By Dan Vedda
As I write this, the Christmas season is still unfolding. We’re walking the tightrope hourly, scrambling to bring in the items our customers need while still having impulse goods and stocking-stuffer staples on a limited budget. Searching for an upside, I know that I won’t be stuck with piles of dead inventory at the end of the season.
As cranked-up as just-in-time inventory is, it’s multiplied because our store isn’t specialized. Our customers split very evenly between combo, B&O and print—and everybody has a special need, often for a product we have to hope a supplier still has in stock. For a small store like ours, it translates to more than a thousand “everyday” SKUs, plus all the specialty items. Yet, amid the stress of chasing down and budgeting for all the needs, one thing really has surprised me: Some of our competitors aren’t willing to do this job.
Over the last few months, I’ve become the point man on the phone. Partly from necessity, and partly because it’s the best way for me to gauge the market, I talk to most of the customers who call us. Sure, it ties me up sometimes when someone just wants to pick my brain, but I get a very clear picture of our average phone customer, and it’s encouraging.
You see, whether we’re further down the alphabet, further away or lower in search rankings, most of the new or casual customers I hear from have talked to other dealers or looked online before talking to me. Overwhelmingly, they thank me for taking the time to talk to them about their needs. “The last guy didn’t even offer to order this,” they say. “They made me feel like I was bothering them,” is a common complaint. Although some people mention less-than-knowledgeable salespeople, the appalling fact is that most never even got far enough to test the acumen of the person answering the phone.
Students and moms in particular seem to have the hardest time. “The guy just laughed at me when I told him what I was looking for,” I will hear them say. “I got a lecture for asking for a brand they say is ‘not good’. But it’s what her teacher wants!”
Sometimes, the attitude comes from other small stores, but, just as often, it’s a big multi-store or national operation that put some dude on the phone, perhaps because he’s awful at closing sales on the selling floor. I really thought our industry was moving past this, but the last quarter has startled me, I must say.