Getting retail right

I was recently reminded of what a critical role the retail experience plays in how a brand is perceived and how hard it is to get it right.

Over the holidays, I was surprised and delighted to receive two very generous presents: a 48-GB Kindle Fire HDX and a 16-GB iPad Air. Either tablet would have been an awesome gift by itself, but I had both, and I had to figure out which to keep.

My mom offered to buy the Kindle from me. With the money she paid me, I could exchange my iPad for one with more memory and have a tablet that would sync with my computer and my iPhone.

I called my local Apple Store and asked if I could trade in my iPad for a more expensive model. It was still in the shrink-wrap, and they assured me I could, even without a receipt, if I brought it in during the next few days.

So in the midst of the crazy holiday season and despite the family cold we had been sharing, I made the trip to the mall, accompanied by my three-year-old son, Ben.

I’ve been in the store once or twice before, but I’m not a regular visitor, and it soon became clear I had failed to pick up on the system they use to manage store traffic.

The many clerks at the front of the store were busy with other customers, so I continued to walk toward the back, looking for an indication of where I could find help.

When I had almost reached the back, a young woman scooted in front of me and said something like: “How can I help you?”

I started to explain why I was there, but before I got very far, she interrupted me to ask whether I had checked in with the sales guy at the front of the store. When I entered the store, there was no sales guy at the front of the store, I explained.

So, Ben and I trekked back up to the front of the store and were told we were second in line.

A few minutes later, another young woman walked over. She listened to my story, seemed capable of helping, and even went so far as to grab the product I wanted.

That’s when things took a turn for the worse. Upon scanning my iPad, it became clear that it wasn’t purchased at an Apple Store.

No one had bothered to tell me that was important. I had called the store specifically to avoid these kinds of problems.

I was starting to get angry. I just chose their brand over Kindle, and I was ready to spend more to upgrade to a better model, and you’re telling me “No?” Really?

The salesperson tried to sound like she cared. And who knows? Maybe she did. But her only reply when I explained that I had called ahead, that no one had told me it had to be purchased there, that I had dragged my sick kid to the mall specifically for this one task, was “I understand.” And “I’m sorry.”

Getting the retail experience right isn’t easy, and anyone that thinks it is should spend a few days in a store during the busy season. But the Apple Store had several opportunities to either prevent my bad experience or improve upon it. The person on the phone could have been trained to ask: Where was the iPad purchased? That would have prompted me to do the research to find out and then return it to the right location.

While I’m all for innovation, the Apple Store design and sales strategy failed in my case. There were no signs to direct me to where I could find help, and those associates that did help me made me feel more alienated than welcome.

Finally, I’m sure there are many reasons Apple limits returns in their stores to products purchased at their stores. If they want a satisfied customer, they should be prepared to do their best to help every customer, even those that didn’t buy from them.

In the end, I did trade in my iPad for a model with more memory at our local Best Buy store (where the gift was purchased, it turns out). When I walked into the store, the person at the front door told me exactly where to go to trade in my iPad. There was even a sign that read: “Customer Service.” And the person who served me was excellent. I’ll certainly be back.

Liz Walz is director of membership & marketing for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. To learn more, visit or email her at


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