retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Got an email from MNB user Craig Espelien that continues the saga of his customer service experience with Apple, which I think ought to be instructive for anyone in the customer service business:

Well, I still have not heard from Kimberly Wilbrecht at Apple Corporate (and probably never will) but I need to make a new computer purchase soon.  I researched Apple computers online (so many friends who use a Mac cannot say enough good things about it) online – and found a pretty good site – – that had a few discounts and allowed you to build a computer (sort of like going to the Dell site) to get everything you want.

Before I took the plunge, I was determined to allow Apple one more shot at actually providing customer service – so I headed over to the Rosedale store (much smaller than the Mall of America store, more people working there, same number of people shopping and an MUCH higher energy level overall).  I walked in the door and was greeted by a Walmart refugee (younger – but probably one of those overnight greeters that Wally world recently terminated) – just kidding, there were two people “greeting” at the front of the store and they immediately engaged me.

They asked if I needed help (I said yes) and they directed me to another one of those folks playing with an iPad to get in some sort of service queue (I tensed up as the scheduler bore a striking resemblance to the slacker at the MOA store) when another Apple employee (there were three leaning against a table near the front of the store waiting to help folks – which seemed to escape the greeter) – Chelsea Matson stepped up and said she could help.  She has a card that says she is an “Expert” (she had someone shadowing her – I assume is was someone getting trained in – so my guess is she knows a bit about Apple’s offerings) and she immediately escorted me to the area where the MacBook Pro’s were (I told her that is what I was interested in).  She asked a few questions about my needs, asked a few more clarifying questions (I gave her my tale of woe with the MOA store) and she did her best to answer all of my questions, point out the benefits of the MacBook, offer their service package and did a really good job of making me feel like she actually cared (I think she did).  She also stated that they would price match – and so we went out to the MacMall site to see what they were offering.  The machine I had selected there was one generation behind and she offered a variety of ways to get a discount (my wife is a teacher – so we will get the teacher discount) and why it is better to buy it from the store (especially if there is a problem – with Apple Care they just hand you a new computer if yours breaks).

I almost pulled the trigger right there – but want to make sure Michelle can navigate the computer and want her exposed to it right out of the gate.  It looks like we will return this weekend and get a new computer!!

The lesson – it is not the company but again the people who make service come to life.  Without Chelsea’s interaction with me, I may have still bought a Mac but would not have liked the company any more (and the stores that much less).  She did a great job of helping me understand the options, the benefits and the savings of buying at the Apple store.  I still will not go back to the MOA store and if Kimberly does eventually call (I doubt it) I will certainly vent my spleen to her – negatively about the MOA store and positively about Chelsea who deserves kudos for picking up the Apple fumble!!

This reinforces the point we keep making here on MNB - there is nobody more important in the retailing business than the person on the front lines who interacts with customers. Nobody.

On another Apple-related subject - accusations that its many of its Asian vendors abuse the workers in their factories - one MNB user wrote:

CBS Sunday Morning News show ran a segment on Apple's vendor relationship with Foxconn who makes most of the worlds small consumer electronics.  Worth watching on the CBS webpage.  I cannot look at my loved iPhone without wondering about about the preteen kid who made it working up to 36 hours in one shift.  In reaction to worker suicides Foxconn factories installed suicide-prevention netting.

I am sure Tim Cook, CEO of Apple is flat out doing everything he possibly can to protect these young workers, unless of course it holds up production, increases cost or reduces the profit of an Apple product.  It was noted, Foxconn manufactures a lot of electronic products for companies besides Apple.

On the subject of how far companies need to go to assure food safety, MNB user Curt Lindy wrote:

Food safety is the responsibility of everybody involved in the long chain from the producer to the ultimate consumer of the product. When one cowers behind ‘I did everything legally required’ it speaks to insufficiency of inadequate regulations at all governmental levels. I applaud those companies that realize higher standard are in everybody best interest and then implement them.”

MNB user Mike Franklin added:

As far as I am concerned about food safety, government regulations set the floor…great companies create the ceiling.

MNB user Jarrett Paschel had some thoughts about the importance of food culture:

The idea that food retailers need to take food—and food culture—seriously is no longer an opinion, position or an insight, it is simply a requirement to ensure any food retailer’s future survival. And as obvious as this sounds, few retailers are currently equipped to handle this challenge.

The main problem is that most of these folks think that the issue can be solved by bringing in a chef and having them build “chef-inspired” recipes for prepared foods or give demos. This kind of thing is simply a thin veneer which sits atop the foundational challenge. Namely, ALL of the team members need to be passionate about food. Best in class examples here include the usual suspects (Whole Foods, Wegman’s etc.), where employee training programs are encouraged to generate true food passion. Currently many major retailers are union shops. And of those that aren’t, few are staffed by food-knowledgeable and/or food-interested team members.
Yesterday I went to a great local food retailer. The Halibut I purchased was firm and pristine, and the counter-person walked out from around the counter and presented me with my selection the way the folks at Nordstrom do. While checking out the team member noticed my collection of items. Red curry paste, coconut milk, lime leaves, limes, ginger and a white wine. He then said “Looks like someone is making a nice Halibut in red curry sauce tonight. Yum. Hey, did you remember the fish sauce?” I replied that I had some at home and he said that was one of the things many people forget. I submit to you that this kind of interest and/or attention would almost never happen at any mainstream grocer. And yet there will be a day when said grocers will need to be at this level to compete.

On the issue of the market for great food being larger than many believe; This idea that consumers are increasingly willing to pay extra for high quality food like the stuff served in food carts. I continue to encounter all sorts of folks who can’t get their heads wrapped around this idea. I once took a VP from a major CPG company to a specialty cupcake place. He scoffed aloud at the idea that “fools” would be suckered into paying $3 for a cupcake. Whenever I meet this attitude I always remind them that some 20+ years ago a company jumped into the American consciousness and convinced us to start paying $2.50 for a cup of coffee instead of the customary 50 cents. Roughly a 3-4X premium. If Starbucks can raise the bar with 3X premiums, it shouldn’t be too hard to accept the fact that most Americans will be willing to part with an extra dollar or two for great food. Ask yourselves, do you want to be the folks left dickering about the price of the 50 cent coffee because you’re worried about causing your customers “sticker shock”? Or would you rather jump ahead with a real quality proposition?

KC's View: