Have you been to Kmart lately? It’s nearly impossible to check out without a cashier playing 20 questions with you.
Here's how my latest trip went.
“Hi, how are you?”
I’m never sure how to answer this question when an associate poses it. If I am not doing well, am I really supposed to say so? Is that really what the associate wants to hear? If not, why force him or her to ask such a question?
“I’m doing well, and you?”
“I’m doing well also. May I have your phone number?”
“My phone number? No, you may not.”
She punched a few buttons, probably putting me on the naughty list.
“Do you have your rewards card? Or would you like to fill out an application for one?”
“No, thank you.”
“Would you like to give a dollar to charity?” (I cannot remember which one.)
“Holy cow, they make you ask a lot of questions, don't they? No, thank you.”
Kmart isn’t the only retailer doing this.
I used to love Office Depot. The one I frequented changed locations recently and the second I entered the new store for the first and only time I’ll ever go there, the twenty questions began. An associate who was wearing a Kip Winger styled headset met me at the door.
“We have paper on sale today. Would you like to pick some up while you are here?”
“No, thank you.”
He spoke into his headset. I couldn’t understand what he said, but you know how you get the feeling that someone is talking about you? Well, I had that feeling. A few seconds later, a woman in a Kip Winger headset greeted me.
“What can I help you find today?”
“I’m just killing a little time.”
I wasn’t really killing time. I was there to pick up some pens, but I didn’t want her to take me by the hand and lead me to the Pen Promised Land while giving me the rundown about which pens were on sale and then listening to her spiel about why I should buy 64 pens when I really only wanted to buy four.
I shook free from her only to be approached a few aisles later by another associate.
I put my hand up. “I don’t need any help, thank you.”
He said something into his headset, presumably telling the troops to back down.
After choosing my pens, the associate who checked me out asked for my personal information, which I declined to offer.
I don’t know how all of this started, but I think two entirely different dynamics are at work and both of them are based on faulty premises, in my opinion.
The first one is the Starbucks Factor. You walk in, a barista greets you with a smile, you hear soft jazz playing in the background, and you feel welcomed – ready for a one-hour vacation from the stresses of the world. You sit down with your coffee, crack open your laptop or a good book and disappear for a while. Who doesn’t enjoy that experience? And since it is so enjoyable, why not try to transport it to every other business?
If I go to Kmart to pick up a pair of socks, I want to be in and out in five minutes or less. The easier Kmart makes that, the more likely I am to return. You don’t need to ask how my day has been, or tell me about what’s on sale, or ask me to join a cause, or anything like that. Just be polite if I approach you, know what you are doing, and we’ll make an exchange.
I'm all for making a human connection with an associate or another customer, even if I'm in a hurry. But it needs to be organic, not contrived.
The second dynamic smacks of desperation. Brick and mortar stores know that online retailers such as Amazon and iTunes collect our email addresses and our previous buying history and then use that information to market to us. So brick and mortar stores believe they have to do the same thing to keep up.
The problem is, I don’t approach online and brick and mortar shopping with the same mindset. When I shop online, I look for the best deal, I browse, I read reviews and I listen to or read samples. I enjoy the experience. When I walk into Kmart, I just want to be finished as quickly as possible.
If Kmart were to set up a table at the front of the store where I could choose to stop and sign up for their e-mail list, then that would be fine. But don’t force me to listen to your sales pitch at the cash register every time I visit the store. And please don’t ask for my personal information, especially within earshot of the people behind me.
I know … I know, somebody will read this and think I’m saying the equivalent of “get off my lawn.” But here’s the thing … I really want to see retail stores in my community succeed. As such, I just want them to understand how their current practices are pushing me away.
Less really is more in this case.
Lee Warren is a freelance writer and editor who has written twelve non-fiction books, one novella and hundreds of articles for various newspapers and magazines as well as edited more than 50 books that currently appear in print. He's a fan of NASCAR, baseball, tennis, books, movies and coffee shops.