The physical experience of shopping at an Urban Outfitters is different than shopping at a Zara or Gap. Unlike other stores’ carefully organized layouts, at Urban, clothing is strewn in piles dozens high and wedged into wall units. Multiple styles are crowded onto the same rack. Some styles are hidden in nooks and crannies, under pieces of furniture where only the most dedicated spelunker will find them. And everywhere, carefully-folded piles of shirts, shorts, and jeans, dozens high, require the shopper to shred the entire tower to find a specific size.
This is a setup meant to encourage browsing. It’s not a setup meant for quick item location. Finding a specific type of shirt is a daunting task. Sometimes jean are in the same place, but then again, sometimes they’re not. But Urban still makes it work with a secret weapon: manpower. They flood their stores with, by my count, twice the number of staff other stores employ on the sales floor at any given time. Yes, finding a specific tank top often requires dismantling an entire 6×6 display, but I suspect Urban has run the numbers, and discovered it’s cheaper to pay a college student to immediately re-fold everything than it is to buy classier fixtures.
In the physical world, retail outlets can afford to use the “acceptable anger strategy” of customer service, assuming that their customer’s frustration can be overcome through other, more human means. At Urban, the jumbled “garage-sale” feel stays just this side of impossible by the constant ministrations of staff. It’s almost fun, in a way. Like playing hide-and-seek, with the bonus that someone else has to clean up after you.
Discount furniture store IKEA overcomes the built-in frustration of walking around a maze of a store, long lines, and carrying your own packages, by imbuing their store with a quirky cheekiness. Yes, this is horrible, hah ha, but we’re all in this together saving cash! Have some meatballs and lingonberries! It’s almost fun! They have almost certainly run the numbers and decided more money can be made by exposing users to a vast number of products than can be made by improving the customer experience. Like Urban Outfitters, a certain number of people will swear to never return, but many will shrug and say, “well, I guess it wasn’t that bad – and hey, look at this great shirt/necklace/dresser/bag of meatballs.”
In the digital world, it’s a little more complicated.
In 2011 my company shared an office with one of those cool online cosmetics services. They specialized in sending out boxes of samples to subscribes each month. Not Ipsy, the other one. As a workspace it was great – perfume samples everywhere, free coffee in the kitchen, but there was one significant downside. Our pod was placed right next to the customer service team. Every phone call, every single phone call, with almost no exceptions, started this way:”Hi, this is E___ at B____, how can I hep you? Oh I’m so sorry!”. By week two we came to realize that the apology was, in fact, probably encoded into their script.
Now, the customer service team at this company was absolutely gorgeous. For almost all of them this was their first job directly out of college, where many had belonged to the same sororities. The uniform was stilettos, professionally blown-out hair, and full evening makeup no matter the weather or time of year. Lunchtime meant doing each other’s nails and nibbling on celery. A couple times a day a bell would ring. The entire team would lay down their headsets, take off their heels, and do yoga together. Then they would spend 8 hours apologizing. Constantly apologizing. Shipping issues, technical issues, packaging issues, “Oh I’m so sorry, let me see what happened” over and over and over
I can only assume this company had run the numbers and decided it made more sense to employ a huge and very specialized customer service team – at the time significantly bigger than their tech team – to apologize, than it did to solve the institutional problems their customers were complaining about.
In the real world, this is a brilliant compensatory strategy. Walk into a physical store with a complaint about your perfume and meet the sheer perkiness, the earnest enthusiasm of these gorgeous mayflies, and few shoppers with would find themselves able to stay angry for long.
But charm doesn’t work at a distance. There’s a certain charm to being annoyed and confused by the IKEA store. People boast about it. There’s a 30 Rock episode about it. There’s no charm to being confused by the IKEA website. Virtual services can’t afford to compensate for organizational failings with quirkiness the way a store in the real world can, because they require a level of trust that isn’t needed at a physical location where someone can simply walk away. Few disgruntled shoppers at Urban Outfitters ever approach the level of panic and outrage evinced by those cosmetics customers. You could hear it through the speakers 10 feet away.
Perhaps all of us could take a page from the Evil Overlord list. This was a viral email from back in the mid-90’s listing all the classic blunders an evil ruler might make in their quest for domination. It includes common sense suggestions such as “My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.” and “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps”. One of the best ideas here was this: “All naive, busty tavern wenches in my realm will be replaced with surly, world-weary waitresses who will provide no unexpected reinforcement and/or romantic subplot for the hero or his sidekick.”
As more and more services arise to mimic interactions that previously required physical proximity (I’m looking at you, Google Shopping, Instacart, PostMates…), we’d do well to remember this. Charm, romance, playfulness, all of these are important tools in allowing customers to overlook issues with the real-world shopping experience. But when it comes to a virtual storefront, there’s no substitute for actually solving the problems people raise as quickly as possible on an institutional level.
In an app or a website, the “world weary waitress” of proper user interaction beats out the “busty tavern wench” of fun customer service every time. In a way, by the time the complaint makes it to customer service, it’s already too late.