Big Box Zombies

Dec. 1, 2011
When price becomes the only redeeming factor for why customers buy, then commoditization is ripe, which results in lowered expectations and mediocrity.

While my wife can spend hours browsing in various retail stores, I seek to get in and out with lightning speed. I dread shopping in malls and big department stores. To me, shopping is nothing more than an inconvenience that I must expedite and make as painless as possible.

Some supply houses feel threatened by the big box home improvement department stores. The old “bigger is better” adage attracts some contractors to big box stores in the hope of saving a buck. When price becomes the only redeeming factor for why customers buy, then commoditization is ripe, which results in lowered expectations and mediocrity.

Commoditization occurs when customers perceive a loss of differentiation among service companies. This perception will remain intact until customers experience improvement in service from one company, thereby improving that company's image vis-à-vis competition.

Differentiation is the practice of distinguishing a service offering from others to make that benefit more attractive to customers. One of the prime differentiating factors between big box stores and supply houses is the quality, energy and enthusiasm of employees.

My lovely wife asked me to buy a can of appliance paint to touch up our refrigerator door. So during a recent trip to my local big box home improvement superstore, I encountered retail zombies. You have probably seen them before. They walk slowly, resist making eye contact and have no interest in your well-being. Their blank stares and macabre behavior should have been enough to scare me away. But my need for appliance paint eclipsed my fear of the walking dead. I will withhold the big box establishment's name except to suggest that its name rhymes with gnome depot.

“Where can I find the appliance paint?” I asked a retail zombie who was busy rearranging shelf items. Without turning her head to face me, the zombie kept looking straight ahead and uttered something about the next aisle along with other unintelligible sounds that only another zombie might have been able to decipher. I lingered for two seconds to see if my presence might make the zombie turn her head toward me. This zombie was oblivious to my existence and so I learned that zombies reserve their blank stares for what they perceive as important. In this case, the shelf items she was manipulating had greater priority than a cash-paying customer. This seemed consistent with a zombie's behavior, since a zombie has no concept of monetary value.

Unable to find the appliance paint, I had no choice but to confront the zombie again and escalate our interaction. This second time, I courageously loomed closer in an effort to force a reaction. My proximity did the trick, and the zombie had no choice but to face me. “I am unable to find the appliance paint,” I said. This time, the zombie exhaled loudly and then led me to the next aisle and ghoulishly pointed downward to a shelf near the floor without uttering a word. This scary pose was enough to make me flee. I grabbed the appliance paint and made my way to the checkout aisle.

This big box encounter might have turned out differently if the gnome zombies had the training to look at their customers and ask, “Would you like me to show you where it is?” This simple yet profound sentence transforms zombie encounters from lugubrious to luminous.

Contractors will learn much about a supply house's commitment to their customers by assessing how well employees leverage the first impression.

Needless to say, a smile and helpful demeanor go a long way toward making a contractor feel welcome and justified in spending their money to further the supply house's business continuity. A cheerful and energetic counter clerk exudes a positive aliveness that shoppers find attractive. This sets up the natural law of attraction in which contractors will come back again to hopefully experience the same pleasant encounter next time.

Steve Coscia helps HVACR companies make more money through increased customer retention, improved upselling and reduced on-the-job stress. He just produced the Contractor Soft Skills DVD, which is available at A best-selling author and 20-year customer service specialist, Coscia presents keynote speeches and facilitates HVACR customer service workshops. Contact him at 610/853-9836 or [email protected].