Earlier this week I posted an article to this blog where I described the moment when I realized that I had lost touch with my retail roots. I spoke of my disappointment at this realization, and I expressed my desire to get out of my technology bubble. Subsequently, I made a sincere commitment to spend more time inside the stores. Upon reading the post, my friend and colleague Jennifer Deschamps told me that she could definitely relate to my feelings, and in fact had already done exactly what I promised to do: as a Sales Operations Specialist for STS Retail Systems, she and a colleague had spent a day working in a Rob McIntosh China & Crystal shop in Quebec.
Jennifer told me about her experiences that day, explaining that she was busy from the moment she arrived, be it supporting cashiers, folding gift boxes, or (attempting to) help customers on the shop floor. She had, indeed, experienced first-hand a day in the amazing life of a retail store.
Empathy and Admiration
Jennifer also told me that she came away from her experience with a newfound empathy and admiration for the way the team at her local Rob McIntosh store juggled so many varied and urgent tasks in the normal course of operations on any given day. And that was then. In 2003: American Idol was only in its second season, Friends was still in production, and The Lord of the Rings was the number one movie at the box office.
Jennifer told me that she had written a blog post at that time about her experience in the Rob McIntosh store, and believe it or not, all these years later, she still had that article in her personal archives (talk about organization skills – I can’t find things I wrote last week!). She was kind enough to share her original article with me, and her first-person account of her experience (from 2003!) is excerpted here:
With only a few days to go before Christmas, this place is bustling with activity. Tim and I hang up our coats and get straight to work. I’m assigned to work at the front cash wraps while Tim heads off to help with inventory.
My first task is to assemble place setting boxes. I’m given a quick demonstration: fold, staple, and then tuck. This task is just my speed, or so I think, until I inflict myself with a paper cut on my very first attempt. Eventually I get the hang of it, and after I assemble more than 50 boxes, I’m ready to move on to packing.
Yikes! A Royal Doulton Tea Set! Each piece is so delicate…so fragile…so expensive. Just to be safe, I wrap each piece with a little extra tissue paper. But while I make every effort to ensure the safety of each delicate piece, customers begin to grow impatient. Everyone wants to be served…now. It occurs to me how these extremely busy sales associates have to be able to keep calm and cool under pressure. Never before had I realized how much these people are depending on our software. They haven’t a minute to spare.
As my day unfolds, a sea of customer questions arrive at my feet:
“What is this little piece of crystal used for, a knife rest?” Sure, sounds good to me.
“Can I take these ornaments directly off the tree?” Ummm…Why not?
“Where are the Royal Doulton Figurines?” Haven’t a clue.
“What’s the price of this? And this?” Arghhhhhh!
I head off to look for Tim to see if he is faring any better, and I find him sorting dozens of boxes of expensive, delicate crystal in a display about the size of my cubicle. You definitely can’t afford to be clumsy in a place like this. I never knew there were so many crystal patterns, and yet, amazingly, Tim appears to have everything under control.
Then, trouble breaks: Tim is called to the cash wrap to help with a POS emergency! He soon returns, having successfully popped off the number 4 key from one of the registers and extracted a small piece of rogue cardboard that had caused the problem. Order is restored and the register is once again open for business. The staff is duly impressed!
Tim then walks off to get a drink of water. He returns a few minutes later, looking very confident. He’s just made a sale; he has successfully sold a crystal wine decanter. Now these guys are really impressed! They want us back: “Would Boxing Day be okay,” they ask? Um, maybe not.
Six o’clock finally rolls around and our job is pretty much complete. As we say our goodbyes, the staff seems genuinely sad to see us go. We learned that this was no easy afternoon: to thrive in these busy stores, you need a real talent for retail. Tim and I walk out of the store as survivors, with our heads held high and a new appreciation for those who work in retail.
But, for now, we also decide that we prefer to stay behind the scenes…at least until next year.
That Was Then, This is Now
To put Jennifer’s experience in context, total US eCommerce sales in 2003 were about $55B, with virtually none of those orders involving the stores in any way. Today, Captain America reigns supreme at the box office, Netflix and Amazon dominate TV viewership, and eCommerce is now a $400B industry, with a huge chunk of those orders impacting the store in some way (pick up in store, ship from store, endless aisle, return in store, etc.). Imagine how much more we expect of our stores today than we did then. Imagine how much more impressed Jennifer would be if she spent a day in an omni-channel store today.
I actually think I can feel the bubble beginning to break…if only a little.