Monday, November 26, 2012

Retailers Are Shooting Themselves In The Foot

I worked at Barnes & Noble for five years in college and grad school, and because of the timing of that employment, I got to witness firsthand the changes of businesses transitioning to an online presence and dealing with the price undercutting of Amazon.  We, as a BN, were required by corporate headquarters to have all of this advertising up in the store for, but the manager was constantly warning use that was also our competition.  "We need to give excellent customer service, because people can get the exact same thing online" she kept saying, "And to keep our jobs, we need customers to keep coming back into the store."

But here's the interesting thing, you could get the exact same thing online, and often for cheaper, and if you buy enough you can get free shipping.  What you also get, which is the reason I and many other people shop more and more online these days: No upselling.

We were required to ask every. single. person, even in the cafe, if they had a BN member card.  "Oh, you're buying a cup of coffee for $1.40?  Would you like a $25 membership card as well?"  You can imagine how well that worked.  This was not only incredibly irritating to the employees, but also to the customers.  It slows down the line, it annoys people, and regular shoppers who didn't want the card were alienated every single time they chose to spend money there.  For probably every 50 people who I asked if they wanted a card, maybe one person got one.  So that's 49 pissed off folk, and one $25 membership card sale.  Doesn't really seem worth it to me.

I realize that upselling at the register must work  often enough that businesses see it as a worthwhile practice, but what they really should be doing is NOT PISSING OFF CUSTOMERS WHO CHOOSE TO COME INTO THE STORE.

Does anyone like being upsold?  Does anyone actually think, you know, you're right, cashier, even though I told you that I only wanted a medium popcorn, I actually do want a large.  You clearly know my mind better than I do.  I go to Target often enough that I know all about the Target card.  I've had one in the past, and you know what?  The interest rate was ridiculous!  Of course, they don't mention that at the register.

My most recent experience with upselling came at the movie theatre concessions stand.  BF ordered us a medium popcorn. "Do you want a large?" The eager cashier asked. "No, I want a medium, like I ordered," he told her.
If I can't finish a medium, why would I order a large!?!?!

So, upselling is rude because you're basically calling the customer stupid, but in this case too she was so eager to sell him a large popcorn, that she interrupted the rest of his order and failed to ring up the Raisinettes.  We stood there awkwardly until he asked, "Can I have my Raisinettes?"  Then she had to ring them up, he had to dig for more cash, and all the people in line behind us had to wait longer.

In cases like these, you want to be rude to the cashier, who is just doing her job.  She would get yelled at by her boss if she was caught not upselling, but she's also just as likely to get yelled at by customers for being incredibly annoying.  As if cashiering isn't already a thankless, soul-crushing  job.

I didn't go to business school, and I'm obviously not in the business of chasing profits, but I do shop out of necessity and for fun (sometimes).  I can honestly say that stores that engage in aggressive upselling will lose my business, and I bet I'm not the only one who feels this way.  When retailers are legitimately worried about physical stores turning a profit, they should not be irritating the customers who have made the effort to get in their cars and drive there.  Gone are the days when the store was the only game in town, if I have the option of avoiding annoying upselling, I'll take it, and it seems many other people will as well.

Sorry for the rant, but it just amazes me that people who study sales techniques don't seem to think that pissing people off is a poor strategy.  I long to live in a world without upselling, but I'm not holding my breath.

*I do realize that making purchase suggestions like online retailers do is a form of upselling, but it's less annoying and easier to ignore.


  1. One of the movie theater chains here now tries to sell memberships, which would really only pay off if you went to a movie a month at that particular chain. That kind of pressure raises my anxiety and would require me to double my time at the theater. I suppose theaters are like B&N in that they are competing with a much cheaper and easier alternative via the internet.

    Also, Target pharmacy now is trying to sell their rewards program all the time - which I wonder if it is so great, why not have those rewards just automatic since they already have all your info if you get prescriptions through them.

    Nice rant. I agree with every single point :)

  2. Seriously! Who would have loyalty to a movie theatre! If they're playing something you like, you go there, if not, you go somewhere else. I have a loyalty card for one theatre just because it was free, and they're the only place in RI that serves Coke products.