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This is a tale of two retailers, one of them a single-location local boutique shop, the other a major multinational corporation. One of them recently gave me extraordinary, above-and-beyond service, and the other treated me in such a fashion that I will never return.

Can you guess which one is which?

Retailer No. 1 is a small, mom-and-pop clothing and accessories store, located in our town's hipster/bohemian epicenter. We recently visited, my wife and three small kids, and my fashionista daughter tried on a hat and was checking out herself in the mirror. It looked great on her, and I was totally prepared to buy it for her. 

But before I could, the lady who owns the shop swooped in on her with a patronizing, condescending tone, saying "sweetie, we don't play with the hats in here, they're very expensive, you need to put that back and don't touch things."

Really. Really, lady? Talking down to me is one thing, but making my six-year-old daughter feel like crap is another thing entirely. We were gone in moments and will never return.

Retailer No. 2 is Amazon. I recently made the mistake of putting my old Kindle, still working like a charm, in my pants pocket for a minute or two. Evidently I bent it just enough to ruin the screen, electronic ink now flowing to all the wrong places, and in one absent-minded moment my beloved tablet became a brick.

On a whim, I went to the website and filled out the online request for assistance. The drop-down menu for "reason you are contacting us" predicted what was going on, and in the next step I was asked to enter my phone number. Thirty seconds later my phone rang, and it was an Amazon associate who already had all the details of what was going on.

The call lasted about five minutes, and resulted in Amazon second-day-airing me a newer replacement model, no questions asked. My love for the Amazon brand, already strong, got a lot stronger.

Now, this represents a real dilemma for people like myself, who strive to be locavores and who try our best to support small and regional businesses. But sometimes those small and regional businesses miss the very basics, like making your customers feel like they matter – or at a bare minimum, not making them feel like they are bothering you or are a nuisance.

Amazon has an unfair advantage, of course – no small retailer has the resources needed to pull off their extraordinary web interface, or the phone call within thirty seconds, or the sheer economy of scale at work in their operation. 

But that's why the basics of customer service become so much more important. Here's a message for the lady who owns Retailer No. 1: There's nothing special about your hats. I can buy a hat anywhere. But what I can't get anywhere is human contact with a storeowner, and it's up to you to decide whether that contact is a positive or a negative thing.

On a slight tangent, there's one other thing that really bothers me about the "shop local" movement, a movement which I am otherwise totally on-board with, and that is the sense of entitlement: the feeling that just because you're a local retailer, you're entitled to my business and you don't really need to treat me special. Sorry, this is wrong. Yes, I will give a local bookstore my dollars before I give them to Amazon, but only if you provide good service and treat me well.

Or, to coin Bickers' First Rule of Retail: Don't make my daughter cry.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Kimberly Nasief
    Fantastic post. I have often felt the same way in my experiences with retailers. I want to support my local retailer, restaurateur, business, etc. However, providing less than steller service will immediately turn me off-regardless of your size.
  • Bob Phibbs
    Great post James and a realistic reason why Amazon's dominance grows stronger by the day. Cash mobs and "buy local" may feel like they are doing something but it is a very one-sided arrangement -please give me your money because I need it - and live local. While big boxes have been able to get away with poor service in the past, they too are being "showroomed" more and more. The answers are out there but they won't come with a simple slogan.
  • Catherine Wagner
    James, I agree that indie retailers have a responsibility to deliver outstanding customer service every time in order to get your business. Your responsibility as a locavore is to make sure that the owner of the store learns of your experience and to give her an opportunity to win your business back. As both an indie owner and indie consultant for decades, yours is such a frustrating experience. You support the community, donate to so many causes, train your staff, provide great merchandise and then one sales person doesn't do her job. Indie retailers can only improve when told of our mistakes! Cathy Wagner
  • Julie Moore
    valid points concerning a local retailer needing exceptional customer service. I would also comment from a store owners perspective that the customer often is just hanging out, strolling through town with a friend and going to lunch. We love to treat them warmly and often a bonding or sense of bei
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Senior Editor

Latest posts by James Bickers
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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