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Into the Wild: A Dispatch from the Brick and Mortar Badlands

It's Saturday morning, and I can't believe what I ‘m (not) seeing. I am on the prowl. The hunt. I am stalking the aisles of the hamster habitat that is my local big box retail store. I am in the throes of what has now become an almost desperate search for an elusive and very specific item that I really need to find today. To the hunt I am committed, however, because I know the item I need is lurking somewhere nearby: the internet assures me there are several in stock in my store.

And yet, despite the fact that I have wandered around what feels like half the store, that darn item continues to elude me.

My search is becoming desperate because I really need that item today.

As I continue to wander the store, glassy-eyed and anxious, it dawns on me that in addition to my desired item, there is something else I haven't seen: a sales associate.

Don't misunderstand me: I don't mean that I haven't seen any sales associates that aren't busy with other customers. I mean I haven't seen any sales associates whatsoever.

None. Zilch. De nada.

I have now been wandering aimlessly around the store for 15 minutes, and I haven't spotted a single person wearing a name tag to help flush my quarry out of its hiding place.


Thirty Thousand Feet of Frustration

I have become so frustrated – and simultaneously fascinated by the stunning dearth of help on this, the busiest retail day of the week – that I actually decide to keep track of how much ground I will have to cover before  I find someone to help me. Had I already covered -- literally -- half the store?

Believe it or not, I trekked across more than 30,350 square feet (yes, I paced it off) of concrete that day before I finally saw a sales associate. Up and down each long, lonely aisle, I stalked. I hunted across wide, intimidating departments. I explored the quiet (too quiet?)  back of the store, and then I strode to the front of the store. Up front, there was only a row of busy cashiers helping shoppers who were evidently able to find the items they were seeking. And I resolutely refuse – on principle – to stand in a cashier line to ask for help.

I found myself, quite literally, alone in the wilderness.




Eventually my eyes finally -- finally! -- fell upon someone who looked like they could help with my quest. As I eagerly strode over to ask for help, I was jolted from my reverie when my FitBit buzzed. My trusty step tracker buzzed to alert me that I had just met my step goal for the entire day. Maybe I had in fact walked half the store, after all.

But at least I had found someone. Help: glorious, helpful help had finally been found. All the walking, the stalking, the searching, would be over. I had found someone wearing a name tag!

Or so I thought.

Sadly, my rescuer turned out to be a mirage. Maybe I was getting dehydrated?

As my luck that day would have it, the associate I finally found lacked the expertise to help. And no, she didn't offer to help find someone that might actually be familiar with my item, either. She had other desperate souls waiting in line behind me, each hoping against hope that perhaps she could help answer their questions.

So, I returned to my quest. Having decided that wandering further afield from my item's native habitat would likely yield more blank stares and unhelpful suggestions, I slowly made my way back to the place where I originally expected my item to live.


All's Well that Ends Well?

After yet another few minutes spent staring at the shelf where I thought my item lived, hopeful that simply staring would make my item magically associate wandered my way. And, believe it or not, he was actually able to help me. He pointed me to a box that was quite full of the item I needed. It just happened to be stacked behind another box full of a different SKU.

I felt like a complete idiot. If only I had thought to reach behind that other box, into the dark and dusty nether regions of the back of that shelf, I could have saved myself 20 minutes (and thousands of steps) searching for that endangered associate.

At the end of the day (okay, not quite the actual end of the day, even though it sure felt like it), I did find the item I needed.  So, I guess all is well that ends well, right? Maybe. Or maybe not so much. I'm not sure I would say all was well at all with how I felt about that brand when I walked out of that store that day.




Isolated Incident or Perplexing Pattern?

If only this were an isolated incident, I could write it off as an anomaly. An outlier. But alas, I have other, similar stories.

Like the time I ordered an item online and had it shipped to the store, only to wait in line inside the store for 15 minutes – in the same line as people returning items – to pick up my item. Or the time I was hunting for a birthday gift for my niece that was only available in the store. When my local store didn't have her size (despite assurances from the internet that her size was in fact available there), I waited almost 30 minutes while a wannabe helpful associate called nearby stores in a fruitless search to find someone in the kids departments to actually answer the phone, let alone help find my niece's size.

Clearly, I have stumbled upon a pattern; a pattern that troubles me deeply. Without question, our stores represent our single greatest weapon against the 800-pound gorilla that is Amazon. And yet, time and again, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

Instead of delivering helpful, efficient and informed experiences that compel me to forego the convenience and reliability of Amazon, too many store experiences push me right into the waiting arms of an always-eager Jeff Bezos.

Amazon threatens us from every angle. We simply must do better.


Opportunity in Store

The store has the opportunity to be a huge competitive advantage against Bezos' relentless advance. But if we hope to capitalize on that opportunity, we have to do better. We have to combine rapidly evolving technology with our innate creativity to design experiences that engage, empower, and entertain shoppers. And we have to do so quickly.

We have to staff our stores more effectively. We have to empower every associate with the tools they need to help every shopper. We have to make it easy to find stuff, and easy to find help when people can't find the stuff they want. We have to provide mobile apps that enrich and inform the store experience.

We simply have to build better experiences.

Otherwise, we have no shot. Because you know what I -- an old-school guy who still (normally) prefers to do his shopping in stores – think every time a store experience disappoints me?

"I should have just ordered it from Amazon."