Level 3 Communications

Anthony Christie

The Reason Amazon is Crushing It

I work at a Fortune 500 company. I rarely take a “lunch hour” or leave the premises for anything other than meeting with a client.

But, my hobbies are largely outdoors-oriented, so I recently took advantage of a break to check out the sales on electronic gear at a rugged and much-touted outdoors retailer near my office.

Here’s my customer experience story: I bolt out between meetings with just enough time to hit the store and pick up the “goods” I had methodically, and with some enjoyment, circled in the six (count ‘em) flyers and catalogs delivered to my house over the past few weeks. “It’s the biggest sale of the year!” the headlines assure me, so I’m ready to buy 

I enter the outdoors wonderland, sales promotions clutched in hand. I’m hunting for a GPS unit, a camera, a hand-held radio for hiking, and a couple of miscellaneous items.

Ah-ha! Customer Service – just what I’m looking for. You see, I lost my loyalty card and I want the number to hand in at check out.

I move to the counter. Five minutes go by, then 12 (I timed it). I finally get my loyalty number, but I’m told that to get my “loyalty points,” I can’t go through any of the 10 check-out lanes currently open when I’m ready to check out. “It’s high tech – all electronic,” the customer service person tells me. “The cashiers in the open lanes can only swipe a card. YOU need to have your number entered manually. When you’re ready, just come back and wait there to you get your points,” pointing to a line with several people. She brightens. “Or call customer service. The 800 number is on the back of your card.”

“But I don’t have my card, so I can’t see the 800 number,” I remind her. “Oh, yeah… well, Joyce over there has the number to call, if you want to try that.” I can’t fathom why only one person is the designated keeper of the 800 number, but I consider moving to Joyce’s lane. Three people are already waiting in line.

I check my watch…no time. I give up the idea of loyalty points, inwardly questioning just how “loyal” I really feel. But I’m already in the store and with or without loyalty points, I’m determined to get the items I came for. I move on to look for my GPS unit.

I can’t locate an electronics section and no one’s approached me offering help, but I spy a guy…let’s call him Leonard, in the optics section. “Sir, where are your GPS units?” He looks up and mumbles “Right behind me”, and immediately scuttles from behind the counter, moving right past me. He becomes laser-focused on putting labels in a mini printing machine and studiously avoiding eye-contact.

What the…? I quickly check my fly (is it open?), my breath (is it bad?) and my shirt (is it stained?). All clear.

“Uh, I could really use some help. Just a little explanation about this unit on sale in your flyer,” I hold up one of three flyers I have in my hand. “And can you tell me about this other one? It goes on sale tomorrow for quite a bit less than the one that’s on sale today.”

Leonard looks at the tags he’s working on. He stares at his thumbs. Glances longingly at the mini printer. “That’s different than that one. It comes with a bundle.” I press on, “What’s in the bundle?” But I’m not fast enough. He literally walks away as I’m asking the question. 

Suddenly, he turns around and comes back. Hooray! I assume he will resume the conversation where we left off and answer my question.

Nope. He acts like he’s seeing me for the first time ever. We start over. The whole conversation, from the beginning.

I am not joking.

I show him the GPS unit in the flyer again. This time he says “Sorry, they’re all gone. We sold out.”I ask if I can I get a “raincheck,” even though that’s a term I’ve not used since I got groceries for my mom 40 years ago. “Sorry, first come, first served. You can order at home or use the kiosk.”

I feel the muscles in my jaw tense. A vein is starting to throb in my forehead. “If I knew I had to do that, I wouldn’t have made the trip to come into the store. Where is the kiosk?” He picks up the all-important mini printer to return to his critical tagging job, “There are a few around here. You’ll find them.” 

I am still not joking. 

It takes immense force of will to stifle the snarky retort that is a product of my east-coast-upbringing.I decide to try one more time – I can’t bring myself walk away. I’ve already blown nearly an hour of my time in this store. 

I check my fly, breath and shirt again…to make sure it’s not open, bad or stained…in that order…all still good. There has to be some reason he is ignoring me! 

“Please. I just need a little detail about the differences between the $200 unit and the $300 product.” Leonard shoots me a look of utter disdain. Even my teenage daughters don’t look at me this way when I ask them how their dates went with their boyfriends. 

Then, from seemingly nowhere, my savior swoops in. His name tag says Steve. He’s a bit less “outdoorsman”-like than Leonard and he seems slightly nerd-ish for the surrounding environment, but he’s actually smiling. And just like that, Savior Steve takes over, leaving Leonard to get back to his mini printer and tagging. 

Steve proceeds to answer my questions. He is polite and patient, even though he must explain the different GPS features three times – I’m determined to understand the finer details because not getting lost in the woods is genuinely important to me.

I finally decide on a GPS. Turns out I really do want the one that’s out of stock and needs to be ordered via the kiosk. But before I get in that line, Steve walks me to the front of the store, shows me the cameras and points out the best deal among the approximately 20 different models. He goes on to explain how I can get a cheaper SD card at a one of the box stores.

He escorts me towards the kiosk. And then he says the magical customer service phrase: “Can I get anything else for you?” 

I look at my watch. I’m starting to think I actually may make it back to my office in time for my next meeting. I re-access my desire to try for my freaking loyalty points. “Sure, I need a few other things,” and I provide Steve with the short list of items. He says he’ll bring them to me and meet me in the check-out line. 

I go to the customer service kiosk, where a nice woman helps me order the out-of-stock GPS unit. I am not thrilled to learn I have to pay $5 to ship to my home, but my other option is to pick it up at this god-forsaken store. Of course, I cough up the $5 shipping fee. 

As the woman finishes the kiosk transaction, I ask someone next to her how I can recognize Steve for doing a good job. She doesn’t know and tells me to check the web site.

Again, I am not joking.

I put the idea of employee recognition on hold and head towards the single “loyalty points lane” to pay for the items I have in hand. I wait 10 minutes…now, I am going to be late for my next meeting. I blow off the loyalty points for a second time and head for one of the 10 wide-open, no loyalty points check-out lanes.

I put my items on the counter and again ask how I can recognize someone for a job done well. I realize I’m talking to the same, pleasant woman who helped me earlier at the kiosk. She was nice, so I go for it: “This isn’t directed at you, but overall this has been a frustrating experience for me. Can I use my $20 coupon on this order, as well as the GPS I ordered at the kiosk?” She says she’s not sure, but states that if I bring the coupon with me the next time I’m in the store, she personally will make certain the discount is honored.

It’s a bone, as a I have just spent a total of $675 and was abused by basically everyone else in the store save her and Steve. Still, I look at her, smile and tell her I’ll send a nice note to management about both her and Steve. As for printer/tag-happy Leonard, he was rude. I will do the opposite for him. 

As I head towards the door, I see Leonard with two other “outdoorsmen” look-alikes. They are holding court with each other, ignoring nearby customers, talking loudly and generally trying to act like Jim Shockey.

I’m rolling my eyes as I exit the checkout lane and the clerk asks for my phone number. When I ask why they need my number again, the clerk says, “I was told so we can send you a survey about how to make your experience better in our store.” Wait… you can send me a survey, but you can’t look-up my loyalty card using my phone number?

Not. Joking.

Amazon is crushing the competition, in part, because other retailers like this heralded brand are bad. Really bad. These companies mistake a good economy and seasonal demand for offering a genuinely superior product, enhanced customer in-store experience and differentiated care.

Amazon deserves all they can win in the name of customer experience. And this “legendary” outfitter and others like them? Well, they should check their fly, breath and shirts for stains…in that order!