I woke up this morning and wandered over to Chris Brogan’s blog and read all about his recent issues encountered when trying to buy a pair of Timberland Boots.  I think the comments and Chris’s point may have gotten a bot lost in the shuffle, so I thought I’d write about it over here.

Back in the old days, say, even 10 years ago, we largely only had brick and mortar stores as an option for things we wanted.  That meant we were limited to catalog shopping or stores near where we lived, or how far we were willing to drive for our access to most goods and services.  The access to the long tail of goods online has disrupted this traditional model, and we can see its effects everywhere.

For example, the consolidation of the Department Stores to a few national brands has in some ways offered less nuanced choice, as well as less advertising revenues for newspapers who used to have competing ads from the three, four or more regional stores, but now have ads from only one, and we all know what that declining revenue is doing to the newspapers… but I digress.

The issue here is that we are fragmenting markets.  As the department stores consolidate, choice becomes more one note, and we see the rise of specialty stores to offer what the big guys don’t anymore.  How else does something like The Walking Company come into vogue over another shoe store which hopefully also carries shoes you would want to walk in? Why do we have three flavors of The Gap, both in malls and in local strip centers, rather than a department store that carries it all?  The all in one has become uniform, and as a result the specialty retailers are making hay by offering the special and filling that nice well.

But then we added Online as an additional choice.  Heck, today is “Cyber Monday” where all sorts of online specials take place, where it’s been formally acknowledged that we are buying stuff through another channel than merely in person.

Here’s the crux of the problem:

In person, in bricks and mortar, the experience of the customer, and making them feel valued is important.  It’s not just about making a sale, it’s about making that person feel that their effort in dragging themselves to the mall was worth it- otherwise, why shouldn’t they just shop online?  When bricks & mortar was the only choice, competition was more fierce and we seemed to understand this better.  Now that the competition is largely invisible, ie. not the guy with the sale sign two doors down, but someone virtually, online, without limited shelf space- this competition is not as obvious.  You may think you are the only option in town, but you may still see your sales declining- not because you are doing anything different, but because your customers have other options you can’t even see.

And thus the little quirky things that customers used to have to put up with- a sales clerk snapping their gum while you were waiting to be helped, people talking on the phone rather that seeing if you needed any assistance,  someone acknowledging you in the store- they don’t have to any more.  And that means that now, unlike any other time before, those “threshold experiences”- the first person people encounter in your establishment, and how they are treated- matters more than it has in the past.  In some ways, it’s a shame these people seem to be hired as place holders and not paid very well, because they may be in the best position to effect your bottom line as never before.

In medicine, doctors who have practices in hospitals get reviewed regularly by things like the Press-Ganey scores.  And it’s amazing how the quality of care patients perceive receiving is directly related to the office atmosphere and front line clerks and nurses, rather than the physician themselves.  Likewise, large law firms help manage the perception of success by the waiting areas, fresh flowers and the like, which often has little bearing on the quality of work, just on how much you pay for it.

In the digital age, these threshold experiences are going to become more and more important, because they are going to set the tone for any subsequent interaction.  Your mom may have told you something like “You only get one chance to make a first impression”  and in a world where people have less free time and shorter attention spans than ever before, this is more true than ever.

This means that both in the real bricks & mortar world and in the online world, those first impressions and encounters are important, and will effect return business, recommendations and the like.  So while a company like Timberland may not be able to manage the clerks at Macy’s, the clerks at Macy’s need to realize that the success of Macy’s depends a lot on whether they take their job seriously, and whether they make an effort to help a customer find what they want.

Isn’t that what we all learned back when when we watched “A Miracle on 34th Street”?