Rubbish Retail

dick smith

dick smith (Photo credit: sensesmaybenumbed)

All you people who complain that it’s the GST and the Aussie dollar that makes us all buy online, I’ve got a story for you.

I broke my Kindle. I tripped on the back step and, as well as collecting some bruises, I slammed the Kindle on the floor and got coffee all over it. I thought it was going to be OK, but two days later it refused to charge.

Wednesday morning I gave up and went looking to buy a new one. Unfortunately Amazon only sells through a small number of retailers locally and none of them offer overnight delivery.

Dick Smith does carry Kindles, but my favourite Dick Smith store was out of stock. The young man on the phone suggested I try “Click and Collect” — where I buy on the web site and it tells me which stores I can pick up from. (That might be why it’s my favourite Dick Smith: good staff there.)

“Click and Collect” told me that a nearby store had them, so I paid my money and set off to the shopping centre for my morning errands and shopping.

After stopping in at two other stores, I arrived at Dick Smith. I’m so used to complaining about bad service in chain retail stores that I routinely look at my phone to check the time when I get to the counter. So I can be accurate when I tell you that the problems started when I waited at the registers for nine minutes before being served.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, please. I have a Kindle that I ‘clicked and collected’ to pick up.”

“What was the name.”


(Some hacking away at the keyboard.) “Just let me get that for you.”

Six minutes later: “I’ll just need to check the stock room.”

Eleven minutes into the search with the assistance of another staff member: “I’ll just check the cabinets.”

I took a seat and waited. Nineteen minutes after the search started he decided to ring the store manager.

Apparently the manager had spent some time looking for the six they were supposed to have in stock the previous day, so he had no idea.

At this point — 31 minutes since I’d walked up to the counter — things really started to go bad. I went from patient and polite, to fed up and angry.

“So you’re telling me that I have paid for my Kindle, and been told by your system that I can come here and pick it up, but you don’t have it. You’re telling me that the store manager knew the stock was missing yesterday but didn’t tell the system or do anything else about it. I’ve come to this shopping centre just to pick it up.”

“Oh, we can’t tell the system something is missing — we have to totally write it off.”

Oh, boy, was that a mistake. You don’t ever want to blame the computer system to me when I’m angry. I spent several years writing computer systems, including two stock control systems, and won’t take it.

“That’s not my problem. That’s just a terrible excuse. When was the last time you suggested they add that function to the system? You never have, so you’ve accepted responsibility for a bad system. Unless you do something, you’re just putting up with mediocre from your store manager and the company. Keep doing that and you don’t have a job —because people like me will go and shop where people care. Do you think if I could have got my Kindle overnight online I’d have come in to this chaos?

“Now, you either give me the Kindle I’ve paid for or I’ll take the more expensive model for the same price. I’ll even accept your display model, in exchange for a partial refund.”

By this stage I’ve emptied the store. I’ve also seen more than one person walk in, wait a moment, and walk out again.

“We can’t find the 3G model either, and the display ones don’t work once they leave the store. Would you mind lowering your voice.”

“I would mind lowering my voice. I’m only hearing excuses and problems. Where are solutions and suggestions?”

“Well, sir, we have stock at Blacktown if that’s close to where you live.”

“Why should I trust that you have stock there? I was told you have stock here. You expect me to drive to Blacktown, on my time and expense, on the off chance that your computer system is right — all evidence to the contrary?

“I’ve already driven here for this particular errand. I still have to do my grocery shopping. You get your Blacktown store to put it in a taxi, or get it here in the next hour and I’ll come back for it.”

“I can’t do that. I have a returned unit — would you like to check it out?”

“OK, let me look at it.”

I had a look at the return, and it’s in perfect condition.

“OK, I’ll take this if you give it to me with a $36 refund.” (That’s 20%.)

“I can’t do that. You’ve already paid for it.”

“Then give me a $36 Woolworth’s gift card as well.”

“I’m not allowed to do that.”

“Then get your manager back on the phone and I’ll discuss it with him.”

In front of me he rings the store manager and has to tell him what I’ll accept. The manager obviously asks him a bunch of questions — most of which get answered with “Yes,” but another with “quite upset” — so I figure I know what’s going on.

In the end, I walked out with the return and the gift card.

I tell this tale to explain why I buy almost everything through a small number of online retailers. This was handled badly from moment one. I’ve worked in desktop support and learnt a great deal about how to handle people when things are going wrong and the staff at this store couldn’t have done much worse if they’d deliberately set out to make me angry.


First, the moment anything goes wrong, assume that it is going to be the worst possible outcome and plan for it. The moment the Kindle was not exactly where it should have been, he should have stopped looking because the worst possible outcome was that he wouldn’t find it after half an hour of searching. From that moment, handling the customer should have been priority one.

So he should have come back and said “I’m going to have to check our stock room. Why don’t you take a seat over there while I do that.” That also gets me away from the register counter.

Next, get assistance sooner rather than later. He should have got another staff member to ring the store manager straight away — not after twenty minutes of escalating customer frustration — while he went back to looking for the Kindle.

