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Big Box Stores: You Make Us Work Too Damn Hard

Dear Target, Home Depot, Walmart, Costco, Lowe's, Bed Bath and Beyond et alia:
Thanks to a recent cross-country move, my husband and I have become regulars at your stores. We didn't pack that carefully; our leave-taking was about as orderly as Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. As a result, we now need to buy a paper towel holder, a silverware tray, shelf paper, a door mirror, hooks and dozens of other random thingamajigs. So we headed out to your venues where we figured we could round this stuff up fast.

That was the hope. In reality, however, we spent much of two exhausting three-hour expeditions stomping angrily around your cement tundra unable to find much of what we wanted.
The fact of the matter is that you Big Box Retailers (BBRs) make shopping very hard on your customers who must do all the work of locating what they want among acres of goods, figuring out how a particular item works, how big it is and whether it comes in black or bamboo -- and even ringing it up. And that's after shlepping 10 miles or more to get there.

Now I realize that you make us do so much work on purpose. For starters, you can hire fewer salespeople and cashiers, saving yourselves a batch of bucks. And customers wandering through stores like Israelites in the desert may spend more; on their way to find a ball-peen hammer, a toilet brush or a whisk broom, they might just pick up a bathtub, a flat-screen TV or a cappuccino machine. Or so you hope.

I'm too cynical to expect you BBR folk to smooth the way for consumers out of the goodness of your hearts. But there's a good business rationale for helping us out. The fact is that many of your stores are not doing so well right now. Jim Quinn, a blogger at Burning Platform, points out that while four of your ilk (Walmart, Lowe's, Kohl's and Target) added hundreds of new stores in the last decade, sales and profits have either dropped or stagnated. Obviously, high unemployment, sagging home prices and continuing high debt levels have reduced consumer spending. But I suspect that many shoppers do not enjoy trolling endlessly for a towel bar or watering can. If they're anything like me, they get angry and leave. In these times, people can easily rationalize not spending. With budgets tight, they figure that if an item is too hard to get, maybe it's not worth buying.

So I say this to you, dear BBRs: There's not a helluva lot you can do about the economy. Just like the rest of us, you're stuck with it. But here are four ideas that could improve this sorry situation:

  • For heaven's sake, hire some help. When we visited Target the other day, we could find nary a salesperson to point us in the right direction. Even an eagle with perfect vision can't see from one end of Target or Home Depot to the other. A customer can guess that housewares are somewhere in the back of the store -- but to the right or to the left?
  • Provide maps. Seriously, would it be so difficult to post a schematic drawing of the store at strategic spots on the floor or to provide a printed brochure to customers to help them find the department they want?
  • Use computers, you dumkopfs. How about providing four or five terminals throughout the store that would allow customers to type in what they're looking for and get a read-out that tells them the item is in aisle 18 -- or better yet, aisle 18, bottom shelf. And wouldn't it be cool if a consumer could click a "more information" button on the item that would tell him or her the dimensions of the product, whether it came in different colors and what type of battery it needs? All that stuff is already available online. Why not let in-store customers access it too?
  • Stop switching things around. One helpful sales associate at Home Depot knew the kind of wall hooks we wanted and that they were usually displayed toward the front of an aisle. But which one? It took him about ten minutes to find it. His explanation: "They [the store managers] change the displays every few days." Clearly, you guys have to display snow shovels and turkey tablecloths more prominently in November and barbeque grills and lawn mowers in May. But need you move your goods so frequently that even the help can't find them? I think not.
In closing, remember this: Making life easier for customers may not be fashionable. But it's a strategy that could help you out in these tough times.
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