How to Blow a Retail Sale.

Last Updated Jan 2, 2008 8:18 AM EST

Frustration at Retail Sales StupidityTime was that most retail salespeople were on commission. You'd walk into a store and there would be people standing around who would approach you, offer to help, and then earn a commission by helping you make a selection. While widely criticized for "hovering" and "swooping," they did perform a very real function, especially for consumers who wanted to buy something and wanted to make an informed decision.

Today, commissioned staff are a small minority in retail products. The business model pretty much limited to big ticket items like cars, furniture, and very high end clothing. But even then, a lot of that selling activity has moved to warehouse stores and the Internet. It's been possible for some time to buy a car online, from a dealer, without ever running into a salesman. That's why it's utterly mysterious to me why some retail sales "professionals" don't get the basic fact that the Internet is their competition.

Example: last weekend my wife and I went to Bob's, a regional furniture chain, with the idea of purchasing my 3 year old son some bedroom furniture. As soon as we walked in, the next sales associate in line walked up, introduced herself, and escorted us to the part of the store where those items were displayed. She stayed and answered questions, helping us focus on a particular design, which was just what we wanted. Solid, textbook sales approach.

However, we weren't exactly sure what combination of items we wanted. The display had a sheet showing all the prices, so I asked if we could have a copy of it. Rather than fetching a copy and writing her contact information on it, she said: "Do you have a computer? You can get all that information on the Internet." I couldn't believe my ears. Rather than keeping us as customer, she was sending us to a place where it would be easier to order the product directly (point and click) than calling and ordering the product through her.

Maybe she could tell that I'm the kind of person who would take the extra effort to make sure she got credit for the sale. Or maybe she thought because we weren't going to buy on the spot that we weren't going to buy at all. (In that case, she was wrong.) But to risk the sale by sending us to the Internet was just plain stupid. What's more, she not only risks losing the sale for herself, she risks losing the sale for her company, because once online, I'm just as likely to Google up a competitor and find something that I like better.

The same thing happened to me when I tried to buy a dishwasher earlier this year. In the past, I've always bought appliances from Fletcher's, a local large appliance store. I called up and said: "I need a dishwasher with a chrome front. I don't want to pay more than $600." If he had said something like: "We've got a mid-range Maytag on sale for $600," I would have bought it right then, over the phone. (That was how I bought a new washer/dryer combo a couple of years ago.)

Instead, he tried to get me involved in a discussion about features -- which I don't know from squat or care about. And then he insisted that I needed to come down to the store. Then he told me -- I kid you not -- to do some research on the Internet and decide what I wanted and then give him a call. I had called Fletcher's because I wanted them to take care of everything -- and I was willing to pay more for the convenience.

Instead, that bozo forced me to go online anyway, so I bought a unit from Best Buy. And now I'll probably never call Fletcher's again, because I no longer associate them with convenience, I associate them with wasting my time.

These experiences have almost convinced me that commissioned sales in retail are likely to vanish - not because people won't pay extra, but because retail sales associates don't understand the fundamental fact that they must offer something better than the Internet in order to continue to survive.