Love, Retail & Smelling Good in the Digital Age

Annie - September 16, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I finally accepted that I wasn’t going to get one more squirt out of my three year old bottle of Armani Code and it was time to pick a new perfume. The entire experience has made me think a great deal about retail and customer service when it comes to the digital age. I’ve been paying more attention to what I buy online and what I prefer to buy at a store.

Now the last thing you’d think is that you can buy a new perfume online. But this is exactly what I thought I’d do after having a really hard time finding someone who knew about perfume to help me find a scent at the department store. So I smelled some things I thought I might like and then left irritated, having driven to the mall, a place I actually think I’m allergic to, for nothing.

Most of the online perfume retailers touted free shipping, lower prices and hard-to-find scents, which was nice to know, but not very helpful to me specifically. Sephora has a pretty nice Frangrance Finder for those, who know what they like in a scent, but want to try something new. They advertise free shipping as well as returns, so I guess they win. Their descriptions are rich, but they make every perfume sound like “the one.” The internet has come a long way, but can you honestly buy a scent based on a description? Maybe.

I could not. I decided to head to a competing department store where I finally found someone very knowledgeable who was able to help me find two new scents that I adore (Bvlgari Omnia Crystalline and Au ThĂ© Blanc). She also sent me home with a slew of samples, small purse sizes of my new perfume as well as a pink luffa and travel sizes of the shower gel and lotion in my scent for an upcoming trip I had mentioned. So here I am, someone who detests the mall and department stores, now cheer captain for Margie at the Macy’s women’s fragrance counter, contemplating making her a “World’s Greatest Sales Associate” coffee cup and completely rethinking my relationship with brick and mortar.

Dear Internet,
I met someone else. You just aren’t who I thought you were.

In the past weeks I have broken down and purchased a few larger ticket items both online and off. The main difference in each situation prior to purchase was that sometimes I just needed one-on-one advice from an expert. Interestingly, the difference in each case after purchase was that the items I truly love and feel are worth every penny, were the ones I purchased in a physical store from someone who was more knowledgeable than me. Almost every in-store experience was worth the trip, though they weren’t always enjoyable. Three hours in the Apple store is probably the last way I ever want to spend an evening—even if I am getting the best computer in the world.

New watch: I decided to purchase my watch from tokyobay.com. All I cared about in this case was having a wide variety to choose from. But when I got the watch, there were surprises that I didn’t see online. It took me a couple of days to feel like it was really the watch I wanted.

iPhone: After going to through a lot of the work online to sign up with AT&T and get my new iPhone, I decided to go into the store and talk to someone. This is a great control situation because there was really no quantitative difference between either purchasing venue: I still had to wait for my phone to arrive by mail, I still paid by credit card, it still took about the same amount of time, I had to answer all of the same questions. But, online there was no gentleman who knew to answer questions I didn’t even know enough to ask. Also, when you are signing two years of your life away to AT&T, it just feels better to be able to put a friendly face with all that commitment.

Do you Annie take iPhone and AT&T to be your lawfully wedded provider of cellular service for the next two years?
Yes Sales Specialist Rob, with all my heart, I do.

Running shoes: This was by far one of the most enjoyable and rewarding retail experiences I think I’ve ever had. I might be a little biased because they are our client, but I went into Catalyst on opening day for a pair of running shoes. I’ll keep it very simple and just say that there is a huge difference between going online and reading a couple bullet points and having an expert video record your feet as you run on a treadmill and tell you where you need extra support and why a certain shoe is better for you. There really is no comparing the two. I know Zappo’s has amazing customer service, but they can’t do that.

iMac: I ended up having to get a new computer for work and spent a very long, arduous evening in a crowded Apple store where there were so many lines of communication being crossed even all that clean design couldn’t make it more tolerable. It was kind of a nightmare, but because I went into the actual store and talked to real people, I was able to get some stuff for free and get a discount off the entire purchase. So, as much as I was annoyed with the experience, it actually ended up being a good one. I do love my computer.

My conclusion? Brick and mortar can live happily and prosper in the same world with internet retail by giving better customer service and by being experts in their field.

Dear Internet,
I hope we can still be friends. There are so many things I like about you.

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