A Perennial Challenge in Retail

by Chikashi

A bizarre encounter that the Little Brunette had when she recently visited Harrods with her aunt reminded me of a perennial challenge faced by retailers: how to select and train the front of house staff. With the notoriously high employee turnover in retail, it is difficult enough to recruit, train and retain good staff. Training often focusses on things like consultative selling and product knowledge, but what about tact? I suppose the more fundamental question is whether people can actually be trained in tactfulness at all in the short period prior to sending them onto the shop floor if they have not had acquired the basics prior to coming to the job interview.

Or, is it a case of ‘a pig with a lipstick is still a pig’?

The Little Brunette and her aunt were browsing the Saint Laurent concession when a young sales associate approached her and informed the Little Brunette that the Maharishi trousers she was wearing are fake. Immediately following the declaration, the sales associate dove down to physically examine the trousers and in the process stuck a few fingers inside the trouser waist. Both the Little Brunette and my sister were too deep in a WTF moment to do or say anything.

I am an ex-Harrodian from Mohamed Al Fayed’s days. I like Mo for reasons that the media never mentions. It was never dull to be summoned to his office; it must be said that it helps to take one’s job, but not oneself, seriously when dealing with a personality like Mo. When Mo was chairman, it would have been extremely unlikely that the above episode would have occurred. If it did, he would have found out about it in no time and would have immediately and permanently removed the sales associate from the premises, regardless of whether the sales associate was actually on the concessionaire’s payroll. However, I do not know how the place works these days.

Was it tactlessness or an overwhelming, puerile desire to appear knowledgeable about a product, a product that had nothing to do with YSL? Even if she had been right, what would have been the point of her remark? Did she think that it might lead to her making a sale of Saint Laurent products? Do I hear Yves spinning in his grave, Pierre sneezing?

The Saint Laurent, Harrods episode reminded me of an experience few years ago.

I brought in my briefcase to the Bottega Veneta boutique in Paris to have a repair done. With nearly 2 decades of abuse, one of the handle loops was falling apart and needed a replacement. Considering the abuse it endured for a long period of time, I was actually surprised that it held up so long, having done well over a million air miles with me and being subjected to unreasonable load, dust, dirt, heat, cold, extreme humidity, downpours as well as acute aridity. This was in contrast to their soft-sided suitcase and garment bag that fell apart beyond repair much earlier.

I was attended to by a young sales associate of Chinese extraction who listened to what I wanted. He proceeded to give a thorough examination of my briefcase, clearly in search of a clue of some sort, perhaps for that rather pointless paper ‘certificate of authenticity’ that had been sewn into the seam inside the interior pocket but fell off shortly after I started using it. Perhaps he was searching for some sort of feature that BV implemented after the company was sold to the Gucci Group, now Kering.

‘Where did you buy this briefcase?’

‘In New York, from the Bottega Veneta boutique.’

‘In New York?’

‘Yes, Madison Avenue and 59th Street.’ [Not Canal Street, mind.]

‘When did you buy it?’

‘About 18 years ago.’ [My dear squirt, that’s 1991 or 1992. The Chinese counterfeiters had not even heard of BV yet. Before the Gucci Group. When you were still wearing nappies.]

Still looking into every gusset and pocket, ‘So you bought it in New York about 18 years ago?’

‘Yes.’ [Is that a drop of breast milk behind your ear?]

He shuffled off to consult with his manager, returned, filled out a work order form and took in my briefcase. Needless to say, I did not spend any more time in the shop than I needed to.

Bottega Veneta briefcase

The briefcase came back a few weeks later looking mint, with new handle loops, handle and serrure, the original of which was actually looking a bit tatty from being banged up numerous times. I forget what the repair cost was, but it was a nominal amount, with very little operating margin, if any. It was a happy ending with the briefcase getting a new lease on life, but the episode had an unfortunate start, thanks to some sprout who fancied himself an expert but didn’t know how to handle himself.

The feedback in consumer suverys that come up time after time in various countries is a reason why many consumers prefer to shop online: not having to deal with sales people. Retailers have had this personnel challenge for as long as the trade has existed. The only difference in modern times is that consumers have the alternative of not dealing directly with another human being in order to complete a transaction. The opportunities to build and nurture customer relationship and loyalty are not as abundant despite all that is being said about benefits arising from good online shopping experience.

Ironically, because it is a human problem, it is more difficult to address than overhauling a web site. Commerce has become much more transactional than in the past. Many retailers and brands moan about consumers’ declining sense of loyalty. However, experiences like the above will only serve to accelerate the evolution. There are market segments where this is actually desirable even from the retailer’s standpoint. Whether a venerable maison belongs to one of those segments is a different question.