John Ewoldt Point of sale

You can't expect low prices and great customer service, Paco Underhill told me recently. With consumers expecting more for less, something has to give. "Customer service got lost in the process of consumers demanding cheaper prices," said the retail anthropologist and author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."

Cue the light bulb going off in my head. For years I've been telling consumers how to get it for less, forgetting there must be a law of retail physics — for every price cut action there is an opposite and equal reaction.

Duh. I've long lamented the decline of customer service, not willing to see that I'm partly to blame. Underhill admitted that he too shares in it. He recently bought a dishwasher with free installation at Home Depot but spent 12 hours and many exasperating phone calls trying to get the installation set up. "We celebrate how little we spend for something, but I might have been better off going to the independent that charged for delivery," he said.

Yet few of us are willing to pay more. In a recent "How America Shops" survey by WSL Strategic Retail, two-thirds of shoppers with household income of $50,000 to $150,000 are still watching prices on everything. We're passing up favorite brands in favor of a cheaper one and pre-shopping to find what's on sale, according to the report. Despite low gas prices and an improving economy, "The U.S. shopper remains frugal," said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail.

I started thinking about some of my recent rants about bad customer service. There was the upholstery fabric that I bought on sale at that arrived defective twice. I successfully argued for a 50 percent discount on the slightly defective fabric (special order items are not returnable) and then complained about quality control in a "How did we do?" survey West Elm e-mailed to me. I was angry that I didn't get a response to my complaint. Now I wonder if I'm asking too much from a company that already gave me a hefty discount for its mistake (after I asked for one).

Over the holidays, my partner and I stayed several days in a former Courtyard by Marriott hotel in suburban Atlanta for $70 a night. After not getting housekeeping service for two days, we asked for and received credit for one of the three nights. Unreasonable cheap request?

Consumers have become quite persuasive at getting what we want. If we don't, we now take the case to Twitter, Facebook or other social media sites. It's a good way to hold retailers and service providers accountable, but sometimes it goes too far.

Karen Brill, who's been in consumer affairs for 30 years and owns Karen E. Brill Consulting in Eagan, said the consumer vigilante is one of the new faces of savvy shoppers with high expectations. "The consumer has changed. In some cases, they're more likely to post something on social media even before contacting the company," she said.

The reason we complain to the Ethernet is because it's often difficult to find anyone at larger companies to complain to. Brill said that it's often because a company may only have one or two people handling a large volume of complaints. "Companies frequently don't include a phone number because no one was hired to answer those calls," she said.

Trash talk on social media is the reason why many companies hire customer service experts today — for damage control and a competitive edge, Brill said.

But consumers have inconsistent expectations. Target seems to suffer more than its competitors whether it's the data breach, the white "Annie" ad flap, or the new Lilly Pulitzer collection that will offer plus sizes only online. Shoppers appear to "expect more" from it than from Wal-Mart. In fact, Wal-Mart gets good marks on its customer service, Underhill said, because its consumers expect so little.

I have higher expectations from sales clerks at J. Crew, for example, than at a discounter. When making a return at J. Crew after the holidays, I waited several minutes behind a customer while two employees who saw me waiting chatted and straightened sweaters. Americans don't like to wait in line for more than 30 seconds, according to customer service experts, and I was no exception. A simple "I'll be with you in a minute" can easily defuse the situation. The sales clerk didn't do that, but she apologized about the wait when I got to the register and asked about my holiday. Irritation averted.

As far as I'm concerned, Underhill did me a favor. Instead of grumbling about bad customer service, I can choose to pay more at a place that values customer service and charges me more for it, or I can save money at a place where the cashiers rarely smile or speak unless spoken to.

In a perfect world, we'd like to have both. I recently ordered a takeout margherita pizza from Punch. It's my favorite pizza in the Twin Cities, and at $6.50 it's a relatively inexpensive meal. I was 20 minutes late picking it up. The chef told me that the pizza was no longer as fresh as he liked, so he asked if I could wait five minutes or so while he made a fresh one.

We can't expect every establishment to combine reasonable prices and excellent customer service, so it's worth noting when we find them. If you know of other examples, let me know and I'll write about them in a future column.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633