A Tale of Two Stores

Imagine my joy. On the plane to Chicago, I had read a review of Thomas Pynchon’s new book, Inherent Vice, and in the taxi from the airport, I saw one of the large chain bookstores just a block from my hotel. I anticipated the novel would transport me far from the blandness of one more hotel room.

When I entered the bookstore, I was greeted by a young lady eager to help. I asked her about the book and she took me over to the wall of best sellers. After scanning the shelves for a couple of moments, she informed me that they didn’t have it. When she left me to my own devices, another customer, having overheard our conversation, directed me to the shelf it was on. As I walked toward the cash registers with my book, I passed a section not ten feet away with hundreds of copies of the book prominently displayed.

We’re learning from brain science how flawed both our perception and our thinking can be. While we tend to focus on breakdowns in complex areas such as strategy, we can be remarkably thick when it comes to even the simplest of things.

I’m not talking about the young lady, for I suspect she did the best she could with what she had. I’m talking about the decisions of management, when it comes to the allocation of resources for staffing, training, or technology. Further evidence of just plain bad business judgement was apparent when I went to pay for my book.

There were two banks of cash registers. One had apparently not been used for quite a while, because boxes of books were haphazardly piled on the counter. The other bank had five registers marked with large numbers, but only two were staffed. A long line of customers waiting to pay snaked through several aisles.

It seems to me rather short-sighted to make people stand in line to give you their money, rather than making it as easy as possible. But there we stood, waiting and waiting, as the line inched forward. Soon we were grumbling to one another about the torture we were forced to endure.

Several customers simply gave up and left. Others told their fellow sufferers that they would never come back to this store. When it was finally my turn to pay, I couldn’t resist suggesting to the cashier that making people wait that long wasn’t good for business. He readily admitted that the store was always horribly understaffed.

What could management be thinking? Most likely, the same thing lots of business managers think during hard times: we need to cut costs. Labor is one the few variable costs, so it’s just common sense to reduce staff. Similar decisions are made in business everyday.

But such a decision will potentially cost far more in the long term than it will save in the short term. There’s no shortage of available labor, so doubling the number of cashiers couldn’t possible cost more than another twenty-five or thirty dollars an hour. With a two story building in a prime shopping area of downtown Chicago, such an expenditure is insignificant. And I heard enough people swear to never return to the store that the cost of lost business was at least several multiples of that twenty-five to thirty dollars.

But there is an even more profound flaw in management’s thinking. While a greeter at the front door is a nice touch, in my case it ended up detracting from my satisfaction as a customer. It doesn’t appear that anyone fully empathized and anticipated the entire customer experience, from beginning to end. If they had, the greeter would’ve been trained to locate books or at the very least have a handheld computer that would locate them for her.

In fact, I bet there’s an iphone app that would enable her to tie into the store’s central computer system, and the cost would be as insignificant as adding a couple of more cashiers. If management had walked a couple of blocks down the street, they would’ve found an Apple store where they could buy the technology. They would’ve also found a retail experience that was brilliantly managed from start to finish.

After finally completing my purchase, I went to the Apple store just to look at the new iphone. ¬†Again, I was greeted at the front door, but then I was escorted to a specialist, who took me over to the iphone area, knowledgeably answered all of my questions, and in short order convinced me to buy the phone. He then set the phone up, taught me how to use it, and even downloaded the owner’s manual on to the phone.

The phone itself is enticing, both technically and aesthetically. Even the packaging is a treat. When it came time to pay, there was no line to wait in. My specialist had a handheld computer that managed the transaction and emailed me my receipt. Apple has created not only a great product, but a a great customer experience. I have to believe that strong empathy with the customer guides all of the company’s decisions, from product design to retail layout and staffing.

Brain science teaches us how just focusing on the numbers leads to trading off the long-term for the short-term, no matter how reasonable the anticipated cost savings may be. It also teaches us how buying decisions are driven emotionally and how important empathy is to building satisfying relationships with other people, customers included. But one doesn’t need sophisticated brain scans to see what better thinking will do for a business. Just stroll down Michigan Avenue and stop in both the bookstore and the Apple store.

Leave a Comment