For my birthday, a thoughtful friend bought me the Wolford Fatal dress. This killer dress is basically a long tube you can wear any which way, but not loose. A pricey toob at that – $165. There is a picture of it at the bottom of this blog if anyone cares.
But oh, how versatile for a work/life road warriorette, who doesn’t want to look like she’s sold her soul to REI/MEI and those beige pants with zip off shorts that scream ‘I been to Annapurna too’.
You can wear the Fatal as a skirt, a long dress, a top, maybe even a turban, and best of all, you can ruche it nicely around your tummy for days when you leave your washboard on the kitchen sink.
I’m a big Wolford fan. As in, I have a pair of stay-up stockings that are 15 years old with zero holes, ladders or pilling. I can’t afford much else in this premium store, but I endorse it based on my tiny sliver of experience – a quality product that simply stands the test of time. Or so I thought.
After excitedly wiggling myself into my Fatal cocoon and attempting to sashay a block and a half past the projects in Chelsea, disaster struck. A sliver of protruding Velcro on my Timbuktu cellphone holder brushed ever so lightly against it. ZZZZZZSHWIIIIP! A giant furry ladder appeared, basically trashing the entire dress.
First, I think it’s about time that someone blew the whistle on Velcro. It’s been a gripping success, but how many of you have short and curlies on your favorite stuff? It’s never the soft, woolly bearded side that catches, oh no, it’s the nasty, three-day stubble side. I think Velcro should be reclassified as a weapon of mass destruction and banned.
Naturally, I wanted to return the dress, now as useful to me as a combine harvester to a ballet dancer.
Holy helmet gal, you ruined the thing with your frigging cellphone holder, you think you can return it?
Well, I really thought so (yes I had the receipt, and yes, the friend even accompanied me) … based on the following logic:
Performance not meeting reasonable expectations: I expect an expensive, multi-purpose piece of apparel to stand up to reasonable wear and tear, certainly more than the rigors of draping oneself over a Le Corbusier chaise in Design Within Reach.
But no …
Wolford employee: It’s an exclusive fabric to us by DuPont, it’s like cashmere. It will ladder and pill just like our stockings.
Me: Sounds like every working woman’s $165 best friend!
Lack of disclosure: Nowhere on the garment was there a tag: ‘Warning, this garment is extremely delicate and will fall apart if you bat your eyelids at it.’ I’ve seen these warning labels even on the $20 sweatshopped threads at Forever 21.
Wolford employee: You’re supposed to know these things. We have customers that have 4 or 5 of these in different colors, they just know.
Me: Great, a trial and error dress only for the most affluent who can say: ‘what the hell, I’ll buy five’.
Lack of disclosure II: the sales assistant made no mention about the fragility of this garment at the time of purchase.
Wolford employee: It looks lovely on etc.
Customer satisfaction: Would a premium product company like Wolford really turn a customer out on the street with $165 down the toob (literally)?
Seems so …
Wolford employee: I understand your concern and appreciate your honesty but it’s not a manufacturing fault. I spoke to my boss and she said we can’t resell it, so sorry.
Me: Can you give me the name and number of your area manager, please.
I confess the avenger in me was already holstering some heavy handed artillery to get even – like raising a dispute about the purchase to the credit card company, to lying to the store and insisting the item came damaged, to slagging them off on fastcompany.com. Oh how the mind runs amok … hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned!
Well, surprise, surprise, and to Wolford’s credit, the Wolford area manager, Suzie P, actually listened over the phone to my situation, and as a ‘one time only’, allowed me to exchange the item for something else.
We want our customers to be happy, she said. She thanked me for sharing my concerns and made a note tell her staff to ensure the customer is fully aware of what they are slithering into, when they make that Fatal purchase. Suzie clearly knows what the real bottom line is and I commend her. The bad thing was having her frontline unable to make the judgement call, and so spare us from the confrontation.
