They can be beaten

Last week I bought a refrigerator from Lowe’s and have had an enlighteningly difficult experience dealing with them. I have so often heard about the crimes of such superstores on small town living and after my most recent experience, have even more reason to find those claims absolutely hilarious. So many people have such bitterness towards Walmart and other such superstores, citing them as a terror to their town, the customers embarrassed to admit when they are forced through those well lit doors. But why such a taboo around these stores? Most can’t explain it in a logical manner, citing frustration with them ending the reign of local stores and the demise of humanity and still most people find the cheap prices of increased efficiency attractive. The funny thing I find though is that these same people seem to put these corporations on a pedestal of invincibility, essentially admitting that nothing can compete with them other than laws and their silly masqueraded protests. But with my most recent experience, a local store could easily trump the frustration and poor customer service I experienced.

After waiting for nearly half an hour for someone to help me with my purchase, the sales rep told me that she needed to leave and how she was already late to picking her daughter up from school. After listening to this lady’s plight, I stood, waiting again, as she answered a personal call from her frustrated daughter. After hurriedly running me through what my options were, and admitting that they did not have the refrigerator that would fit perfectly into the space I had, she once again warned me about her need to get to her daughter. She told me she needed to hand me over to someone else at which time I waited another fifteen minutes for a duo who knew nothing about refrigerators saying such things as “You can’t go wrong with a Samsung,” and “well this one is a little bit bigger and has more bells a whistles,” as the extent of their knowledge. Recognizing that I honestly couldn’t tell the difference with any of refrigerators and my that dad had simply given me the directions to “buy a nice one,” I had no interest in meddling around any longer with refrigerator shopping. I picked one and waited to be transferred yet again to finalize the purchase. At this time I worked with three different people to ensure that I be called on my cell phone number, not my home phone (which is in Richmond, 200 miles away). Before I left I asked when I should expect it to be delivered and was given the time frame of 7AM to 7PM. Finally, I was able to leave the store with about 1-1.5 hours of waiting and about five minutes of refrigerator shopping.

The next day, they happened to come at the only time that I was not home. They called my home phone to inform me of the delivery. I had to leave town- I was only in Blacksburg visiting. A few days later in Richmond I woke up to my home phone ringing. I let it ring and twenty seconds later received a call on my cell phone which I answered. They were calling informing me that they were delivering my refrigerator that day. I told them they would be sending it to locked doors and that I wouldn’t be there till Saturday. They offered to deliver it between 8AM and noon and I expressed my appreciation and went back to sleep.

It’s now 3:30PM on Saturday and Lowe’s has still not delivered the refrigerator. I called earlier, just before noon, asking what the deal was. The customer service representative first told me “Well, it’s not noon yet.” to which I told him I reminded him they are supposed to call half an hour in advance when they are delivering. If they had not delivered, they should have at least called by now. He then said, “Well I’ve got a lot of customers here who need to be seen but I guess I can go check the manifest if you really need me to.” I politely told him I would really appreciate that. He called me back telling me that they had difficulty at one of the stops and they should be there soon with no promises as to what defined soon. Just now I called back and asked for a refund, saying that after eight hours of waiting at home, missing two college graduations (the reason I came here in the first place), I could wait no longer.

The reason I say this is not to bitch and whine about my experience. I’m actually really excited about it. Today I witnessed a fundamental flaw with large companies that I have always known but had yet to experience. What I realized is that a small store can compete with these guys. They are not invincible and that vulnerability makes me extremely happy. It outweighs the bad experience I had so tremendously that I have hardly felt any frustration. It seems that the employees are so distant from the revenue stream that they are incapable of seeing the source of their salaries. They have an inability to recognize the inevitable consequence of poor customer service. When the store owner is on the floor or is a manager, the frugality and acknowledgement that customers are a source of employment and money is directly evident.

For me, my purchase at Lowe’s was a poor measurement of efficiency on my part. I thought the ease of finding the big blue, white and gray store, the security of shopping somewhere I was comfortable with, and the benefit of low prices was worth it. However, Lowe’s could not provide me with a fundamental efficiency that certainly altered my future shopping. I don’t need to be pampered when I go to a store but I would like to have someone who is at least basically knowledgeable on what I am buying and I want a delivery range that is narrower than my entire day. I am not asking for special treatment. I am simply admitting that it would have been worth it to me to spend a few minutes online finding a local shop, visiting that store, spending another couple hundred dollars, and being treated with appreciation and courtesy. These are not absurd requests. A local store could and probably does very easily supply these.

It is much harder for such a large company to satisfy these requests. If the employees were informed of the importance of their customer service, that the company’s success is crucial to their own success, shown that the customer is not a burden, they could maybe see that being friendly and helpful actually can help them. If they could talk to any former Circuit City employee, they may be able to see the effects of an outdated mode of retail. And if Lowe’s sees that their cookie cutter method cannot compete in appliance sales with local stores, their employees will lose their jobs. A local store is so close to the brink that it is hard for them to forget their vincibility. Each appliance sold is another day open. Each customer lost is a direct hit, not displaced by the earnings of nationwide branches. For a small company’s employees, their tie to the company and the revenue stream is easy to see. To them their job is not a burden. It is survival. Large companies are so far from those fears that they lose those basic efficiencies.

This is fascinating to me and surely will guide my next appliance purchase. I hope that by writing this that maybe other people’s purchases will be redirected and people won’t have to go through the same process that I went through. I also hope that people can see that such a free market can stabilize to favor different forms of retail, that cookie cutter shopping is not always the best, that those ‘evil’ big corporations can be beat. We don’t need to make laws banning Lowe’s or Walmart from our towns (as many towns have done). They are not perfect and this particular gaping inefficiency has certainly redirect my future purchases and fascinated me about the dynamics of a free market.


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