Finally, never say anything that sounds like an excuse. Problems in your store or in your system are entirely your problems, not the customer’s. Look back over that story and you see that almost everything said to me was an excuse.

The other thing that’s obvious from this tale is that there is either no procedure for this problem, or (worse) that none of the three staff in the store know the procedure. When you put something like “Click and Collect” into your retail system, you should plan for potential glitches. A store not having the stock would seem to me an obvious problem that might arise.

I’ve got a quick question for you: How long do you think it will be before I buy anything at Dick Smith again?

It’s possible to do it right

Getting It Right

Before I go, I’d like to point out how unnecessary this is. It’s possible to do bricks and mortar retail, get it right, and make money. On a small scale, I know speciality retailers who I will seek out: the paper shop at Enmore, and the braid and button shops in Newtown, for example.

There is one example of a huge chain that does bricks and mortar on skinny margins and makes a lot of money. I don’t love McDonald’s food, though I do sometimes eat it. I don’t admire its marketing, or what the fast food industry might be doing for our health, but I admire a lot about the way McDonald’s does retail — and the way it handles staff, responsibility and customers.

How does McDonald’s handle staff? OK, It doesn’t overpay, and it does hire young people so it can get cheap labour. On the other hand it trains those staff well, and respects them and their skills. It also rewards good staff with more training, more responsibility and more money.

A family close to mine lost their father when three children were all young. As soon as she could, the oldest went out to get a job and a family friend got her one at a local McDonald’s. As she was hard-working and intelligent, by the time she was about to leave high school she was an assistant manager and had been on several training courses. When the owner of her store heard she wanted to go to Armidale to study, he contacted the store owner there and — before she even knew she was accepted at the University of New England — she had an offer of a job as shift leader, and back to assistant manager as soon as an opening was available.

In her final year in a Communications degree she needed to find an internship during her Uni breaks to fulfil her course requirements. A phone call from the Armidale store owner to McDonald’s national HQ, and she had a paid internship (most of her classmates were working free) at one of the companies that handled McDonald’s PR.


How does McDonald’s handle responsibility? Just spend some time watching at one of the stores and you realise the philosophy is that everything is everyone’s responsibility. I’ve seen what looked like the store owner break out of a meeting to grab a cloth and clean tables. Certainly, store managers do their paperwork where they can watch the front counter and jump in to help if they get swamped.

I’m told that it goes the other way too. Apparently the managers will listen to a suggestion from any member of staff and treat it with serious consideration.

How does McDonald’s do customer service? Here’s something I watched just a couple of weeks ago when I was getting a hangover breakfast.

A young woman walked up to the counter with a little boy of perhaps three or four.

“Excuse me, do you have a Band-Aid?”

“Certainly. What’s the problem? Just come over here.” A staff member then led them a couple of feet away and sat them at a table.

“My little boy’s cut the side of his hand.”

“OK,” (a clean napkin appeared in the server’s hand) “put this on it, and I’ll be back with a Band-Aid in a moment.” He was indeed back in a moment, with a child’s Band-Aid and a tube of ointment.

“We’ll just put this antiseptic ointment on, then the Band-Aid,” he said to the little boy and started doing it. “Can I ask how it happened? I’d like to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said to Mum.

“Oh, he cut it on his toy gun.”

“Oh, dear. Better be more careful,” he said to the child.

With the Band-Aid applied, he asked “Do you think Mum would let you have an ice-cream?” The server picked up all the litter from the Band-Aid and came back with a soft cone for the child.

Now that was customer service done well. I’d also be surprised if almost all of that wasn’t part of some standard McDonald’s procedure the young man had been trained in. It has a couple of signs:

  • First, he got them away from the high traffic counter immediately;
  • Second, he discreetly discovered if McDonald’s might have some liability — I’d bet his first task after he left the table was to grab some book out the back and quickly fill out a form;
  • Finally, he over-delivered — slightly — to both the Mum (the antiseptic ointment) and the child (the ice cream).

At a McDonald’s, it seems, as much as possible is procedure. It gets a lot of win out of that. You can train people in procedure. It also means that when something happens your staff aren’t as stressed — they know what to do.

You can also spend a lot of time and money getting the procedure right because it pays off in the long run. There are over 31,000 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide. If some task at a McDonald’s store needs to be done once a day, and you come up with a way of saving thirty seconds doing it, you have saved McDonald’s 280 hours of labour — every day. Imagine the importance to McDonald’s of saving time and effort in performing a task that is done several times an hour.

(The nice thing about this win is that if you do the studies, you find that all this procedure makes it easier and safer for your staff as well.)

That’s how you do chain retail.

It’s not a difficult concept to grasp. The only way bricks and mortar can beat online is personal service — If you don’t give us well-trained, well-informed staff, then what do we need you for? Online can usually give me next-day or sometimes same-day delivery, for an unbelievably low cost. They can offer a wider range and better stock levels.

The Australian retailers currently blaming everything under the sun for their problems are just fooling themselves.

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