Here’s a tried and true equation for successful retailing: high-quality products plus top-notch service equals exceptional customer experience.
This sounds so simple, yet it’s one of the most challenging aspects of the retail business today. Let me give you an example:
This past week, after a horrendous technology fail of my old Dell Inspiron laptop, I quickly beelined to the nearest office superstore. I was ready to drop a few hundred bucks on a netbook since all of my writing and storage needs are web-based and done with Google Docs. All I needed was a cheap netbook to get onto email and onto the Internet. Done.
Once in the store, though, my shopping experience turned sour after the sales associate first questioned why I wanted a netbook and then said he was “out of stock anyway,” and that I couldn’t even buy the floor model. No worries. I then zoomed over to a competing office superstore. Although I found a slightly more congenial sales associate, he quickly said he didn’t have any netbooks in stock and was also “unable to sell the floor model.” Ok. So I raced over to a mega-electronics chain store, but got there just as they locked the door at 9 pm sharp.
Frustrated and emotionally spent, I went home netbookless. After sleeping on it, I headed out the following day to Slash Root Cafe (/root)– a local, non-profit cafe and open source/tech repair shop that is located in the small upstate New York college town of New Paltz. After my mass retail experience, it was retail nirvana. Slash Root Cafe is a collectively owned coffee shop and art/music venue that offers computer repairs and website construction for nominal fees. With the food, coffee (Fair Trade, single-origin coffee from Monkey Joe Coffee Roasting in nearby Kingston), teas and other drinks, there’s a menu, but no prices posted. Slash Root Cafe allows customers to pay what they feel is the right value. (Crazy, huh? Can you imagine going into Starbucks or Seattle’s Best Coffee and paying what you feel like is the right price?).
As soon as I entered the cafe, I was warmly welcomed by one of the co-founders, Amanda Catherine Stauble, who immediately connected me to one of the tech experts. The twentysomething shook my hand and said he uses the same laptop. He asked me what my computer needs entailed, and what software I use. He listened quietly, making good eye contact. Then he gently walked me through various options for repairing the Dell. Overall, he was pleasant, well informed and patient. In the end, I left the shop with a restored Dell that was freshly installed with a virus resistant, open source operating system and lifetime service help – all for a flat rate of $85. I nearly cried with joy.
This level of service and quality of product (not to mention innovative menu pricing for food and drink) from a non-profit specialty retailer may be unattainable at mass, but is an idea certainly worth pursuing.
A few days later, I found myself reflecting on what sets this business model apart. I reaffirmed that its the level of service that made it a wonderful retail experience. Back home in Kingston, I stopped by Monkey Joe Coffee Roasting to investigate this notion of exceptional service. If Slash Root Cafe had good products and a high-level of service, its vendors must too, right? Sure enough, despite a brutal recession that has many retailers closing their doors, I found owners Gabe and Kathy Cicale noting that business is thriving. “It’s our staff that makes the business succeed,” Kathy said. “Gabe has also developed the craft of coffee roasting. It is a high quality product. But it is the people that make a difference.”