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How to Get Crushed By The Big Guys

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"Go to Home Depot."

I couldn't believe she'd said it to me.

Being a grassroots entrepreneur myself, I've always tried to support local businesses. Especially local retail shops and restaurants. You simply won't find me at an Olive Garden.

So this spring, when it came time for my wife and I to buy house plants, instead of going to Home Depot or Lowes, we went to a local place near my house—I'll take the high road and refrain from naming names—and bought four beautiful plants to put outside our door.

They all received equal amounts of sun and water. But one died. The three remaining plants flourished.

I brought the dead one back to the store, with the receipt. I thought that since Home Depot takes anything back, anytime, the store's owners would at least try to give me an exchange to make a happy customer and compete with the Goliath up the street. I was wrong.

First, I was told I had to come back the next day to speak to the manager, who wasn't in at the time. Fine, I understand that low-level employees can't always be empowered to make certain kinds of decisions. But when I went back the next day and explained my situation to the manager, she told me that I must have not watered it adequately. I explained why that couldn't be the explanation--the other three plants, all treated in the same way, were doing well.

Then she accused me of repotting it--an explanation I squashed by showing her the store's own sticker on the pot.

Finally, having run out of excuses, she said there was nothing she could do. If they replace every plant that someone killed from lack of water, she said, they'd go out of business. (Wait, I thought we already covered the water excuse.)

I told her that was a shame because I really like to support local businesses. Then I went step further. I had a feeling how she was going to respond, but I wanted to hear it for myself. I said to her, "I really love shopping here, but your policy makes it tough because I can buy something at Home Depot and return it for any reason."

"Well, maybe you should go back to Home Depot then."

Not only that--she said it with an attitude. She had a loyal, long-standing customer standing right in front of her and she told me, rudely, to go Home Depot.

Needless to say, perhaps, that's the story of my last visit to the store. I am 39 and probably would have spent $500 a year at the store. If I live to be, say, 76 years old, that's about $18,500 in future revenue they just threw away. And I know a ton of people, so there goes years of solid word-of-mouth testimony, too, the possible loss of dozens of additional $18,500 customers.

I want local retail to survive. Nothing makes me more unhappy than when I go to a town and the only restaurant choices are Cracker Barrel, Denny's, Bob Evan's and Applebee's. I want the underdog to win! But this manager won the battle and lost the war.

If it had been my store, I would have empathized with the customer, found a suitable replacement and thrown in some plant food for good measure. My goal would have been to have that customer leaving with a huge smile on his face. I would have wanted him to leave feeling felt wowed. Why? Because he would come back often and talked about his experience to others. He may have even written about it in his blog.

The only way local retail can survive is by making customers feel special in a way that the chain across the street can't match. That's not always easy, I know--but at the very least, avoid sending them across the street yourself.

Last updated: Jul 25, 2008




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