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Really? Are online retailers winning the customer experience game over bricks and mortar?

It’s time to share another shopping experience that has caused me some pause.  Being born into retail and on the team at Graff for almost 12 years, when I venture out into the wonderful world of retail, I can’t help but assess every minute of my shopping experiences.  This time around, I was shopping for a few things for some updates around my house which sent me to both a popular big box retailer and an equally popular online retailer to find everything I wanted. 

The contrast between these two experiences was a bit unsettling for me.  I think it goes without saying, as a big fan of retail, I tend to favour real, in-store shopping moments over shopping online, so when my recent online shopping experience put my in-store shopping experience to shame, I got a bit fired up! 

Here’s what happened. 


The Purchase

I chose this online retailer really just for the variety of home goods items it offered.  I knew exactly what I was looking for and found it without having to go out on a hunt.  The purchase went well.  I found the item and bought it.  No help required, so I didn’t interact with anyone.  Nothing else happened at this point in the experience that stood out as good or bad.  It was just easy. 

One item arrived, however, it wasn’t what I was expecting.  Not because I hadn’t chosen correctly; rather, the description of the dimensions on the website misled me.  I was disappointed and a bit bothered by having to face the dreaded online return process (always the risk).  The second item hadn’t arrived yet, but when I went to my online account to begin the return process for the first item, I could see that the second item showed as delivered!  At this point, I had no choice but I to call to point out that the specs were wrong on their site for the first item and to somehow prove that the second one hadn’t arrived. 

The Return

This call to organize the return could have gone either way.  I have to tell you…this online retailer hit it out of the park!  The rep didn’t miss a beat.  She was cheerful right from ‘hello.’  She listened to my entire story and understood me fully, all while building rapport with me along the way.  And, most important, she believed me that the second item truly didn’t arrive with no questions asked!  She was quick to jump to an easy solution (which included absorbing all return shipping fees), helped me shop for an alternative item on the spot…which I purchased, and arranged to send the courier driver right to my front porch, labels in hand so I didn’t have to do any additional legwork. 

It couldn’t have been a better experience and she orchestrated the entire thing without me having to ask for anything.  A+…and it takes a lot for me to give an A+ on customer experience!


The Purchase

My second shopping experience to acquire more items on my list for my mini home makeover had me visiting a popular, long-standing big box retailer.  Again, I knew what I wanted and I knew they had it, so I went in and grabbed the two items and went straight to the cash (if I had needed help on the floor, I would have been out of luck … there wasn’t an associate in sight).  The items were cumbersome and a bit heavy, so my heart sank a bit when I rounded the corner and saw a line-up of 12 people deep with only one cash open (definitely not the time of day or season when one would expect a hefty line up either).  

My first thought – Do we not have this lengthy cash desk line-up thing licked by now at store level?  Obviously not.  I stood for what seemed like an hour, shifting my items from hip to hip as I struggled to hang on…I was starting to actually sweat at this point, so I sure wasn’t impressed!  I wasn’t the only one either.  I observed the body language of the other customers in line and then glanced over at the cashier to see how she was handling the pressure.  She didn’t have a care in the world.  I started to listen to her as she slowly clerked out one person after another.  She didn’t say boo about the wait or make any apologies.  She barely smiled…almost robotic really. 

Finally, as I inched closer to the front of the line, another cashier popped up and announced that she could take the next customer on register four…halleluiah!  Except, by this point her colleague had already managed to clear up most of the line.  It was my turn.  I approached the woman at the register and she also just clerked me out without a word.  She didn’t offer any carry out help for the heavy goods…no thank you, no goodbye.  She was in a daze and just going through the motions!  Totally disengaged. 

The Return

A day or two later, I found myself back at this same store.  I was so sure I knew what I wanted but I actually missed the mark.  Time to return and regroup.  I hauled the two heavy, cumbersome items back into the store and joined the anticipated lengthy line-up…yes, again…it was déjà vu…shifting the weight of the items from hip to hip as I strained to keep the items in my arms, sweating and waiting all over again.  The bar was set low for my in store experience already but I didn’t think they could do worse than my last visit. 

I started to think about how great my online return service was and wondered how this retailer would measure up in comparison.  I had a lot of time to think as I stood in line!   There was one woman on cash again and her colleague came in the knick of time to open up another register, just like before, so you know this is a common practise for the day-to-day operations.  It was my turn and here’s where it went way downhill for me.  I approached the cash with the heavy items in hand.  There was barely enough room on the cash counter for me to place the items.  The cashier stepped back from me folding her arms as I struggled to make sure the items had a safe landing on the counter.  I said, “These didn’t work out as I had hoped.  I’d just like to return them please.”  Her immediate crisp response to me (while I am still putting the merchandise down; arms full), “Where’s your receipt?”…Seriously?  I guess I should have taped the receipt to my forehead before getting in line with my hands full!  I told her with confidence that I did have my receipt and to give me just a minute as I finished placing the items on the counter. 

She started to examine the merchandise as though it were damaged and unfolded my receipt and scrutinized it suspiciously…”Is there anything wrong with these?” she barked at me.  I repeated that they just didn’t work in my space and confirmed there was not a thing wrong with the merchandise (but there was definitely everything wrong with the staff performance – that’s what I wanted to say!)  She continued to process my return without exchanging any word and she certainly didn’t invite me to look for alternative items.  I left empty handed. 

On my drive home that day I got to thinking.  Ecommerce really didn’t take off until the 90’s.  Bricks and mortar retailing has been in existence since as far back as the 1800’s!  Have online retailers beat us at our own customer experience game?  How is it possible that bricks and mortar retailers are still struggling with basic performance? 

We know the answer at Graff Retail.  We’ve been supporting retailers with this very thing for over 30 years.  Curious to winning at the customer experience game once and for all?  It all comes down to having a commitment to on-going training and development.  Check out our multiple award-winning training solutions and get back in the game!

Blog Authors: Mary & Kim

Mary GordonKim McCutcheon

Mary Gordon and Kim McCutcheon have been supporting retail front lines for as long as they can remember. A dynamic duo, Mary and Kim understand what it takes to make training work at store level and know how to inspire, coach and support retail teams in all of their training endeavours.

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