Monday, May 17, 2010

Go (mystery) Shopping

To the acute jealousy of my friends and colleagues I found myself recently in Las Vegas to attend a ten-day long training program at our Corporate Headquarters. I had trouble getting across the purpose of my visit to my friends and colleagues as they understandably got distracted at the very mention of Vegas! It also did not help one bit that I was supposed to travel with two female colleagues!!
My first visit to the United States - is in itself somewhat an act of eluded destiny - as I had ducked many invitations from family based there for close to two decades now. So much so that I was the sole family member who had not set foot on the US soil so far. Now that I’ve lost that distinction, I set out to do what I’m helplessly addicted to as I extended my trip to visit family. Go (mystery) shopping.
On one such occasion, I found myself at a large home improvement store in San Jose, California, with my sister-in-law as my local guide. After realising it was not a crime to click pictures inside the store, I proudly pulled out my Kodak and set my index finger loose on the trigger. No sooner was I in the ‘Lights and d├ęcor” section and had clicked pictures of a few well-lit aisles, did I hear…”Hey, you gotta be doing up your bedroom or living room if you were clicking pictures of our lights…” said an almost celestial voice. I turned around to see a store associate with a bright smile. “There you go”, I thought to myself…”a very good non-business opening line; with all the promise of a continuing conversation”…Now it was my turn to be taken aback and I unwittingly realised that I was getting a taste of my own medicine. “Well, I’m just checking out” I retorted sheepishly. “Guess what, if you are doing up your house, I can have an expert interior designer come over and give you some valuable tips…at no cost” he said; “these guys usually charge $200 an hour” he finished. “Well, I have no definite plans” I asserted. And my sister-in-law was silently enjoying the unfolding drama. As I tried to wriggle out of the unaccustomed level of professional customer service, I was already in the ‘Sanitary ware’ section of the store. “Now”, said this associate having followed us, “here’s something we can do for your bathrooms as well”. “I’m sure you have your home here?” he questioned. And I wasn’t in a mood to reveal that I was just a tourist visiting my brother. “Yeah” I said. “How old is your home?” he asked..and I looked at my sis-in-law, more for help rather than for the answer. And before I could find the legitimacy within me to answer that question, he had spread in front of me a brochure that had pictures of bathroom fixtures and bathtubs. Now, before you get ideas. He was trying to sell me a service at their store that would have bathrooms and bathtubs refurbished without breaking down walls or pulling down tiles. He said, he could check whether there was one of their architects in the vicinity of where I lived to see if he could come over and assess the bathroom of my (brother’s) house (that I was visiting!).
When I knew that I couldn’t continue anymore answering his questions with a straight face, I said “Well, thank you for the information, but I’m not looking at doing up my bathroom just yet..and when I do, I’ll remember you guys have this really fantastic service”. That should have indicated to him that I was just window shopping and he disappeared from the scene…or so I thought! I instantly slipped into mentally pumping my fist with a great sense of achievement, having warded off even the most persuasive salespeople. The associate showed up behind my back in a few moments with the same brochure in his hand. This time, he handed it to me and said “if ever you think of doing up your bathroom, you should call me. Here’s my name and number” he said pointing to the scribble on the brochure. “Thank you Alex. I shall do that” I said pocketing the brochure. Only my sis-in-law seemed very amused!
I’ve always believed Nordstrom was a heaven to customer service. Not surprisingly, I had my brother, this time in Minneapolis, Minnesota; drive me to the world’s biggest mall – the Mall of America. In the Nordstrom store there, I set the awestruck kid in me loose as I visited one section after the other. In the gifts section on level 3, I found drawn into an alcove of interesting gift ideas – made from brass, copper, porcelain etc. The charming associate Peggy, in that section was not only very cordial and warm but was very helpful in her assistance. She answered my questions on what certain products were made of; displaying excellent product knowledge and at times going the extra mile to find me a convincing answer if she didn’t have one ready. Like the unique bag I discovered on one of the counters; that, when folded looked like a ladies handbag, but would open into a nice shopping bag! It was a pastel green colour that did not particularly appeal to me and noticing that it was the only piece left, I asked her if they had any more colour choices. This was one of their impulse buy items and was sitting next to the cash till in that section. “I’m sure I had seen other colours in them and they must be there in other sections. I shall check for you in a minute if you’d kindly wait” she said, disappearing from the scene. As I browsed through the gift section, admiring the products and visual merchandising; she appeared in no time with two other colours – a light grey and a light blue. I was planning to buy one of them for my mother who was shopping with me; but she seemed unexcited about the really cool bag. I instead picked up a set of tomato shaped porcelain ‘salt and pepper’ shakers. And as I checked out my purchase, I couldn’t help impulsively adding a copy of the “Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style” for an additional $20. I have heard stories of how Nordstrom associates are told to “use their best judgement at all times” while serving customers and I found that being lived upto in front of me.
As I slipped down to Level 1, to immerse myself in the men’s section of the store; I was awestruck at the immaculate and colourful display of men’s apparel. John, the associate in that section - in business casuals worn with a tie and checked brown blazer - was truly warm and friendly. He never tried to sell anything to me. There was no “Can I help you, Sir” either here or in the gifts section above. John appeared genuinely happy to see me in his section and he opened the conversation. I couldn’t help asking him how it felt to be working for one of world’s best retailers and he said it was really very gratifying and cool! And how they all love being part of the brand and mentioned how the Nordstroms themselves come to the sales floor from time to time, to not just mingle with the associates but to even serve customers!
I had no intentions of buying anything here; but like it always happens with me when I’m mystery shopping, I felt tempted to look at the light blue dress shirt, that looked well crafted. I had no hesitation at the $49.50 price tag as I was truly happy being there and being treated well. When I asked John what size I should pick up; he immediately pulled out a measuring tape from his pocket and, with my permission, had the circumference around my neck measured. “15 ½ would be good for you” he said and I suggested that I’d rather pick up a 15 ¾ just in case I decided to wear it with a tie. John liked my reasoning and happily packed a 15 ¾ for me. I continued to stray into the men’s footwear section, before I finally decided to join the rest of my family who were kind enough to wait for me in a restaurant on level 3.
Be it Alex, Peggy or John or any other retail store associate; Steve or any other cab driver or airline staff; I experienced a minimum credible level of “customer service” across the United States, that is so intangible to explain; but not too difficult to define and execute; as we, in India help most of our clients define theirs.