Why Amazon is Beating your Local Stores

As I stood in the pharmacy of my local CVS, being ignored by the three staff behind the counter, listening to one of the pharmacy techs explain to her coworker about how her son was expelled from school the previous day, and how her husband is still looking for a job – a thought came into my mind.  This is why people are shopping online.  I stood there for 10 minutes and finally walked out as I watched them serve three people through the drive-through and not even give me a dirty look.  It was like I was invisible – and so I was – so we all are, to the companies who bitch and moan about how their customers are being stolen from them.

Amazon didn’t do this.  Customer service has gotten so bad that I’d rather make purchases online and not have to suffer the indignity of being ignored when I’m trying to buy something.  My local small pharmacy, where the pharmacist knew my name, went out of business after 40-some years.  He just couldn’t keep up with the rising costs of running a pharmacy in this day and age, and couldn’t compete with the likes of Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens.  He eventually sold out his practice to CVS.  I was hesitant at first.  But my wife and I were pleasantly surprised when we found the middle-eastern pharmacist very gracious.  He knew that we were customers of Lock Drugs, and welcomed us, and has always been friendly and generally a very good pharmacist.

He wasn’t on duty on this specific day, and CVS was everything you hate about CVS or Walmart, or <insert giant chain store brand here>.  I like to go to a pharmacist because, in previous lives, our pharmacist knew us so well, that he knew that my wife was allergic to certain drugs, and would call the doctor or the insurance company and explain why this or that drug wouldn’t work in this case.  I can’t count on that extra layer of protection anymore – so I’m going to cave-in and use mail-order from now on.

I call bullshit

The “Retailpocalypse” as they’ve been self-describing the massive move from brick and mortar stores to online shopping is not only because of the ease of shopping at home, it’s also because customer service has gotten so horrible.  If I were to open a store right now, I would focus on rabid customer service – and I think you could charge a premium.  People are not used to any type of service – the one thing that the online experience lacks – any personal touch.  Sure, Amazon can tell me “most people buy this with that,” reminding me that I need toothpaste if I buy a new toothbrush.  But that’s not service. That’s an algorithm.  That’s statistics.  I don’t like being a statistic, do you?

I know that this is all connected somehow – the stores can’t afford good people because they aren’t making money because people are buying online because they are tired of shitty service.  And no one teaches basic customer service anymore.  In my own company, our technical support department makes basic faux pas daily.  I had a recent meeting where the support manager admitted his frustration with his people.  I offered to help train them on basic customer service – which is really like training people on basic human dignity – and he mulled it over.  He honestly doesn’t think it will help.  In a great job market like Southern California (where the company I work for is based) each firing brings in a new mouth-breathing idiot, and they aren’t cheap – an insult to injury.  Where did we go wrong?

It’s all about customer service

I’ve built my career on the basics of customer service – be attentive, kind, empathetic and follow the basic “The customer is always right” mentality.  I’ve since adjusted that last phrase – the customer has to always think they are right.  This allows for you to disagree but still treat them with dignity and respect, even when they don’t deserve it.  I started out in banks, as a teller, when I was 16 years old.  I did a stint at a cable company where I was customer service and after-hours “repair”.  I did technical support for a software company after that. Then I moved into a field technical role, which was glorified tech support and then into sales, which really encompasses how to make people feel good about doing business with you.  Sure, you have to have product knowledge and have a problem that your product solves, but no one buys from someone they can’t stand.  So you have to build a basic relationship first.

I’m reminded of the experience of when you go into your favorite restaurant and the manager isn’t there that day. The food sucks, the service is off, the place is different.  If that experience had been your only experience of the restaurant, you’d never go back.  People make things great.  A relatively small group of people, actually. Apple isn’t the same without Jobs.  Google seems to be wandering and unfocused.  Amazon and Bezos, you get the idea.  But this works on a much smaller scale as well – my old pharmacist – he was the reason I was there.  And my middle-eastern pharmacist at CVS – when he’s there, I can’t complain.  I can’t understand how the rest of the world doesn’t get this simple fact and adjust for it.  It’s not difficult to treat people with respect and make them feel welcomed.  But if it’s not difficult, why is it so rare?

A sign of the times?

Is it the “me” generation?  Is it the amount of time we spend on social media that has sucked our basic social skills away like calculators did for mental math?  Or is it just the perfect storm of all of these conditions that make us throw up our hands and just say, “Fuck it, I’ll buy it online”?  I know that I gravitate towards places that allow me to order on my phone, “Buy now, pick up in-store, because I don’t have to deal with anyone incompetent.  Pizza Hut, Best Buy, Circuit City, Wing Stop, Starbucks, Uber, Lyft and recently even Walmart have all gotten my business because I can do everything without having to speak to anyone.  Starbucks hasn’t fucked up my drink order since I’ve started ordering online.  Not once. That’s not even statistically possible.

There’s a thread here that I need to investigate and follow down a rabbit hole.  This is something that I’m passionate and pissed about – I’ve watched as great companies have thrown away customers due to horrible management and lack of customer service skills.  I can’t fathom how they let this happen.  They’ve blamed things like Amazon for their failings instead of realizing that they have to up their “IRL” game – they have to make the experience better than what you get online – that’s it.  Sure, you won’t get all the customers back, but you will get loyalty. And I’ll be able to get my prescriptions filled without having to worry about them being ripped off in the mail.

But the main reason I’m having to go this route is that my local pharmacy closed after 49 years of business.  They were unable to compete with the bigger stores, the changing medical insurance industry, and high local business taxes, which the big conglomerates get a pass on for moving into town.  But their days are numbered because we will only tolerate so much abuse before we just give up and order everything online.

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Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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