In January, I wrote that people can’t expect great customer service and low prices. American shoppers want low prices and that means lowering our customer service expectations.
I asked readers to send in their experiences of having it all — getting excellent customer service and low prices. I received a dozen responses, but I asked for too much. Most were from readers getting great service without low prices.
Two readers sang the praises of local shoe stores, Aerosoles and Schuler Shoes. The Aerosoles store in Albertville didn’t have Ingrid Maslow’s size, but one employee volunteered to call other stores. Within 10 minutes she found Maslow’s size in Illinois. “I had them in time to wear to a wedding in Spain,” said the Plymouth resident. “And they didn’t charge me for shipping,” she said.
Cathy Jones of Waseca gets “fantastic service” from Schuler Shoes in Bloomington, she wrote. She appreciates Schuler’s willingness to stock nonstandard widths, even if it means having to pay full price. “Quality is worth the premium,” she said. “And $30 shoes that end up being worn a few times are much more a waste of money than the $200 boots I purchased 16 years ago that I still wear daily in the winter.”
I agree with Jones that paying more often brings better service, but it’s on a case-by-case basis, as retailers like to say. I recently tested the gold standard of customer service, Nordstrom, when I tried to return a pair of shoes that I had worn more than a year.
Many of you will probably think less of me for attempting to return something after a year’s wear. I would argue that Nordstrom, one of the most admired companies in the world, according to a 2013 survey by the Hay Group and Fortune magazine, may be resting on its legendary laurels.
After writing that we can’t expect a low-price company to offer super service, I wondered what to expect from a company known for high quality and higher-than-average prices. Fifteen months ago, I splurged on a pair of Bruno Magli shoes on sale for $270 (regularly $400) because they were the most comfortable yet stylish shoes I’ve ever worn, out of the box. As a guy who never used to spend more than $100 for shoes, I expected more quality for my money from an expensive pair. Instead, I got less. The soft leather flaked off the toes of the shoes, a condition I have not experienced on other shoes at any price.
Two employees at the store in Mall of America told me that I should have known that nappa leather would peel, that it has to be polished often to protect it, and that it should never be worn in snow. I asked why the salesperson didn’t mention that at the point of purchase and was told that anyone should know that about nappa leather.
Feeling like a rube but not backing down, I told the employee that I didn’t expect a refund and that store credit seemed reasonable. A manager on duty had to be consulted, but she was too busy to come over and asked the employee to approve the credit.
Regarding returns on its website, Nordstrom says, “We will do our best to take care of customers and deal with them fairly; we ask that our customers treat us fairly as well. From time to time we may not accept a return. There are no time limits for returns or exchanges.”
Did I treat Nordstrom fairly? It’s a valid question. I expected more from a $400 pair of shoes than to be told by the company that I don’t know how to take of nappa leather. I also wasn’t aware that Nordstrom considers worn returns on a case-by-case basis. I thought their return policy was similar to “No questions asked” at Costco and L.L. Bean.
Nordstrom spokesman Dan Evans said the store doesn’t have a return policy. “Ultimately, we want to satisfy you, the customer,” he said. Instead of a blanket policy, Evans said, the firm aims for salespeople and customers to each share responsibility and reach a fair conclusion.
When I wrote that consumers expect too much from low-price companies, Spirit Airlines and Aldi came to mind. Yet people fly Spirit Airlines and express outrage at the baggage fees. But if I can pay $150 less to fly on Spirit than others, I expect to pack a bag that fits under the seat or buy a beverage before boarding.
After the last article on this subject, one reader called to complain that Aldi and dollar stores don’t publish store phone numbers. She’s proof that Americans have trouble adjusting to reduced services. But when we demand low prices, customer service will suffer. Aldi can sell groceries for lower prices than Wal-Mart, but does so by cutting back on staff, fancy displays and phone service.
Consumers who can’t accept a lower standard of customer service still have options. They can take the high-price road and hold those businesses to a higher standard. Or they can take the low-price road and learn to overlook a minimum of service. But those who expect high service and low prices will rarely be satisfied.