The Customer is Always Wrong

Discussion
Oct 07, 2011
Tom Ryan

Is the customer always right? Apparently for Gasp, an Australian fashion boutique, she isn’t when she’s the wrong customer.

In a scene reminiscent of Julia Roberts’ failed shopping trip in “Pretty Woman,” a bride-to-be shopping at Gasp on Sept. 24 was both pressured into buying a dress and then insulted about her weight when she said she would think about buying it. According to the Herald Sun, the customer, who also works in retail, wrote a letter to Gasp saying that “Chris,” the salesman, ridiculed her figure [U.S. size 8] and then told her and her friends that they “were a joke” after being questioned on his attitude.

“I dread to think how many customers he has not only offended but how many customers have left your store due to the pressure placed on getting the sale and then to be harassed when that sale hasn’t taken place,” she wrote to the company.

Far from an apology, an area manager in an e-mail on Sept. 28 defended the sales associate, calling Chris “a qualified stylist whom has a sixth sense for fashion.” According to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, he added, “I am sorry you feel upset by him, but he knew you were not going to buy anything before you even left your house.’

The manager went on to tout that style icons like Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez and Katy Perry shop the store and that “the customer whom is acclimated to buying from ‘clothing for the masses’ type retailers, is almost frightened by our range.”

A seemingly-devastating firestorm for Gasp erupted as the snide letter went viral, leading to a flood of disparaging articles in the press and negative comments across blogs, Twitter and Gasp’s own Facebook page. The retailer deleted the negative Facebook comments and soon pulled down its Facebook page.

Still, an official statement from Gasp after the viral episode remained unapologetic. The statement read, “We respect and welcome all customers whom wish to visit our store, even though the intention to buy may not exist. But we ask that their opinions be expressed through blogs, social media or around a warm latte, but certainly not inside our stores.”

The area manager, later talking to the Herald Sun, also thanked the customer for “unprecedented sales volume” caused after she publicly-released his e-mail.

Writing about the incident on his blog, Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doc and a RetailWire BrainTrust panelist, said Gasp may find a short-term benefit from the publicity, but may regret its actions in the long term. He wrote, “There are a lot of moving parts in this story, from the edge they want their clothes to have, their edge with who they hire, the edge with which they serve customers and respond to complaints. Unfortunately, edges can cut you. Deeply. Especially when no apology was offered or communicated.”

Indeed, news surfaced on Wednesday that Gasp was shutting down the store just ten days after the incident.

Discussion Questions: Are the rules guiding customer service at retail different for high-end fashion and luxury than other retailers? Is it possible that snobbiness works? What do you think of how Gasp handled the incident portrayed in the article?

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19 Comments on "The Customer is Always Wrong"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

This story elicited a gasp when I read it. It’s one thing to try weeding out unprofitable customers as part of an overall CRM strategy; it’s another thing entirely to be openly hostile to people who walk in the door. Who’s to say how many customers were chased away by this associate who may have been well-positioned to spend lots of money? And in an age of viral word-of-mouth, the aftereffects may linger even if Gasp manages to keep its doors open.

Peter Fader
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

I love it! OK, maybe it’s over the top, but more retailers need to take a stand on who their focal customer really is, and who is expendable. Stores shouldn’t be rude to customers, but nor should they roll out the red carpet to everyone.

In my new book “Customer Centricity: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and Why It Matters” I explore this issue in great detail — and call out other retailers who should have the courage to be selective (albeit in a more polite, subtle manner).

Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Of course snobbiness works and I’m sure Gasp’s business went up in the wake of the publicity.

Two dictums apply here.

The first is Sol Price’s brilliant insight about the value of firing the customer when he or she isn’t who you are building your value proposition around — the now classic “intelligent loss of business.”

The second is a variation of the old comedy line — “I wouldn’t want to shop in any store that would cater me as a customer.”

Is the Gasp democratic?

No!

