Friday, May 17, 2013

The Grand Illusion

At this stage of the game, I’ve come to understand that retail is theater. It’s a dramatic production, complete with set, director, cast, crew and backstage theatrics.

It has a script. A set of words that, in addition to bringing uniformity to employee-customer exchanges, will hopefully distinguish this production from the others currently being staged.

But even as one production works to separate itself from another, they invariably end up being indistinguishable. They unfailingly adopt identical twists and wrinkles, like teen-agers embracing the same fad even as they seek to establish their individuality.

Case in point is the reluctance of business to write or speak any word or phrase which imparts the faintest inference of ‘no’.

I recently wrote a letter to a frozen pizza manufacturer, bemoaning the sudden disappearance of my favorite variety. Instead of receiving a simple confirmation, I received several paragraphs of public relations froth extolling the virtues of its replacement.

At no point was my query addressed, presumably because it meant acknowledging that my life was now bereft of my favorite frozen pizza, and they were to blame.

Despite my deep and abiding love of this pizza, I can promise with absolute certainty that life would have continued even had this company possessed the clarity and intestinal fortitude to address my question with a simple “We’re sorry. The pizza you inquired about didn’t meet sales projections, and as a result has been replaced by another variety. Thank you for your interest in Home Run Inn pizza.”

Then there was the live, in-person example I received at my place of underemployment.

A man had been waiting at our contractor’s desk. Manning the register nearest this desk, I approached and asked if I could help. After hearing the reason for his visit, I informed him the desk was closed weekends and was on the verge of directing him to the people who could help when our new store manager swooped in.

After informing me in tones an aggrieved teacher would use with an errant pupil that the desk is “never” closed, she escorted the customer to the department I was directing him to in the first place.

I stood and pondered our contractor’s desk. Despite it lacking any of the five employees who normally populated it and the attendant bustle of activity, I had obviously erred in assuming it was closed.

What was I thinking?

Exactly how does this deception benefit our customer? Then I realized the irreparable damage his psyche would have suffered as a result of hearing our contractor’s desk was, indeed, closed weekends.

So there’s that.

And then there’s the irreversable damage my employer could have suffered had this customer gone online and vented. It’s too horrible to even consider.

Write this down—customers must never hear the word ‘no’. It doesn’t exist. No never happens.

So yes, retail is theater. A carefully-packaged drama where reality is whatever the playwright says it is.

In addition to his more-obvious gifts, who knew Shakespeare’s declaration “All the world’s a stage” would presage twenty-first century business models?

You must excuse me now. I have a matinee at two.

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