Where Is Everyone?

December 11, 2010

With just two weeks to go until Christmas, I would have thought the stores would be packed cheek by jowl with holiday shoppers. Instead, I’ve found just the opposite. I picked one of the stores where people always have to wait in line with ten or fifteen people ahead of them, just about any time of the year, day or evening, holiday or not.

Yesterday, there was only one person ahead of me and he was just finishing up. I was in and out of the store in twenty minutes with all my shopping completed and rung up. This was a first for me. In all the years I’ve been shopping at that store, I’ve never been out of there, even with only one item to buy, in twenty minutes. Nor has there ever been a time when there was only one person ahead of me with three hours still to go until closing time.

I have been encountering the same scenario in every store I’ve visited this year and it’s somewhat disquieting. This week, just two weeks away from Christmas, and I’ve been finding that I’m usually either the only one in line or there are only one or two people ahead of me. Where is everyone?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t miss the pushing and shoving and people grabbing the last hot ticket item from someone else’s hands. But this is eerily quiet.

Another interesting phenomenon is that with the stores so quiet and salespeople standing around and doing nothing, the employees would get a sense that this was not a good thing and they would work harder at trying to please customers. Instead, most of them seem reluctant to help you. I asked two salespeople who were talking to each other if the store had a particular item. I told them I had looked in every aisle and couldn’t find it. The man pointed toward the back of the store and told me that’s the general area but you’ll have to find it yourself; I’m not walking back there.

When I told a friend of mine what I’ve been experiencing, she told me about her partner who had done all his shopping online. He sat in the comfort of his living room, buying the gifts he had selected for everyone and paid for his purchases with his credit card. He didn’t have to stand in line and fight mobs and his purchases were delivered to him already gift-wrapped and labelled. All without moving from his chair.

From what I’ve seen, the stores are suffering but the Internet sales are booming. I’m wondering how long it will be before we don’t have the option of going into a store to see and feel the merchandise we want to buy. If people don’t support the stores, the retail industry will be forced to change the way they do business. They have already changed the way they do business. They are not buying the wide variety of items they used to have on their shelves. They are sticking to their bestsellers in fewer colors and styles.

For the most part, the salespeople whom I’ve encountered, seem oblivious to the fact that if their customers aren’t supporting the stores, the stores will either have to be downsized or closed, and they might be among the millions of people who will join the ranks of the unemployed.

If the merchants are worrying about the economy and about the viability of staying solvent and keeping their business afloat, shouldn’t their employees be equally concerned? Shouldn’t they all be trying to elevate their customer service skills and doing whatever they can to attract new customers and keep the old ones coming back? Surely, someone must be thinking . . . Where is everyone?

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