Sunday, July 17, 2005


Target has been flying high in recent years due to its nice selection of merchandise and well-designed stores, which are especially popular with women. Target has also benefited from some anti-Wal-Mart backlash.

I’ve been pretty critical of Wal-Mart recently, but at least Wal-Mart will let you make a return without treating you like a criminal. A recent experience in poor customer service left me feeling that Target is a little off-target.

My wife purchased some items for our baby Ella’s nursery that didn't quite work out. She wanted to return two curtain panels and a valance. She didn’t have the receipt, so we knew that we wouldn’t get our money back. No big deal. We thought we’d get a store credit. Here's what transpired:

“We’d like to return these items,” I said to the red-shirted teenager at the customer service desk. “And we don’t have a receipt.”

“I can't give you your money back,” he replied. “You’ll have to do an exchange.”

“Yeah, we figured,” I said. “That’s not a problem.”

He also informed us that this was only allowed if we hadn’t made more than two returns in the last 12 months, and that we were only allowed two returns, not three. “OK,” I said rather smugly. “She’s returning two items and I’m returning one.”

“I’ll need to see each of your IDs,” he replied, looking rather annoyed.

I started to get that nagging little feeling that this wasn’t going to go well.

After punching in enough digits on his register to program the Mars rover, he handed our IDs back and pronounced us clear for take off.

“You’ve got three items, totaling about $52, so, you’ll need to get $52 worth of merchandise from the same department,” he explained.

“You mean we can’t exchange it for anything in the store?” I asked.

“No, it has to be from the same department,” he said. “Sorry, but that's our policy.”

My wife, knowing that I have little tolerance for such things said, “It’s OK. Let’s just go and find something else for Ella’s room.”

We marched off to the domestics department, found some other items that totaled about $52, and returned to the customer service desk. The same red-and-khaki-clad teenager then informed us that we could only exchange an item for an item. So, we really didn’t have one $52 exchange; we had three exchanges that totaled $16, $16, and $20 each. Therefore, we could only get three items that were of those values or more and pay the difference. If the value was less, we were out the difference. “Uh, sorry I forgot to mention that the first time,” he said.

At this point, I’m afraid I lost it. “I know this isn’t your fault, but your policy is terrible,” I said. “I’m being treated like a criminal because I don’t have a receipt. I understand why you can’t give me my money back, but I don’t understand why I can’t exchange my merchandise for whatever I want in your store.”

“That’s the policy,” he said.

Well, it’s my policy not to shop at stores that treat me like I’m a criminal or an inconvenience. I understand that there are people who take advantage of return policies to steal from stores and there is a cost involved restocking merchandise, but that’s a cost of doing business that stores like Wal-Mart and Costco accept to keep their customers happy.

I’ll target my spending elsewhere.

Shortly after my Target experience, I attempted to return some telephone equipment Quality Digest had purchased from Circuit City and Best Buy. Because we had kept the equipment for about six months, I wasn’t expecting much, perhaps a store credit. Even though I had the receipts, both stores told me that their policy was no returns after 30 days. I realize that six months is a long time to keep something and expect a refund or even a store credit, but 30 days?

Even though Circuit City’s and Best Buy’s return policies may be more Draconian than Target’s, I wasn’t nearly as annoyed by them. I think it’s because it was absolute. There was no attempt to make me find items from the same department and spend exactly the same amount of money. Also, I expect electronic equipment becomes obsolete faster than curtain panels.

Friday, July 01, 2005

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

At the end of last month's column in Quality Digest I promised to write about some of the things that I like. Instead of my usual rants, I'll focus on a few companies that understand the whole quality and customer service equation. Believe it or not, I'm not always so grumpy, and I do take genuine delight with companies that deliver great products and service.

Here's my short list, in no particular order:

1. Starbucks. I know some people think of Starbucks primarily as a symbol of U.S. glo-bal dominance, and you may disagree with my opinion that they brew a damn fine cup of joe, but Starbucks gets it. They understand the need to make really good coffee and serve it in a clean, hip environment. Sure, the baristas sometimes have an attitude and you might see a pierced body part, tattoo or neon hair, but that's part of the Starbucks experience. These people have an attitude because they like what they do, not because they resent it. That makes a critical difference. As a customer, I'll take an air of superiority over defeated resentment any day.

In addition, Starbucks constantly experiments with new products and new ideas, without losing its focus or confusing its customers. Take its recent foray into music. The company has found a way to sell hip music that its core coffee-drinking customers really dig. Its recent Ray Charles tribute was a chart topper.

By the way, I'm well aware of the Starbucks vs. Dunkin' Donuts debate. In my humble opinion, Dunkin' Donuts just doesn't get it. I could be wrong. Maybe it's a boxers vs. briefs kinda thing.

2. Costco. I love this place. It's like digging through your grandfather's desk drawer. It's full of cool stuff. Yes, it's a big ugly warehouse full of loud, beeping forklifts, and help is practically nonexistent, but it doesn't matter. Costco manages to combine rock-bottom prices and quality inventory. The food is always good (even if the packaging is huge). The selection may be limited, but it almost seems as if someone has taken the time to do the work for me. I don't have to decide between 150 different TVs or garden hoses or batteries. I know that whatever I buy is good, and if not, I know I can return it with absolutely zero hassle.

3. Disney. I'm talking primarily about Disneyland and Walt Disney World. I'm 41 years old, and I still get a thrill out of going to Disneyland. Again, I'm sure there are those who think Disney is yet another sign of all that is wrong with globalization, but I think Mickey & Co. are pretty cool.

Disney is fanatical about hiring good people and training them well. I had an opportunity a few years ago to attend Walt Disney World's 25th anniversary celebration and go behind the scenes at the Disney casting center (its term for human resources). I also had an opportunity to interview Disney's vice president of quality and attend a Disney training class on quality and customer service. The company has done an enormous amount of research on who attends the park and why. It understands who its customers are and what they expect. To meet those needs, it makes sure it has the right people in the right place.

Ask a street sweeper on Main Street in Disneyland what time the three o'clock parade is and instead of getting an "are you an idiot" look, you'll hear, "That's a good question. Where will you be in the park at 3 p.m.?" The cast member knows that the parade will be in a different part of the park at different times.

Disney knows that it has to keep its parks spotless to maintain its reputation. So it knows that its street sweepers will get asked a lot of questions. So, rather than treat the street sweeper as a low-paid, disposable person, it treats that position as one of its most important customer contact points. In fact, most park employees start as street sweepers.

4. Trader Joe's. If the Costco experience is like digging through your grandfather's desk drawer, Trader Joe's is like sneaking through your best friend's mother's pantry. Remember when you were a kid and your friend's mom always had cool, exotic stuff in her refrigerator? Trader Joe's is a funky, fun grocery store that sells a limited variety of cool groceries. The stores are small and crowded, the very antithesis of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, but Trader Joe's keeps the prices reasonable because almost everything it sells has its own label on it. You won't find Heinz ketchup or Kellogg's Corn Flakes at a Trader Joe's. Instead you'll find cool stuff, smartly packaged.

Trader Joe's has such a loyal following that its customers will drive hours to the nearest store. My wife and I rarely drive the 90 minutes to Sacramento without including a stop at Trader Joe's. In fact, some loyal shoppers have actually started petitions to demonstrate to the store that their town really wants a Trader Joe's of its own. (If this column happens to land on some kindly Trader Joe's executive's desk, the good citizens of Chico, California, would greatly appreciate a store in our town!)

See, your humble columnist can gush over what I perceive as good quality. Next month, I'll get back to the griping.