Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Aggressive Sales Tactics and the Fear and Loathing They Create

Have you been shopping recently and found yourself not so much helped by store staff but accosted?

My wife has had this experience a number of times in past months. She's gone out to the mall, browsed in a few stores, and had upwards of ten store employees stop her in the span of about twenty minutes to ask her if she needs help, wants information, or can't find something she wants. The first few times she's thankful and a bit impressed by the helpful spirit of the store; the last ten encounters leave her cold and make her want to avoid the store and its products at all costs. What's interesting, as well, is that many of these businesses do not pay their employees a commission for sales, so that motive for such hyperactive attentiveness is not in play.

"I have that problem with the "Disney Store" in our local shopping mall. The sales clerks have orders to greet every customer as the come in the door. I have tried to slip by on the opposite side of the entrance, but have been chased down and greeted. Why can't I just have a quiet shopping experience?" (A customer from the This is Broken blog)

I'm blogging about this because I'm wondering if anyone else has noticed this in their shopping. Being an armchair theorist, I have constructed a conspiracy theory: that the prevailing ethos in the retail world nowadays seems to be that it is best to be as aggressive with customers as possible. I wondered if I was the only one who had observed this phenomenon and so googled for "aggressive sales" and "aggressive sales clerks". I found the following links: 1) a story from the Seattle Times, 2) a blog chock full of comments about pushy sales clerks, and 3) another story with a survey about overly aggressive employees. This in about two minutes of searching. Clearly, there's some kind of prevailing ethos out there that emphasizes as much contact with customers as possible due to a belief that this will yield a maximum of sales. Of course, not every store practices this mindset, but many do. These businesses seem to think that an overwhelming level of friendliness provides the maximal shopping experience, but I could not disagree more. Better to make the customer at home, be available for help, and then leave them alone. If I wanted to talk to twenty extremely friendly people in fifteen minutes, I would have have gone to a (big, fat) Greek wedding.

I don't know about you, but if my armchair hypothesizing is correct, these stores (Crate & Barrel, Godiva Chocolates, various cell phone kiosks, offenders all) can count me out from making purchases at their stores. Okay, that won't amount to much of a loss, because I'm not exactly sunken by debt at Crate & Barrel these days. However, as one trained by my rural Maine upbringing to be private and uninvasive, I can say that this sort of "aggressive sales" leaves me cold. Stores that practice this type of model--and it is a model, as Google has instructed me--may win some sales, but I'm guessing that they lose others. They treat customers not so much as people but as targets. I saw this during a job I had with a cell phone company called The Mobile Solution that sells T-Mobile phones in malls. Though the malls in which the company worked had very strict policies against hounding customers, we trainees were instructed to "greet" people, which translated into salespeople yelling at shocked passersby, whistling at them, and generally harassing them. I thought in my first day on the job that I was going to be sick. The next day, I quit. Though I'd like to think this offensive company is the exception, I'm afraid it's the rule nowadays.

It's great for a store to engage a customer; it's another thing altogether for fifteen people to ask you if you need help in the span of twenty minutes. Or, as my wife has experienced a few times, to have a salesperson rope you into some sort of spiel that takes fifteen minutes of your time. Who on earth is telling their employees that this is a productive way of making sales? Of course, this probably is a productive way of making sales when one considers the bottom line. Some customers don't mind a high level of aggression from the stores they patronize. I, for one, hate it.

This all prompted a bit of reflection on how our churches interact with visitors. My wife's consumer experience makes me as a church member want to go out of my way to welcome visitors and make them feel at home. However, I don't ever want them to get the thought that they are nothing more than a target, a small percentage of the bottom line. Let's pursue connection with unbelievers and with churchless Christians, but let's not do so by adopting the current numbers-obsessed mindset of our local department stores. I suppose that this thought could have implications for Christians working in sales as well--we need not confine thoughtful treatment of others to our churches. In a world of inauthenticity and greed, Christians and the local churches they serve should stand as a beacon of authenticity and genuine kindness. We're desperate for sinners to be saved and Christians to flourish spiritually, but we're not desperate for recognition, numbers, or a successful but impersonal church. Where our world marches increasingly to a consumerist bent, let's stand out for being those who do not sell aggressively, but who love aggressively.

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Blogger Paul Cable said...

Wow. Owen- small world. I worked for The Mobile Solution in Chatt. TN, and had a very similar experience. However, I was newly married and had to hold the job for a few excruciating months until I could find another. I usually took the alternative minimum wage, as I couldn't bring myself to "greet" enough people. It scared me how much it resembled some evangelism strategies I've seen.
It was fun to commiserate.
I hope all is well at Trinity!

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Mark Rogers said...

Owen, I have not experienced this in stores, mostly because I do not go to stores. But when I do, I think I am aloof and standoffish enough to ward off friendly sales person #5-15.

Church is a different story. I do go to church. For me the difference between feeling like a target and feeling loved at a church comes down to two things: depth of conversation and time. If two dozen people say "hi, welcome to ____ church," I am not impressed, and am actually made uncomfortable. But if 1 person stand and talk and ask questions about me and my family I am impressed. And when someone asks us out to lunch or over for dinner, then we have hope real fellowship may happen at the church.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous Amy said...

Amen on all accounts! The phone people used to be the only ones to avoid, but now it's every kiosk in the carnie-row they call mall corridors. I made the mistake of going against my better judgment and heading to the mall last week, only to leave an hour later after being accosted by TWENTY SEVEN salespeople (many of which caught me heading north in the hallway, and then again heading south... ). I think another blogger said it best:

Dear mall,

internet + free holiday shipping - aggressive kiosk salespeople = happy customer.

get a clue.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Owen,
I am filling out an application for Crate and Barrel. If hired, I will let you know exactly what their strategy is. I also can't stand being accosted by salespeople or church people and will find it hard to take if Crate and Barrel tells me I have to hound every person who comes through the door.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Adam E. said...

Owen, this is an incredibly interesting article, from a number of angles. Firstly, you hint ("Who on earth is telling their employees that this is a productive way of making sales? Of course, this probably is a productive way of making sales when one considers the bottom line") that however loathsome the sales tactics are to some people, they are surely attractive to the "lowest common denomenator"; i.e. they are succesfull.
I'm not a christian, but I imagine that if I were, surely the more souls I save, the better? Its not very aesthetically pleasing, of course, but surely if these tactics would work on more people, they are worth employing.
Also, I had an odd experience working behind the counter in a shop once, when customers kept complaining (to my manager!) that I was not friendly enough. I wasn't outrageously unfriendly. It was simply that they were so used to being simpered and smarmed over that my relative indiferrence caught them by surprise...

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quote: "However, as one trained by my rural Maine upbringing to be private and uninvasive, I can say that this sort of "aggressive sales" leaves me cold."

Agree 100%. As a New Englander living in New York I can tell you that this tactic is partly cultural. New Englanders loath this kind of behavior and so we will not see it as much here (although it does exist in pockets). But in NY, EVERY kiosk behaves in this manner and it is very disturbing and turns me off completely from shopping at the mall.

I can't understand how anybody thinks this is beneficial to anybody. Are the kiosks actually making money behaving so rudely like this? Why do the malls accept it if it drives customers away?

It is perplexing and I wish the practice would stop completely. I don't know one person who says they have no problem with aggressive, borderline harassing, sales people.


8:31 PM  
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