The holiday season is a good time to take stock of how you're treating your customers and how well you're treated as a customer. All of us are breathlessly busy at this time of year, so we get doubly annoyed by anything that gets in the way of smooth sailing. I had the opportunity to compare and contrast two competing retail experiences this week: the Apple Store and the Verizon Wireless store. In both cases, I had the same scenario: I needed something from each provider that I was pretty sure they would each have in stock (power supply for my Blackberry at Verizon Wireless; keyboard at Apple). Going to a local store was the fastest way to get both items.
In both stores, as soon as I walked in the door, I was greeted by a friendly sales associate who offered to help me find what I needed. The Apple store was mobbed, but there were still plenty of salespeople available to help. The Verizon store had 3 customers and 5 salespeople in it. In both cases, I immediately told the salesperson what I wanted, and they immediately walked me to it and put it in my hand. That's where the similarity stopped. Well almost. The sales associates in both stores were wearing red shirts. (Holiday colors??)
BAD RETAIL EXPERIENCE. At the Verizon Wireless store, the sales lady pointed me to the checkout counter—a high counter with two more customer service people sitting behind computer screens. (Is this Verizon's version of Apple's Genius Bar, I wondered?) No, the employees were actually sales people engaged in long sales discussions with customers who were finalizing their purchases of service plans and cell phones. Both customers had lots of questions. And there was a lot of information the salespeople needed to communicate in order to complete the transactions. There was no fast path to checkout. The saleslady who had helped me before didn't offer to ring me up. And the 3rd customer in the store—(someone who had been there before me), was already complaining that she had another appointment at 4 pm, that she had made an appointment for 3:30 to talk through an issue, and still hadn't been served—when could she come back? After she left in a huff, a third sales associate manned the third checkout station, and handled my quick credit card transaction. In doing so, she asked for my phone number, which I didn't appreciate, although I am a Verizon customer.
This isn't the first time that I have marveled at the unique retail experience at an Apple store. I have a fantastic feeling every time I go. I notice how well Apple has thought through the fact that some of us just want a quick transaction. Others want to browse unattended. Others want to browse but ask questions. And still others need special assistance, hence the Genius Bar where you can pre-book for tech support or even get help opportunistically without too long a wait.
JUST-IN-TIME CHECKOUT. What made the difference in the two scenarios? It wasn't really the employees' attitudes. It was the fact that the Apple salesperson could swipe my credit card and get me on my way without sending me to a cash register. My guess is that the expense required to empower salespeople with mobile POS technology and to train them to take payment for orders on the spot is recouped within three months based on the added sales volume you can do if you speed customers on their way. How long do you think it will it take before more stores begin to mimic Apple's signature customer experience?