Does Big Box Fear Your Content?

By: Guest | December 6, 2011 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Terence Stephens.

Business inspiration and ideas come from funny places.

In an October episode of The Office, Robert California launched into a short monologue saying customers either know what they want and buy it on the Internet, or they don’t know, and go to stores with customer service to help them figure out what they want.

Because of this, he continues, big box stores actually fear shops with knowledgeable staff who aid the customer in fulfilling their needs, “Customers will willingly pay our higher prices and then they will say to us, ‘Thank you.’”

Was this just an example of Hollywood establishing a successful CEO character or a valid observation?

I reflected on my experiences and spoke with sales and entrepreneur friends.  There is definitely something to learn for anyone operating a small business whose income depends on ongoing business relationships.

Help your customer overcome their weakness

One thing I don’t have a lot of experience in is fashion.  I don’t think I dress poorly…mostly, but not too many people are going to be jealous of my clothing.

A few years ago, I needed nice clothes for my wedding announcement photos.

A store associate overheard me expressing my frustration and offered to help me pick out some options to narrow down my choices. I ended up buying an outfit he showed me instead of leaving and browsing through other stores. I would have bought from any boutique, but he made sure I bought from his store; and that I would consider his store for my future purchases.

Before this, I’d never thought of asking the associate for help.  Had any store offered this service to me 10 years earlier, I likely would have been a regular customer for a very long time.

Tell your customer how you can help them

My entire life I’ve needed this type of help, and would have gladly sought this personal attention for many shopping trips, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know this service existed.

If small businesses are going to compete with big box stores, they have to get the word out on how they can benefit their customer.

Recently, I was at my town’s end-of-summer festival and wandered into our local children’s book store. After I made my purchase, the owner-associate made sure to tell me all about the store, including potential use scenarios (If you need a quick gift, we’ll gift wrap it and you can be on your way).

I’m not sure how targeted he was (I wondered if women got different shopping scenarios), but I now know where to go next time I need a beautifully wrapped gift requiring minimal time and effort on my part.

It clearly isn’t possible to summarize all consumer experiences with two examples, but I know through selling knowledge, services, and relationships, we can take a lot of business back from companies merely competing on price.

If we know what we offer, and clearly show that offering to every potential customer, we’ll be able to provide more relevant, quality products than any big box store every could.

So what do you think about Robert California’s advice?  Is it just a script used for character development or is there really a business principle in there?

Terence Stephens is a founding partner of Set Sail Class and Care. In early 2000, his desire to be an Internet tycoon led him to choose the major of computer programming.  Years later, he discovered he should have studied online and offline marketing.  He is still paying for this mistake, but feels the lesson is almost over.

  • ginidietrich

    You know what’s funny? I’m in a position of wishing I’d taken development and programming courses. Perhaps you can teach me that and I’ll teach you marketing?!? 🙂

    • terence.stephens

      @ginidietrich As long as you’re ok with the fact that you can probably teach me more than I can teach you, I’m all for it!

  • jennwhinnem

    I think I’m amazed that you never had sales associates beating you down to give you help before! Maybe store people are better at telling I’m clueless?

    • terence.stephens

      @jennwhinnem yeah, I guess I’m embarrassed and try to hide it as much as I can

    • terence.stephens

      @jennwhinnem I guess I try to hide it. As a teenager it was quite an embarrassing problem to have. Old habits die hard.

      • jennwhinnem

        @terence.stephens well I have always been terrible at putting together outfits – so you’re not alone!

        To be more substantive here, though, I am definitely more loyal to stores who know how to help me but don’t overwhelm me. Ann Taylor et al actually get extensive training on how to tell if a customer wants your help and how to help them. Okay, I admit I love that!

        • terence.stephens

          @jennwhinnemI definitely am more loyal too (guess my post shows that).

          There was a post on here a few weeks ago about customer service on a website and the annoying chat pop-ups asking if I need help.

          I don’t need an associate bugging me just because I’m on the site, but making it easy to ask a question goes a long way. It sounds like Ann Taylor has a great system for doing this in the show room.

        • @terence.stephens@jennwhinnem There is a store here in Chicago called The Blues Jeans Bar, and all their jeans are behind the counter. Basically, you don’t go in unless you WANT help and that’s exactly what I wanted; to describe what I was looking for and stand in the dressing room while she brought me options. She even told me which ones looked bad on me. I paid a lot more for my jeans, but I feel great in them and I will go back. They also sent me a handwritten postcard the following week.

          It’s not for everyone but that is exactly the point. Know your audience, and be focused in strategy. Do not try to be everything to everyone. There is a place for both models.

  • and this is why everyone should try to be the Nordstrom of their industry. totally agreed. and I wish I had taken graphic design classes. 🙂

    • terence.stephens

      @Lisa Gerber yeah, and I use to think that ideas like “provide the best customer service” are difficult to accomplish, but I’ve talked with countless business owners that prove it is easy if you know what you’re doing and what the customer is thinking.

      I’m sure there are thousands of books out there that show how to do it.

    • jennwhinnem

      I’ve been thinking a lot about this, @Lisa Gerber . I’m not sure every profession can or should be the Nordstrom of their industry – or even if that would work. I think Nordstrom as the standard of customer service (or the Ritz Carlton, I hear that one a lot too) is, ah, particular to a certain demographic.

      • @jennwhinnem actually, I completely agree, and rescind that statement. (I need a rescind option on Livefyre!!) I contradicted myself below. Being the Nordstrom is right for some, being a no-frills big box is good for others. Knowing the audience and catering to the audience, is the key. 🙂

  • As soon as California said that line, I turned to my husband and said “That’s absolutely true, but a tough principle to sell to the paper industry”

    Whether selling or buying, I do this myself. When I need help purchasing computer equipment I am not familiar with, I go to a local store that might have half the selection but will be able to actually assist me and guide me to what I need. If I know what I am looking for, I go to the big chain that is guaranteed to have the selection but where I don’t need the help.

    The real trick is to have the resources and selection of the big stores, with the service and support of the small guy’s!

    • terence.stephens

      @smccollo “The real trick is to have the resources and selection of the big stores, with the service and support of the small guy’s!”

      It would be interesting to explore the concept of finding the sweet spot for number of selection options without having inventory size larger than a business can handle.

      • @terence.stephens Absolutely, I think that we be a great topic to delve into. Let me know if you want to do a collaboration on it! 🙂

  • Ovation. I saw that episode and found my self just as inspired by the statement. Love where you went with it.

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