Sunday, November 15, 2009

Are You Being Served? New Strategies at Department Stores

Are You Being Served? was a British sitcom broadcast from 1972 to 1985, and it's one of my all-time favorite comedies (a list I could count on one hand). It was set in the men's and women's departments of Grace Brothers, a large, fictional London department store. The show featured humor based on sexual innuendo, misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and slapstick. There was occasional singing and dancing, along with outrageous costumes that the characters wore for store promotions, and gaudy store displays featuring malfunctioning robotic mannequins. The show is still enjoyed for its prolific use of double entendres, and no one was better at them than John Inman.

I laugh out loud at the antics of the lovable main characters.
  • The gay Mr. Humphries (shown above) was played by John Inman, a brilliant English actor, who died in 2007 (that was a sad day for me when I read of his death)
  • Captain Peacock, the floorwalker with unparalleled self-esteem
  • Mrs. Slocombe, the wig-wearing and naughty women's department manager; Mollie Sugden, who played Mrs. Slocombe, died this year
  • Miss Shirley Brahms, a young, attractive working-class cockney-speaking assistant to Mrs. Slocombe
  • Mr. Rumbold, the autocratic, obsequious manager of the floor
  • Mr. Lucas, the young, flirtatious junior salesman
  • Mr. Grace, the very old and feeble store owner who surrounded himself with well-endowed young women (also dead)
PBS runs the show every Saturday night at 7:00 pm in the DC area, and I'm usually watching. In addition to being great comedy, it reminds me of department stores in the glory days. How things have changed!

Today, department stores are struggling to find new models to help them stay alive and possibly grow their market share. Month after month, I read in WWD about the dismal declines in department stores' net income and profits. They have a lot of work to do to adjust to customers' aversion to high prices and poor service. Have you tried to buy something at Macy's in the last few years? Could you find a sales person at any register? Once you did, did you have to wait to buy something you had selected and tried on without assistance? Did you ever try to ask a question? Was it easy to find someone with a brain who could answer? Macy's has, purportedly, added 1,600 sales people in 69 cities across the country to supervise. Great, but those aren't the people who are going to be there to help me on the rare occasion I show up.

This month's WWDBeautyBiz has an interesting article called The Big Bang - department stores fighting back with new strategies to lure and keep customers. Ground zero is the beauty department. There's a reason the beauty department is front and center in department stores. Beauty makes money! Many top retail players are revamping and redesigning their beauty departments and experimenting with new formats, while they retrain their associates to develop relationships with their customers. In October, Bloomingdale's unveiled in New York what WWD called "arguably the most advanced high-tech selling floor in America." Bloomies' CEO knows, though, that high-tech is only half the story. Customer relationships are the other half of the equation.

At Saks, the beauty brands are teaming with the store to remodel their counters as the store invests in training and technology to help put associates in touch with their customers. I can count on great service at Saks in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I work with associates at Neiman Marcus who call or e-mail to alert me to upcoming bargains. I love Jane Makowka and Christopher Coles at Nordstrom, both of whom personify the best in relationship selling. As a side note, customer relationship management isn't a new concept. I led process architecture/improvement work for clients in the 1990s, and it was all about "knowing" your customers and building relationships with them. This was before department stores experienced the Great Recession, a jolt that forced them to join other industry sectors that had long known the value of "customer service."

I'm a loyal customer, and I buy from "my" sales associates over and over again (some, like Brent Holmes who sells shoes at Saks Chevy Chase, for as long as 40 years!). I drag them all over the store with me. If I find someone who cares about me, I care about them. I want them to get the commission on what I buy, not some "clerk" who happened to be near a register when I arrived after selecting my own purchases.

I wish the department stores well. I would hate to see them disappear. I like them. I hope their new strategies work. Their success will be better for all of us!

Meanwhile, I continue to fondly watch and laugh with the award-winning cast of Are You Being Served? They're a hoot!

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


Beth said...

Absolutely totally 100% love that show!!!!!!!!!!!

Fab Over 40 said...

I agree 100%! It is becoming unbearable to walk into a Macy's. We used to have Daytons here in MN before they sold to Marshall Fields and then became Macy's. Not only have they lowered the quality of service, they've lowered the quality of product. The sad thing is, we don't have a Saks here and then if you walk into Neiman's they literally attack you! I walked in the beauty department one day and two sales associates LITERALLY were arguing about 30 seconds later that I was "their" customer! I walked out.
I can always rely on Nordstrom to give excellent service in all departments. I only wish that beauty sales people knew more than me about their product - and that's from every department store. I swear I educate them when I go to the counter.
So sad.

Charlestongirl said...

Too funny, Fab. I hope they didn't start clawing at each other!

I hate the "attackers" too. I take my trusted SAs with me everywhere in the department to fend off the others when I browse. I have to do that at many stores, and I've done that at Neiman Marcus more times than I can count. Even today at Nordstrom, one woman didn't recognize Chris, who was standing right next to me showing me some highlighter, and she tried to "sell me." I had to say, "Chris works here" to get rid of her.

Bummer that you don't have a Saks!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Fabulous Over 40, I was just thinking...

The next time they argue over whose customer you are, ask which one of them is going to give you the best discount!

That's the Catbert in me coming out. :)

Miss Brahms said...

Hey! What about good service in a drugstore? Just kidding - know it is hard to find. I work in a drugstore beauty department and strive to treat each customer with manners and respect, and always go the extra mile for all of my customers. Walk a customer to the product, don't point. Do everything you can to satisfy the customer if the product is out of stock - order it online or obtain it from another store - don't offer a raincheck. Never let the customer leave the department unhappy. Offer coupons and free samples. Remember the customers name and "custom," meaning - lady that loves Cera Ve, or lady that needs the Revlon Red. Be mindful of your customer's comfort - offer a basket if she is holding a handful of merchandise.
I love Are You Being Served - I am married to an Englishman who tells me tales of the days when all department store service was as nice as the service at Grace Brothers. Wendy Richard, the actress who played Ms. Brahms, as well as the venerable Pauline Fowler on British telly staple EastEnders, sadly passed from lung cancer this year as well.
If you ever visit the Ballston CVS, you will receive excellent customer service from the Mrs. Slocombe that runs the beauty department. You never have to ask me if "I am FREE."

Charlestongirl said...

Hey, DrugstoreBeautyPro,

You know you're exceptional, right? :)

You're no Mrs. Slocombe! More like Miss Brahms, but with an encyclopedic knowledge of beauty products.