This is a story about a car breakdown, a “Big Box” retail store, and customer service.
Several weeks ago I had to make a weekend trip to mom’s house in the Hudson Valley area of upstate New York. I left on a Friday morning driving my venerable 2004 Rodeo, and arrived late afternoon. I spent Saturday performing the odd jobs which was the reason for my trip. I left for home 6:30 Sunday morning, and this is where my story starts.
On my way out I stopped at the Burlingham General Store for a tea and bagel-to-go, inadvertently leaving my headlights on. That shouldn’t have been a big deal as I was only in the store for a couple of minutes. However, with tea and bagel in hand I hopped back into my Rodeo, turned the key, and the engine just clicked a couple of times. I then remembered my battery was five years old and apparently due for replacement.
Burlingham isn’t the middle of nowhere, but nowhere is pretty close. I happened to be able to get cellphone reception so I called AAA for help. About 20 minutes later I received a call from a towing service asking what I needed. I explained my dead battery and that I was driving back down to Virginia that day. I requested that the mechanic bring a replacement battery that I could buy and have installed on site. The mechanic replied “We don’t do that. I can’t sell you a battery. I don’t even have a key to get into my shop this morning.”
The towing service showed up a short while later coming from 20 miles away. The mechanic quickly got my Rodeo started and I asked where I could get a new battery. I explained I didn’t want to risk getting stuck somewhere else on my drive home. The mechanic suggested I stop in the Middletown “Big Box” store, which would be the only place to get auto parts and service on a Sunday morning.
Middletown was in the direction I was going anyway, so I headed over and arrived at the Big Box Auto Center about 7:45AM. There were two people already in line and the sign on the door said “Opens 8:00AM Sundays,” which should have been a 15 minute wait. I stood in line chatting with the other two people until about 8:10 waiting for someone to open the doors. Then, being the impatient type of person who likes to “make things happen” (aka: Stir up sh!t), I walked around to the main entrance and inside to the auto parts department.
At the auto parts counter I found two Big Box employees chatting together. I asked if they were opened. They looked at each other and said “we will be.” I asked what time they opened on Sundays and they replied “8:00.” I pointed out that it was now almost 8:20 and there were two other people outside waiting for service.
The employees looked at me blankly for a moment and went back to chatting. I waited.
A few minutes later the store manager showed up and got the employees moving. One started taking my order and the other went with the manager to open the shop. The two people waiting outside showed up at the counter a few minutes later, looking annoyed at an almost 45 minute wait past opening time.
One employee selected the battery I needed, then took my car keys and disappeared into the shop. The other two people weren’t lucky enough to get service as most mechanics scheduled to work that day hadn’t yet shown up. One person got into a very vocal argument with the employee that the price being quoted was higher than the advertised price shown on a wall poster behind the counter.
Twenty minutes later the employee working on my Rodeo came back out and selected another battery, explaining that the first battery wasn’t the correct type. I felt lucky he noticed. Forty-five minutes later he came back out announcing my car was ready. I retrieved my keys, wished the other two people still waiting for service “good luck,” and headed for home.
The moral of this story is? A small, locally-owned business lost a sale to a Big Box retail store that it didn’t need to lose. The Big Box retail store got a sale it didn’t deserve.
The locally-owned small business road service was able to get to me in less than one hour at 7:00AM on a Sunday morning. However, this same locally-owned small business didn’t have the acumen to bring out a battery to sell me. Even though their price would have probably been more than Big Box’s price I would have happily paid the difference. The customer service was excellent up to a point, but the business lacked the marketing skills that would have legitimately boosted their service profit.
The battery sale went to a local Big Box retail store staffed with unskilled people who could barely show up for work. This retailer made the sale by brute force of staying open 24/7 and carrying a huge mass selection of dirt-cheap merchandise, but with a nearly complete lack of customer service.
Small locally-owned businesses can’t compete on price against the Big Box retailers who can buy mass quantities of product and drive prices down. But these Big Box retailers with their corporate animosity towards hiring and training people, and paying starvation wages, cannot offer anything that even resembles customer service.
Salesmanship 101 teaches that price is never an objection. Excellent customer service with effective marketing skills should be the tools small businesses use to thrive against the corporate monsters and compensate for higher prices. However, I don’t see enough small businesses use these tools effectively.