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A view of the industry through the eyes of independent and chain retailers.

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“Alex, We'll Take ‘Things That Cheese Us Off’ for $500!"

Perhaps it was a customer, not you, who infuriated a customer, but you still must deal with the anger.

by Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender (May 17, 2010)

Several years ago a Milwaukee woman was waiting in line to pay for her groceries. There was no one at the 15- items-or-less express lane, so the cashier waved her over so she could check her out. Another woman, irritated that the shopper in the express lane had more than 15 items in her cart, followed her out to the parking lot and attacked her, actually slicing off a part of her nose.

Yes, you read that right: a shopper attacked another shopper over the number of items in her grocery cart. Today’s time-starved and stressed-out customers can turn from shoppers into angry panthers in 60 seconds or less over the tiniest inconveniences. It’s called Shopper Rage and it’s as common in our society as road rage – and it’s just as scary.

One of the things we’re known for is our unique brand of consumer research. Each year we host focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and in-store studies. Sometimes our focus groups run smoothly and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes the participants take us places we never intended to go. This usually happens whenever we ask, “How’s the customer service in stores been lately?” It starts out as a customer-retailer conversation that generally turns into a laugh-a-minute screaming match about what customers hate about other customers. The thing is, when Mr. or Mrs. Shopper is cheesed off at another customer, they often take it out on you. This customer-on-customer dialog has become part of our research; we now regularly ask about things other customers do that drives them nuts. Here are a few of our favorites (at least the ones we can print!):

1. “I made a special trip to a craft store in search of several items I needed to finish a project. As soon as I entered the front door my antennae were up, looking for an available salesperson. I found one almost immediately and she began helping me figure out what I needed. We were involved in a detailed conversation when another customer, with an armful of product, approached us and asked loudly, ‘What else do I need to make this look like the picture?’ For the next five minutes I stood there fuming. What am I? Invisible?”

2. “I’m an avid scrapbooker. I like to visit my favorite scrapbook store just to have some alone time. The thing that drives me insane are the people who interrupt my thoughts with their cell phone conversations. People on cell phones don’t talk, they SCREAM. I really don’t care what cute thing little Suzie did yesterday and I don’t care how much you hate your boss. Please just shut up and let me shop in peace.”

3. “I do much of my personal shopping on my lunch hour or on my way home from work. My time is limited and I always seem to get stuck behind people who have a cart full of merchandise. They take their sweet time unloading it, then calmly stand there, watching the cashier ring and bag it. When the cashier finally says the total, that’s when they begin an archeological dig looking for their money. What? You didn’t know you were going to be eventually asked for payment?”

4. “What’s with people who have been to McDonalds every week of their life since birth, but after waiting in line for 10 minutes, still have to stare at the menu for another 10 minutes before ordering?  Every other line is moving, but I’m always behind Miss gee-what-should-I-have-for-lunch-today? Like the menu ever changes.”

5.  “On a recent flight a woman pulled out a bottle of nail polish remover and polish and proceed to give herself a manicure. She asphyxiated everyone sitting within 50 feet of her. I think every passenger on an airplane should get one vote as to whom onboard the plane gets jettisoned over the deepest lake the plane flies over. My vote would be for anyone who pulls out a bottle of nail polish.”

6. “I was on a coast-to-coast red eye flight. As soon as I was able, I planned to recline my seat and get some shut eye. Only my seat wouldn’t recline because the guy behind me had purchased some gadget that prevented my seat from going back. He reclined his seat but he didn’t want my seat ‘interfering in his space.’ Who decided that his comfort was more important then mine? He’s lucky we were on a plane….”

7. “I took my daughter to a ‘Mommie & Me’ craft class. She was doing really well and we were having fun until another child started acting up. This kid was running around the class room while her mother ignored her, calmly working on her project. Before I knew it several other children, mine included, were off and running, ending any hope of finishing the class that day. I managed to corral my kid; I wish parents would teach their children how to behave in public places.”

8. “This happens to me all the time: I’m standing in line waiting to pay for my purchase when the person in line behind me moves up right next to me. I’m trying to swipe my credit card, or hand money to the cashier, and this person’s in my space like she's part of MY sale. I always want to ask if she'd like to pay for my purchase.”

9. “I detest people who try and pull one over on stores. They're so self-righteous; they figure if they complain long enough and holler loud enough, the employee will eventually crack and give them what they want. When the employee is fully degraded, but the customer still hasn't gotten what he or she wants, they scream for the manager. Then they turn to whomever is nearby and complain to us, like we're supposed to agree with their bad behavior.”

And on and on and on and on and on.

We live in a world where we all wish we had more time, and where customers are more demanding than ever. We're all learning how to deal with that in the best way possible. The good news is that much of the time unhappy customers aren't cheesed off at you, they're mad at other customers. The bad news is that they’re likely to take out their frustrations on you. It's a double-edged sword but every customer, regardless of their behavior, is still a customer who can help or harm your business. At the end of the day, how you handle touchy situations will determine how your store is perceived by the public.

We can't control customer-on-customer interaction, but we are responsible for controlling the customer experience. Understand that customers will occasionally lose it in your store, so focus on ways to create a customer-friendly atmosphere. Encourage your team to interact with customers more than usual. Choose soothing wall colors. Play music – music makes all the difference. Customers shopping in stores that play music perceive the store to be friendlier and they spend more time shopping. They also perceive time in lines to be shorter. When the lines are really long, send an associate out with a plate of cookies to feed customers while they wait. Try inexpensive little things to sooth the savage beast.

Your associates need to know that when a customer goes ballistic for whatever reason, you will be standing there right beside them. This means that every single person who works in your store must be trained on what to do and what to say (and what not to say) when customers behave badly. Discuss the possibilities in a store meeting. Role play until associates feel comfortable and ready to respond when the situation arises. Because someday it will!

(Note: To read previous columns by Rich and Georganne, click on the titles in the right-hand column.)

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