more money...and my customers love me.

High-Maintenance & Hostile Heidi said...

I truly hope I live long enough to see these bastards FALL!

I don't think you'll have to wait long. They are falling.

BBC, did you see/hear about this article on Page One of today's Wall Street Journal entitled, "Wal-Mart Era Wanes
Amid Big Shifts in Retail"?


It starts out, "The Wal-Mart Era, the retailer's time of overwhelming business and social influence in America, is drawing to a close."

Wal-Mart caused its own demise, but it isn't making me feel any better now that the "affluent" are the ones driving the market and causing sales to soar at the upscale, high end retailers like Whole Foods, Tiffany, and Neiman Marcus. To me that is a sign of a very weak economy because only the "elite" are able to spend money (when sales at Wal-Mart soar you know the middle-class to poor are spending).

Clark said...

Not all of us who shop at Wal-Mart are bottom feeding, uneductated buffoons with a trailer of howler monkeys and bad credit.
I live in Fort Smith, AR. 60 miles away from the corporate HQ of wal-mart.
Being so close, we are flooded with wallyworlds.
It's significantly cheaper to go to Wal-Mart that it is to go to the three grocery stores in town. Even with coupons off at those places, WM is still cheaper.
There's a Super K in town and it is a nasty place. It's like y'all have described your WM's.
The one we goto will have a Target within the five mile radius by next year and thus the prices will go lower.
We will be shopping at the Target more because it will be right across the street from where my wife teaches school.
I agree WM can do a whole helluva lot better with its employee insurance, wages, etc. I just resent being painted with the same brush as others.

Ol' Lady said...

anonymous...The 'socialized' health care that you think Canada has is not what most Americans think. The health care does not pay for drugs, therapy(physio or mental), all costs for hosiptal stays, dental, glasses, equipment to administer medication, cast's for broken limbs, wheel chairs...and very many more things. Each provience does have some sort of health care, meaning if you go into an emergency dept or clinic you will be seen by a doctor and if you need drugs the doctor will prescribe it(but you have to buy it) you are also able to go to a doctor and not be charged for the visit, but the doctor can (and lots do) charge you for other things while you are there (referrals, prescriptions, ect) the added fun feature is that many many people do not have a family doctor, cause there are none. There is a shortage of doctor's in this country.
Another point...the proviencial health care is NOT FREE, we are taxed on our income for health care (special form in our tax return for health care)
Wal-Mart offers health plans in Canada, the employee pays a percentage of the cost to have it. I think there is no justifiable reason that Wallyworld in USA cannot offer health plans to their employees. I bet the powers that be in the top offices of Wallyworld have health coverage.
Sorry about going on for so long but when people from another country say that Canadians have free health care it pisses me off because we don't.
I think that USA has alot of pluses in their health care availability compaired to Canada.
Have a nice day (we are also polite in Canada) :)

paintpaste said...

thank you ol' lady...you couldn't have said it better. i dont have a family doctor anymore because he only works from 2pm to 5pm and doesn't accept walk-ins?! this is why i find myself making appointments at walk-in clinics and waiting for 3.5hrs to see a doctor for 5mins. i'd rather be at my local walmart buying cheap yarn :P

Anonymous said...

Honestly, your recommendation could be applied to every customer service business out there. I work at a video store we have a similar problem:

Customer: "Do you have such-and-such a movie in? There weren't any on the shelf."
Me: "Nope, we are all out. Sorry!"
C: "You guys only got X amount of that movie? That's stupid. No wonder you don't have any."
M: "I agree. I can keep an eye out for one and hold it for you if you want to wait."
C: "No, I'll just take this." (C now sighs dejectedly and slams a different movie on the counter)
M (upon seeing C's account): "Alright, it looks like there's a $X late balance on the account"
C: "Oh, I'll just pay it next time." or "I'll just put a dollar down today."

What C doesn't realize is that the amount of movies a movie rental store gets is determined by the store's revenue. For rental stores, revenue is largely based on late charge collections. If you put a dollar on your $25 late fee, you just lost the store another copy of Snow Buddies or whatever else you're trying to get.

On a separate note, although I realize that it sucks to work a 9 hour shift with only a 30 minute break, I work every shift with NO break. My employer gets around the whole break situation by claiming that whenever we are not helping a customer at the cash register, we are on break. Like there aren't a million other things to get done...