The point of this smalltalk on a Sunday is less about my $165 and subsequent goof, and more about how a business operating in the ‘touchy feely’ zone of retailing needs to treat the customer as being even ‘righter’. Touchy feely products are those appealing to the primal senses, they’re ‘close to the bone’. They include high fashion, intimate restaurants, lifestyle toys, anything to do with kids and pets etc. They often make the user feel in some way powerful: a dress can make a woman feel beautiful and sexy; a good meal, satiated. However, if there’s any argy-bargy in the transaction it turns everything around, leaving the customer with a very sour taste in the mouth, a feeling of being robbed of that power, and perhaps even subconscious embarrassment about their extravagance. I’m not a psychologist but I’ve been it and seen it.
Thus to make a customer argue a legitimate case about a dress under a chandelier is embarrassing all round, a scene more congruent at an auto mechanic when haggling over a bungled head gasket replacement. You’re far less likely to show your face again in a boutique, intimate restaurant and so forth, if you’ve had any kind of grief.
Yet, many companies, small and large, still focus only on today’s sale, ignoring that old adage: a happy customer will tell several others, an unhappy customer will tell others with quadruple the zeal. Big box stores like Home Depot can probably afford to diss you even though they’ll take back that slit shower curtain without a quibble. You, oh retailer of fine toys and accoutrements, need those yuppie hummingbirds to come buzzing around your flower every season. If you don’t have a decent margin for error, remorse and attrition, you need to sell up and get a job in the civil service.
My mother worked in fashion. She said there were unscrupulous women who would buy items with the sole intention of wearing them once, and taking advantage of return policies. I even have a couple of friends who tend to do this, and I hope they read this. It isn’t noble, there are people employed and families to feed in those stores. My mother said she could usually detect those cases, nail them while still being utterly respectful, and even then, it was a judgment call. Some people would subsequently return and happily spend five times more and go away happy for good – that first item they bought was a mistake. It’s tricky, but businesses who are able to make these distinctions can, when the poop hits the mirror ball, find themselves thriving purely on customer loyalty.
A big part of this is empowering your front line force – for some reason, often gum chewing, snippy, iPod-grafted post teens – to be true ambassadors for your business. They need to be able to make these managerial judgement calls. Oh yeah, do us all a favor and hire the occasional older person will you? As I said in a previous post, older people know what it is to 64 and younger because they’ve been there, and they treat it with the respect it deserves. My mother is 70 (scroll down) and still socking it to Sydney yuppies of all ages and stages …
Stores like REI, TJ Maxx and Circuit City make a policy of allowing people to return items after thoroughly playing with them, even years after, in the case of REI. Sure, there are going to be some blatant abusers of the system, but when they show up with old hiking boots encrusted with the wear and tear of several treks across Tibet and ridiculously ask for a refund, they WILL have to make a damn good case. Water finds its levels. It’s called ‘taking responsibility’. Just because a customer can abuse a privilege, doesn’t mean they can and will.
They’re far less likely to if you treat their money like it was your own*.
Raw materials can go up, workers get sick or throw a tantrum, equipment breaks down … any of these factors can affect your bottom line dramatically. But I truly believe that doing just that – treating a customer’s money as if it was your own – is both a guaranteed investment in sticking around, and fire insurance against the tyranny of the returned purchase.
And the more personally you treat people, (don’t use that word ‘policy’ carte blanche), even in big box stores, the better chance you have of generating the loyalty that makes a customer see you as a person with a mortgage and mouths to feed, just like they. It gets back the the Lovemarks concept. It leads to less war. Ultimately.
I admit I’ve gone on a bit about this, and you already know it all, but as They Inc say, people do not have to be informed, so much as reminded …
* A bank in the UK had the slogan “We never forget whose money it is.” I wish I wrote that.
A fine garment for a traveling wilbury, as long as you don’t eat, breathe or hug a Velcro bunny with it! If you want to see me in it, before I trashed itclick here, but the picture above is way more impressive.