The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 30, 2013

Krohn: Sales pushing out the door

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

— I never thought I’d long for the days when I’d walk into a store and be ignored by the clerks.

As service declined in many stores as they looked to save money and dealt with a labor pool that had less interest in delivering customer service for low pay, customers were often left serving themselves.

But American retailers are now on a fervent mission of training clerks to provide aggressive attention to customers and to vigorously up-sell.

“Hi, a medium dark roast coffee please,” I ask the barista.

“A large is only 26 cents more,” she says, suggesting I’d be a fool not to upgrade. “Would you like a Chai Glazed Pistachio Cookie with that? The Falafel Hummus Veggie wrap is to die for.”

I stopped at another store recently where the clerk not only introduced himself, but asked my name, shook my hand and looked me in the eyes, attempting to create an intimate bond.

I asked for the item I was looking for and he tried to up-sell me a more expensive brand. “This one is fine, thanks. I’m just going to look around for a while,” I said.

But he followed me, asking questions, randomly pulling things off the shelf to show me. I headed to the checkout and rejected the requests to give my email, telephone number or sign up for a rewards card and darted out the door, expecting he might follow me out of the store waving other products.

There’s a sweet spot between being completely ignored when you walk in a store and having a “team member” hit you like a rottweiler on a baby goat.

None of it is the clerks’ fault of course. They are being hounded by managers to fill quotas and meet sales goals that are often now tracked hourly by larger retail chains.

But the push for aggressiveness is beginning to backfire, driving more people out of stores and to the Internet. There’s plenty of up-selling at online retail sights, too, but at least you can click past it in the privacy of your own home.

The New York Times recently quoted a consumer behavior researcher who said shoppers are increasingly turning to the web to find the solitary shopping experience they crave.

“Sales associates have always been aggressive, but it is our exposure to new types of self-shop retail models that have made us more attuned to their pushiness,” he said. “At the department store, the beauty associate is on top of shoppers from the moment they walk into the section. In our studies, women often described them as sharks or vultures.”

Maybe it’s time for a compromise. Greet us, ask us if we need any help, then take a hint and get out of the way if we just want to look around.

Tim Krohn is a Free Press staff writer. He can be contacted at 344-6383 or tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com.