Are they elitist pigs who will roast forever in some proletariat consumer-designed commercial Hell where Size Zero and One models are used to keep the eternal flames stoked?

Maybe?

But … in the meantime they’ve reinforced their image and re-justified their price point and made the customers they choose to service ever so sure they shop in the right store.

It ain’t pretty — but there’s a ton of money to be made appealing to peoples’ baser instincts.

Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

The rules guiding customer service should be the same, whether the store caters to the ultra-rich or the mass market. There is no excuse for the ongoing rudeness displayed by Gasp. This incident is a textbook example on what a retailer should not do. It’s also a textbook example of the power of social media.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Some people are OK with being insulted, e.g., all the delis that are famous for the brisk, feisty, and/or insulting comments made to consumers. Some people will like shopping at a retailer that is rude to those identified as not members of the target market. Hopefully for Gasp there is a large wealthy market of consumers who are OK with abusive behavior, especially if not directed to them.

Turning away or not catering to consumers not in your target market is certainly a good business strategy. However, it does not follow that consumers who are “fired” need to be insulted.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

I have to admit I was surprised by the comments that seemed to support Gasp’s position. I agree Gasp’s positioning is not to lead them to be a store for everyone, but the negative impact their public stance in support of rude behavior has far reaching implications.

While it doesn’t say in the article why the store closed, it was closed within 10 days of the incident. True, we don’t know the impact on sales at their other locations but they only have 9 stores open (according to their web site) so losing one certainly had to hurt.

Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
9 years 7 months ago

Once again the court of public opinion passes judgement without the benefits of facts or having heard both sides of the story. Social media and “viral” stories have a tendency to be one-sided and heavily skewed towards the person reporting the story. I’d like to know what the customer said, whether she was abusive or disparaging. No salesperson should “yell” at a customer but likewise no customer should yell and intimidate a salesperson. I have seen more customers behaving horribly in retail stores (not to mention planes) than the other way around. Bottom line: you and I were not in the store that day, what transpired is unlikely to surface in the court of public opinion and social media circles.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
9 years 7 months ago

Building on Tom’s reference to “Pretty Woman,” after visiting another boutique where people worked hard at taking care of her, the heroine made a very large purchase and then stopped into the snobby store, displayed her purchases from the competition, smiled, and said “Big Mistake.” Therein lies the point. If you want to be a successful retailer, you help the customer realize her aspirations; if you want to be a self-important jackass, retail is probably not the best way to do it.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Here’s a simple quote that I think sums up the relationship with customers: “Never judge a book by its cover.”

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

I am a customer service advocate so this story and the follow up by the management goes against my belief system. You can never tell who is or will be a buyer. It might not be the first time they walk in your store or even the second time.

I am reminded (with somewhat a clouded memory for the details) of an old story about how Stanford University was founded. To make a long story short, Mr. Stanford originally wanted to donate the money to an Ivy League College. He came in to the college president’s office casually dressed in jeans and was immediately dismissed because of his appearance. Heck, even Steve Jobs was not the best dressed person in the crowd. You can’t judge a book by the cover. Not in retail nor any other service/sales business.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
9 years 7 months ago

I read this article on Yahoo and laughed my head off. In fact, it was so funny it became sad. The district manager of Gasp likes dropping names and some will say any publicity is good publicity but I do not believe that works in retailing. A deeper look into the email exchange reveals that the district manager name dropped a few celebs who shop Gasp to outline the exclusivity of their line. Do celebrities want to be associated with a big meanie like Gasp? They have their reputations to protect as well. Retailers cannot underestimate the power of blogging, facebook and all the other vent vehicles people have these days. I agree with The Doc, Gasp may see some immediate benefit but overall, this can only hurt their brand.

Brian Kelly
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Be nice to people on your way up.

Because you see them again on the way down.

Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

There’s never an excuse for being insulting or abusive. Ever.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
9 years 7 months ago
Gasp! More like idiocy at retail. I wrote something on “NO, The Customer Is NOT Always Right.” Which is of course true, but the fact has NO place in customer relations. Further on being picky about who your customer is, this will be in my next Views published next week. The first line is a quote from Joe Girard, cited by Guinness as “the world’s greatest salesman.” The rest is my comment: “How in the world can anyone look at somebody and determine if he’s going to buy? I’ve been in the sales field for many years and still have no idea what a buyer is supposed to look like….” This is a direct challenge to formal segmentation methods that presume to assist in identifying a “target demographic.” I have often quoted the retail executive who said to me, “Our target demographic is the stock-up shopper.” This was said, even though half of all the shoppers in his stores are buying five or fewer items. Clearly, management of this chain was negative about the large… Read more »
Paul Flanigan
Guest
Paul Flanigan
9 years 7 months ago

Phibbs nails it — there are too many moving parts to this story.

Falling in line with the recent events, I can paraphrase Mr. Jobs here when he said, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what he wants.” It is the retailer’s job.

Here’s the problem: A salesman became the spokesman for the whole company with his behavior, not his intelligence. I agree with Mr. Mathew’s comment about Sol Price — the intelligent loss of business. This was not intelligent.

In a culture where everyone seems to have 10,000 online friends, there is simple no room anywhere for bad behavior. It completely shrouds the actual event itself — that the customer was going to buy something she had no business wearing.

Sadly, this could have been a remarkable turnaround. Instead of being rude, the sales rep could have showed off that intelligence, put the customer into something that flattered her, and made a customer for life.

Lee Peterson
Guest
9 years 6 months ago
That’s a good story, I like it. We always used to say that the customer is innocent until proven guilty. I.e., you have to give them the benefit of the doubt first. As a former fashion merchant, I understand that girl’s pain first hand. We would roam the earth, looking for fashion, buying samples at any price from any store we felt was relevant and not always dressed to the nines or even close to looking the part of a high-end customer. As the article said, “they could tell when we left our houses that we weren’t going to buy anything.” But in our case, they were wrong…and very stunned when we bought literally thousands of dollars worth of goods. It was always amazing to see the conversation turn when you said, “I’ll take it.” And the return trips were always fabulous. So, in my opinion, and from my experience in stores and as a customer, if the patron in the story had bought just one thing from that store before — just one thing… Read more »
Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
9 years 6 months ago

It is clear that Grasp violated a number of tenets that drive customer engagement in their store. While snobbishness may work for certain brands (e.g. Gucci), that snobbishness needs to be about the brand, its quality and associated price, NOT under any circumstances about the customer themselves. To degrade a customer about their figure, size and fashion sense is the high of arrogance, not snobbishness, and will cost the company in both the short and the long run in customer acquisition, retention and employee performance.

The key to targeting a certain type of customer for a store is to structure the store, merchandise and associate training to provide an experience that appeals to that segment. However, the segments tend to be more psychographic than demographic; you cannot tell a best customer when they walk in the door. Typecasting is like racial profiling; the cost far outweighs the benefit.

Shame on them.

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
9 years 6 months ago

Amazing that anyone could think the behavior of the sales associate or publicity around it are good for the brand. In today’s luxury retail environment, the only brands that win are those that understand that the most important brand is the customer. Building quality relationships with each client — buyer or not — based on their unique personalities and styles is the path to building lifetime customer value and brand equity.

Any other approach is short-sighted and doomed for failure.

Verlin Youd
Guest
9 years 6 months ago

Seems that retail success is all about identifying your target customers, defining one or more needs of those customers, and consistently delivering a response to that need in a manner that is expected.

So, if there is a target segment of customers that buy luxury goods, expect snobbishness as part of the service, and consistently finds those needs met at a retailer, then that retailer will be successful.

The more fundamental question would be, is the target market for such a value proposition large enough to sustain a retail business? If so, such a retailer will succeed. If not, such a retailer will fail. Wonderful to see customer driven supply/demand work in the marketplace.

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