Five things customers hate about holiday retail

Dec. 20, 2010 | by James Bickers

Ah, the holidays. Time spent enjoying the company of our loved ones. Brown paper packages tied up with strings. White-knuckled rage and tears of frustration in a last-minute trip to the mall.

Why do the phrases "Christmas shopping" and "stress" so frequently end up being used in the same sentence? Why, during a time that is supposedly about peace and happiness, do so many customers view the act of shopping for their loved ones a chore that is to be put off until the absolute last minute?

There is no one reason, of course, but rather a long list of small annoyances that, cumulatively, can turn what should be a joyous task into an arduous one. Here are a few of the things that retailers do that rub shoppers the wrong way:

Rushing the seasons

Seasonal holiday marketing creep has never been more noticeable, with each marketing cycle seemingly coming sooner than the previous year. This year, Christmas displays started popping up in Macy's and Sears in July, while stores like Borders, IKEA, Lowe's and Sam's Club looked positively heroic by managing to wait until September to break out the tinsel.

It's a year-round issue, though, and not one limited to Christmas.

"I was in Joanne Fabrics yesterday and they were already putting out Valentine's Day stuff," said blogger Kate George. "That's the thing that drives me crazy. Christmas before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving before Halloween. But this one takes the cake."

"Hearing the damn holiday soundtrack the day after Halloween makes me want to turn around and go home," said shopper Jeff DelPapa.

Repetitive, relentless holiday music

Speaking of the holiday soundtrack: High-quality seasonal music, selected with care and matched to the tone and brand of the store, can heighten the shopping experience like little else. Low-quality, overly repetitive music, on the other hand, can be a true retail stinkbomb, one which shopper Nenah Sylver calls "the audio equivalent of having to breathe someone else's foul air when they smoke cigarettes."

Sylver said that this year, she has been completely avoiding shopping malls and stores with loud music — and if she absolutely has to shop at such a place, she comes armed with her own music and headphones. "I normally don't listen to music through headphones, but it's the only way I can protect myself from the bombardment," she said.

Over-crowded aisles

Palette merchandising is a powerful way to put specific product in front of large groups of shoppers, and can be a big driver of impulse sales. It can also be an eyesore, an inconvenience and a hazard if done too liberally.

"(Aisles are) over-crowded anyway and then you have to play slalom to get around all the extra displays," said shopper Amanda Racette. "I knocked over a display of fancy spaghetti sauce last week. The display was made out of cardboard and less than three feet tall, and yet they had about twenty glass jars of expensive pasta sauce on it. I didn't even see it because it was so low, and it went right over when my cart nicked it as I turned around."

Not being prepared for gift-givers

In the noble effort to cut costs, it's tempting to dial back the holiday order of gift boxes. Make this move at your own peril. One anonymous poster on the Mental Floss blog recalled a day on the job when her store ran out of boxes. Her reply from a customer was merchandise thrown in her face.

Shopper Adreena Thomas said she has had a bad gift-box experience at H&M, but especially resents having to pay for gift boxes, which has happened to her at The Children's Place. And at the "mommie blog" Notes from the Couch, blogger Jen cites gift-box outages as one reason "why all shopping should be done online."

Rude and discourteous employees

The aforementioned gripes are certainly annoyances, but they're probably not a deal-breaker for most shoppers, who are going to grit their teeth and do the shopping they need to do, tacky music or not. But retail consultant and "Retail Doc" Bob Phibbs says there is one thing that trumps them all and does much more severe damage to a retail brand: surly, rude and unhelpful employees.

"The Grinch employee would be my number one thing that I hate — someone that gives that air off the moment you walk in the door," he said. "That would be the reason I would walk away. It would not be the music, it would not be that they're out of gift boxes — I could overlook all of that. But we have allowed the in-store experience to become so awful, we feel more alone in the store with Bitter Betty employees, than we do at home in our pajamas, shopping online."

(Photo by Gideon.)

Topics: Consumer Behavior , Customer Service , Marketing , Merchandising , Store Design & Layout

James Bickers / James Bickers is the senior editor of Retail Customer Experience, and also manages webinars for Networld Media Group. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and innovative content strategist, with publication credits in national, international and regional publications.
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