Retail Wide Open

I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that Facebook’s algorithms noticed I wear glasses and sent my information to the online eyewear retailer, Warby Parker. Along with ads for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and Johnnie Walker, I started regularly seeing Warby Parker info pop into my newsfeed. Eventually I gave it a click and all I can say is wow. Just wow.

For the past decade I’ve been buying fancy frames from a kick ass boutique in California. But gone are the days when I can afford to drop four bills on sexy specs. And like my pocketbook, my priorities have also drastically changed—I am no longer seeking a style of glasses to match my one pair of red cords that get rocked maybe once a year, if at all.

Warby Parker’s product is unique, customer-centric, and affordable. Their user-friendly website offers at home try-on frames (including free shipping both ways), and even provides advice on fit if you Instagram them a selfie. I’m not on Instagram (and don’t have a smartphone, for that matter) so I didn’t go this route. But it was all good since I pretty much knew right away which style was just right for me. So I placed my order and uploaded a PDF of an outdated prescription. Warby Parker promptly sent me a confirmation, but told me all was on hold until I could furnish a fresh scrip. Which brings me why I am writing this blog post.

I am fascinated by customer service—be it good, bad, or indifferent, the psychology of it all intrigues the heck out of me. I enjoy watching how customers respond (or don’t respond) to various approaches, and equally interested in the employee’s effort at facilitation. Today, while sitting in the waiting room at my optometrist’s office, I watched an all-too-familiar interaction.

An older man, probably in his late 60s, loped up and down the two aisles of frames, his hands clasped behind his back. He stopped occasionally for a closer look at the merchandise. He’d lean in, squint, his lips moving a little as if reading fine print, then keep on. A twenty-something sales associate, female, stood up from a chair in an office and asked if he needed any help.

“Good morning sir,” she said. “You looking for some new frames today?”

“Oh no, not me,” said the man laughing. “Just waiting on my wife.” He motioned his thumb over his shoulder. “She’s still in there with the doctor. I’m just passing the time.”

The employee stood motionless for a second, then turned to walk away. “Well,” she said, an aisle now between her and the man, “If you see anything you like just let us know.”

The man laughed some more, shook his head and said, “OK then.”

And that’s it. That’s all that happened.

Now I know what you’re thinking. This employee was doing her job. In fact, given what the old man gave her to work with, she was doing all she could. But if you ask me, I think she just made her job even more forgettable, more boring than it looks.

When we have a chance to connect with someone, why don’t we do it? I mean seriously, what’s so terrifying about an extra five seconds that helps us make someone feel a tiny bit more comfortable? Or listened to? Or respected in a space that doesn’t have a very comfortable waiting room (and crappy magazines, if I’m being honest)? Seriously, why? Is it because the paperwork on our desk needs attention? All those pressing emails that need to be answered?

If we continue to prioritize the lifeless over the living, we’re going to lose our ability to feel something. We’re going to stop having compassion. We’re going to forget that the most important thing, above all else, is love. Might sound crazy, but it’s true.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying this employee needed to hang out with the old guy until his partner returned from her appointment. But she could have actually listened to his words and then answered accordingly. Fact is, she totally blew him off. She missed a chance to say something that implied that he, as a human being, is more important than her having a bunch of busywork to do.

This sort of retail experience bums me the hell out. If I can get better customer service from an online retailer than I can from a brick and mortar store, there’s a problem. A big one.

Online businesses are doing everything they can to steal customers from traditional retail. In some cases (cough…Warby Parker…cough), they deserve tons of attention. The internet’s frontrunners know they need to tweak the shopping paradigm in order to survive. And truth be told, if an actual store’s employees are not good at connecting with people all day long (which, by the way, is something the internet will never be able to do), maybe the internet deserves the win.

After my eye exam, my optometrist walked me back to the reception desk. As we passed the aisles of frame, she asked me if I was in the market for some new eyewear. “Yes,” I said, “Sure am. But I’ve got my eye on a couple Warby Parker frames.” Then, as if she hears that all day, she said, “OK then, thanks for coming in, Mr. Griffen.”

I get it. Doctors aren’t retailers. But still.

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