Retail stores are in a fight right now, more than ever. It’s no secret that Amazon [and a slew of other sites] has crushed the profit margins for many traditional brick and mortar stores, but these store fronts are still very much needed. Clothing for example, it’s almost always cheaper online but most buyers prefer to try things on and see how they look first, even if the online store offers free return shipping and exchanges. Other products such as cycling need a retail store front so you can be properly fitted by a professional, the same with most sports for that matter. That doesn’t mean that after I’ve been fit for a product and taken your advice I will actually spend my money with your business, and here’s why.
I’ve decided to buy a pair of hiking boots, a purchase that I don’t plan to make again for 5+ years and wanted a pair of boots that would last. Other than that, I knew almost nothing about what I was shopping for. Fifteen years ago I would head to my local sporting good store and talk with a sales rep, they would listen to what I wanted to do and suggest something for me. The Internet has flattened this process and I can now quickly use Amazon, REI and a slew of other specialty websites to pinpoint exactly what brand and type would work best by simply ticking some boxes on what I want to do, then read real customer reviews. Customer reviews to some extend hold far more value than a salesperson, mostly because the customer has no reason to lie and no influence to sell you a specific brand, they have nothing to gain, making them the ideal reason for feedback. In lass than fifteen minutes of reading I decided on a pair of Keen boots. The only thing that slightly worried me was an occasional review about them being slightly smaller than true to size. So I did something that is probably becoming more common for many, I went to a retail store to try on something I had no intention to ever buy in that store, only to get the proper size and fit.
Is this morally wrong? Perhaps. Am I a bad person for not supporting local stores? I’ll answer this in a bit, my answer may surprise you. Could I have been swayed to buy them in-store? Possibly.
After looking on the Keen website I found that my local Army Navy store was an authorized retailer so I drove down to try them on. This locally owned store has been a staple for decades in my town, but over the last few years has drifted away from the once surplus style store and focuses more on seasonal sports such as snowboarding and skateboarding than it ever has on what was once their core, gun sales, hunting and outdoor activities. They are also famous for having blowout shoe sales and usually have a buy one get one 50% off sale running, so my fingers were crossed that I could maybe find Keen boots in my size in the racks of sale items, I didn’t.
The massive wall of shoes, boots and sneakers is about seven feet tall and maybe 30-40 feet wide, but I found the Keen display on the wall quickly and saw four employees about ten feet to my left. I started looking at the shoes and saw the pricing was true to MSRP, about $140.00 for the boots. Knowing I found them online for $70.00 with free shipping and free return shipping if I wasn’t happy, the sales team really needed to wow me in order to walk out with a pair that night.
Listening to the four sales people talk about guitar cords and the band that they were all apparently in while checking out shoes, I glanced over after picking up several pair and wondered why no one had come over to check on me, much less acknowledge why I was there. A guy walked up to them and asked where the non-steel toe, non-insulated boots were, one of the salespeople pointed and said, “over there,” without even looking and kept on chatting with his coworkers. Fed up, I finally walked over to them holding a pair and asked for a size 10.
One guy looked up at me, said OK and went in the back to fetch them, clearly disturbed I interrupted their deep conversations. A minute later a voice came over a walkie-talkie attached to the hip of one of the salespeople that was still talking, it was the guy who offered to get me the boots. He said they only had a 9.5, at which point I asked them if they had the “low” version in a size 10. They did and a few seconds later he reappeared and put the box on a bench, turned and sat back down with his co-workers. I looked at the other customer who was also still looking aimlessly without any help in disgust and he returned the glance.
There I was, handed a pair of boots to try on, no question as to what I would be doing them in, why it didn’t matter if they were low or mid versions, no one questioned if I wanted waterproof or planned on doing 5 mile weekend hikes or was going on a week long 100 mile adventure. They didn’t even open the box lid and pull one out for me. I sat there, dumbfounded, tried them on, stood up and walked around the bench and started to untie them and put them in the box. Surely someone would ask how they fit, if I needed another size, would I need socks (maybe working on an up-sell), but nothing. I put the boots back in the box, closed the lid and stood up, walking away from the coworkers who hadn’t lost a beat in their conversation I said, “thanks” and looked at them then the box on the bench, one said, “sure” and didn’t even look at me. I walked out. The time was 7:30 at night, there were 4 cars in the parking lot including mine and they are open till 9pm. Clearly the time was there to have a conversation and sell them to me.
Now to answer my own questions. Could I have been swayed to buy them in-store? It would have been a stretch knowing that they were already available online for $70, maybe if they were $90 in store because I didn’t have to wait, or if it turned out the Keen boots I wanted were actually totally wrong and I was educated on what I did need. Am I a bad person for not supporting local stores? I don’t think so. Offer me quality service and a competitive price and I’ll support you. That said, MSRP for the boots I wanted was $140, I found them on Amazon and a dozen other websites for $97, all with free shipping. Additionally, buying online doesn’t reduce local jobs, my local UPS driver stopped by this morning to deliver my boots, he still needs a job, as do the people at the sorting facility where they came into before getting loaded on his truck. In a round about way, someone in my area still has a job.
Traditional retail stores are still very much needed for both personal knowledge, fit and finish, there’s something nice about touching what you’re about to buy. That said, horrible customer service and lack of attention to detail will continue to drive shoppers online. Higher gas prices also mean consumers are thinking about where they will drive to buy something. As of today, gas prices in my neighborhood are $3.65 / gallon, my car gets 29mpg and Army Navy, the store I went to try on my boots is about 20 miles round trip. That means it cost about $2.50 + my time to try them on, so realistically I spent about an hour driving to and from plus time in the store to save almost 50% off retail and not have to be totally annoyed.