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Sep 2, 2011

Power Realities in Retail

Retailers only exist to help solve customers' problems and/or meet their needs.  So, having a problem to solve (on a limited budget) I took myself off to my local mall which has recently undergone extensive refurbishment.

The problem ?  I run a few laptops for my SOHO biz, including a netbook – which is one of my favourite pieces of kit.  The computer has been fantastic (incidentally bought at the Harvey Norman store referred to in this story), but unfortunately the power pack has just died – which is a bit of a bummer.  So, I thought, I recalled Harvey Norman had a tech service centre, which might, just might, have a spare part or a universal adaptor.  I wasn't holding my breath though, but thought I would pop down and have a look.

I arrived at the fabulous looking 'new look' Harvey Norman store, and found the tech centre easily right at the front of the store.  I told the tech on duty what I was looking for – he appeared to be only half-listening, insisted on testing the power pack which I had with me (including my laptop bag slung over my shoulder), to find out it had indeed no power.  I was happy for him to be thorough, but his demeanour was a bit detached, as many techies often seem to be.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when he said we could look at a local supplier – and pleased when he rang them up right there and then, to be told that the pack would cost $65, and take about 3 days to source.  I didn't have that sort of money on me, but was happy to spend it.  Imagine my surprise when he 'outsourced' the problem by giving me the supplier's local address and suggesting I pop by there.

He also suggested I speak to his colleague on the salesfloor who could see if they had a universal adaptor, and cautioned me against taking one of the wrong size.  So this was pretty good by the standards of my past experiences with HN, and so I thought, at least I can see how my problem might eventually be solved, and walked onto the salesfloor.

As mentioned, the store is brand new, and had all sorts of new shiny 'stuff' for me to look at, including the replacement model for my netbook – priced at $399 – which was less than I paid a few years back at the original HN store (price deflation is a key category issue). 

The fellow sitting at his little desk on the salesfloor looked a bit surprised when I spoke to him – I guess I had dressed down a bit, but I was carrying a laptop bag, and browsing in his department.  He got up and had a look at the universal product stock – not clearly marked, so I would never have been able to find it myself – and then tried to give me the wrong (larger) one, which I refused.  He said "the little ones have been out of stock for a while, but we will get them in again some time". 

Ok, I thought, I will go down to the local supplier, and carried on browsing through the netbooks – thinking that maybe if I could find one with the same adaptor connection I could at least charge my laptop for a few minutes.  Another, female staff member breezed on by pleasantly greeting me, but not offering any assistance.  I must have spent a few minutes touching, looking at the replacement model, thinking this was my backup plan, and left the store.

With my favourite JB Hi-Fi store in the same centre, I popped in there, to discover they had 15% off my preferred netbook brand, and had a look at the range, which was disappointingly small.  I explained my problem to the young Gen-Y assistant, dressed with impossibly good street cred, but he seemed unexcited about my problem.  I then specifically asked him if I could charge my machine, but he couldn't find a machine to suit, and gave up.  I left the store, reflecting that I had previously spent quite a lot of money at JB, including having purchased the second (backup) netbook at this specific store.

On my way home in the car, I thought I should do a bit of research on the web – which I could have done in-store on my iPhone, but I thought would be poor manners.  Anyway, it turns out that the supplier has significantly better prices on the replacement model netbook than both HN and JB.  Hmmmm…

I have previously been aware of eBay, and other similar services, but have never really spent a lot of time on them.  Imagine my surprise then when I easily found the exact model item (power adaptor spec) available for $21 – including express shipping (from Melbourne).  And then I was off, with a solution to my problem in sight…… those of you who are familiar with shopping on eBay would know what happened next – I was overwhelmed with emails saying my purchase was successfully completed, the item was in stock, and yes, it had just shipped…..

In the process I window-shopped prices on my preferred replacement netbook, and, yes, the Australian-stocked prices and options available were far superior to HN and JB.  Their two online stores were frankly disappointing.

My first reaction was that I was annoyed that I had almost overpaid for the item.  On reflection, I thought, why had I bothered to go to the stores at all ?  Knowing that the web offers access to a wide range, surely the retailers realise they need to differentiate on service.  Now, while the techie had given me better service than I expected, I realised that he had simply passed the buck – I didn't want my problem 'outsourced' – I wanted it solved.

So, if bricks and mortar stores don't offer better service, does that mean they are in danger of becoming merely display shopfronts for the web ? 

As an aside, some retailers would say that they wouldn't make much margin on an item as small as a power pack.  This is a transactional approach to retailing – so old school.  My problem was hugely significant to me – they had an opportunity to build a relationship with me, and decided not to take it up.  (In fact they both already had a relationship with me, but didn't realise it.)  They have removed a big reason for me to ever go back – unless I want to touch and feel a new product, that is.  I now have more power than I did previously – I guess they just haven't adapted to that reality.

As I sit writing this, the doorbell has rung – it is the postie with my replacement, express post. Not bad considering I placed the order at 3pm yesterday.

And by the way, there was not a $1,000 GST threshold in sight in this process.

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