While visiting New Jersey this weekend, I stopped at the Williams-Sonoma store in the Short Hills Mall.  Williams-Sonoma is an upscale kitchen-accessories store.  The Short Hills Mall is an “ultra-premium” mall, the sort of place where the anchor stores are Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdale’s instead of JCPenney and Target. What should’ve been a premium shopping experience turned into a frustrating trip that makes me unlikely to visit that store again.

I’ll admit I’ve always had a mixed opinion of Williams-Sonoma.  They carry some nice items, but they also carry a lot of useless things.  True “gourmet cook” cookware is mixed with the culinary equivalent of the motorized tie racks you see in department stores around Christmastime—useless and tacky things that mostly appeal to frustrated gift-givers.  A savvy shopper can find better deals at local restaurant-supply and cooking stores (such as my local favorite, Warren Kitchen & Cutlery).

Anyway, I needed a new steamer.  Grandma’s old collapsable steamer insert had finally completed its utter collapse, and I’ve been steaming vegetables a lot more lately.  I very much like All-Clad cookware, and Williams-Sonoma carries a good range of All-Clad.  So, into Williams-Sonoma.

[amazon-product]B0006LJ5ZY[/amazon-product]I found the All-Clad 3-quart steamer set. That’s pretty much what I was looking for.  They had two of them, apparently identical, on display.  Now all I need to do is buy them.

Williams-Sonoma, being upscale, doesn’t keep cookware stock on the display floor.  So the first thing was to get someone to help me.  There weren’t any employees near me, so I headed to the central checkout desk.

It took a little while to get help, because the checkout was a bit understaffed for the crowd that Sunday.  As I waited in line, I did notice employees milling about, occasionally helping other people.  I think they might’ve been more effective at the checkout.

I told the employee at the checkout that I wanted the All-Clad 3-quart stainless steel steamer set.  She wasn’t clear on what this was, and got on her walkie-talkie to ask for help. After a confused moment or two, she asked me to come over to the display and show her what it was that I wanted.

We finally wound up with three employees standing around the All-Clad display, looking at the floor sample and trying to explain over the walkie-talkie, in loud booming voices that carried throughout the store, what it is they were looking for to some mystery person in the back room.  “It’s a steamer set, it’s like a pasta pentola but smaller,” one yelled into her neckline.  (The cord-mounted microphones of their walkie-talkie headsets made for some odd body language.)  After a few minutes of trying, and failing, to explain to each other which product they were trying to sell, another employee took the tag off the shelf and went back to the service desk.

At the desk, she looked up the SKU code on her computer. Directing the faceless back-room man to look harder, she told me “the computer says I have five of these in stock, so there should be at least one back there.”  Her tone of voice expressed doubt, and made it clear that she could very well have none.

It was then explained that it wasn’t in their stockroom on this floor, and their back-room man would have to check the other storeroom on the other floor of the mall.

I was then left to my own devices for about ten minutes as everyone left to help other customers.

After about eight minutes, I was strongly considering just walking out.  I’d already spent three times longer in this store than I’d expected, almost all of it waiting for the employees to get their act together.

As the fellow finally arrived with my pot, it was unceremoniously dropped on a sales counter, and no one made any acknowledgement to me.  All the staffed registers were busy, so I waited, mostly patiently, for one to free up.  The one that opened first was the one right next to the box with my steamer in it, the one the fellow had delivered it to.  The woman staffing it asked for the next customer, and someone who had approached the desk well after me darted in with her items.  The employee didn’t say a word and started ringing her up.

When the next register opened, I asserted myself with extra vigor and got rung up.  Good thing, too; the reaction to the box sitting on the counter was “oh, is this yours?”

One high point for Williams-Sonoma: Instead of putting the large, heavy, square-cornered cardboard box into a plastic or paper bag that would be sure to fail before I reached my car, they instead gave me an inexpensive but reusable shopping bag, similar to some cheap types of reusable supermarket shopping bag but larger.  While this must be an added expense for the store, it’s a good call given the nature of their merchandise and their premium brand positioning.

Summary: How Williams-Sonoma Short Hills Failed

  1. Employees in a specialty store that don’t know their product. When I go to a premium store like Williams-Sonoma, I expect that the sales help will at least know all the products they sell that require assistance to purchase.  If I ask for a three-quart stainless-steel All-Clad steamer, they should know what I’m talking about, or know what to ask to clarify it.  A blank stare and a request to point at it is not a premium experience, it’s a Wal-Mart experience.
  2. Let’s say that again: Employees in a specialty store that don’t know their product. If you have to tell another employee “It’s like a pasta pentola, but smaller,” you really have a training issue with your staff.
  3. Inefficient stock-keeping. At worst, the floor employee should’ve been able to read off the SKU to the back-room guy and get the item out front quickly.  Places like Sears have had stock-keeping systems that quickly direct the warehouse folks to the right shelf to fulfill a customer order for decades.  Williams-Sonoma has no excuse for needing to hunt through two storerooms to find one pot.
  4. Inaccurate computer records. If the computer says there are five pots in stock, there should be five pots in stock.  There should be no reason for the staff to be unsure of their inventory, especially when the inventory is kept solely in a back storeroom.  Do they have that much employee theft going on?
  5. Yelling is not a premium experience. Using walkie-talkies can enhance customer satisfaction by making employees more efficient.  However, if you’re a premium store, you need to buy premium walkie-talkies so that your employees can communicate clearly and calmly.  You need to train employees on communications etiquette.  Having three people surrounding you yelling into their lapels like over-caffienated Secret Service agents does not make you feel like you’re being pampered for the money you’re about to spend.
  6. Long waits are not a premium experience. If you’re a high-end store in a high-end mall, you need to have smooth procedures and sufficient staffing to be efficient and quick at customer service.  Customers with disposable income are often impatient.  Sometimes, if you have a high-demand item like an iPad, you can get away with lines.  However, there’s plenty of places to buy pots.  Cookware purchasers are not a captive audience.
  7. Waiting customers get precedence over walk-ups. If you have someone who is waiting for you to get your act together and find an item so they can give you money for it, that person is always the next in line.  They have already made it through the queue to ask for the opportunity to pay you.  Now you owe them the courtesy of expediting the rest of the transaction.  The moment the item reaches the checkout stand, acknowledge it, acknowledge them, and make it clear to the line that this person is next.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t a customer service issue at a mass-merchandiser like Target or Wal-Mart, where many of these inconveniences are to be expected because you’re getting a low price due to lower overhead.  This is a premium store at an ultra-premium mall.  People go here because they are willing to pay more, and they expect better service as a result.

If stores take the route that this Williams-Sonoma did, they’ll find themselves losing business.  If you can get better customer service by ordering from Amazon or another online vendor, why would you bother wasting your time waiting for the guy in the back room?


Leave a Reply