Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Open Box

I worked for a toy store in my high school/early undergrad years.  It was seasonal employment around Christmas, what with DePaul University providing students a break from Thanksgiving to the New Year.  I was a basic laborer, who wandered through the store replacing knocked over boxes, bringing things out from the back room, and making sure people didn't run off with the shelving.

I hardly ever touched the cash register, but that didn't stop me from managing to demagnetize a customer's charge card.  I ran it through the slot, only to be informed that the slot was actually for reading the MICROS numbers on the bottom of personal checks (this was back when stores accepted checks).  Of course, I wasn't ever actually trained on how to use the register -- someone just clamored for me to get up there and "ring" during a particular swell of customers.

It was my first "retail" job, so I picked up all kinds of useful information about how people react, who's likely to steal things, how to avoid being taken advantage of, etc.  I also saw incredibly varied examples of human behavior, especially as regards child rearing.  I saw lots of kids engage in full-on Hollywood-style tantrums, complete with screaming, yelling, pulling things off shelves angrily, and rolling around on the floor.  Now that's what I call good abstinence education for a teenager!

The particular circumstance I started this entry to relate concerns a type of toy which is lost to my memory.  All that I recall is that it was something "boy oriented" (this was back when it was acceptable to stereotype toys) and the box was about the size of an Eggo Waffle box.  A father was looking at the toy with his young son when I wandered by on one of my rounds.

"Hey, do you know if this is made of wood?" he asked.

I looked the box over.  There were no indications.  "No, I'm afraid I don't."

"Can I go ahead and open it?" he asked.

"No," I responded.  "I don't think you should."

"Really.  I can't even open the box."

I shrugged.  "No?"

He squared his jaw.  "Fine.  Hold this."  He gave me the box and walked out of the store.

I always remember this story because my reaction was to shrug and set the box back on the shelf.  I had not been trained on the finer points of customer service.  While I was familiar with "the customer is always right", I was also smart enough to realize that an opened box is a product reduced in value.

I don't know what the policy of toy stores is nowadays.  I don't think they let you go in, ask to open up a transformer box, then mess around to see if you want to buy.  My interaction with the customer has always seemed to be a prototypical situation of nobody learning anything.  It never occurred to me that there might be a reason for wanting to look at the product.  And I'm sure it never occurred to him that a minimum-wage high school employee was not the end of the customer satisfaction tree.  Had he asked for my manager, I would have happily fetched her, where she could have made any sort of answer she wanted to, probably opening the box for him to facilitate the sale.

I was reminded of this story today after reading a blog post from someone who had a similar experience in a Best Buy.  She wanted to buy a sleeve/bag for her computer, but the one she wanted was trapped in a box.  She asked if it could be opened, and the blue-shirt replied that there wasn't a floor model.  She left, and the final paragraph says that she won't be considering them for her upcoming laptop purchase.  Again, she didn't speak to a manager.

One one hand, I see it from the customer's point of view.  I don't want to buy something that turns out to be unacceptable and useless.  But I also see it from the retail point of view.  When Best Buy opens most things, that product is now devalued.  A fresh customer is going to be able to purchase that item at a discount for being "open box".  That's how I ended up with my TV for 20% off, and it never left the store or was even switched on.  And while it may be inconvenient for travel times, both Best Buy and the toy store have generous return policies.  In the case of BB, most items can be returned within 30 days for a full refund.

Don't get me wrong: if I wanted to see something, I'd certainly ask to have it out of the box.  But if the employee says no, I'm not going to get angry about it.  I've never understood why people get in a dander over perceived rights as a consumer.  You do have ever right to NOT buy things from whomever you wish.  But the store also has rights not to take actions which it perceives may injure their bottom line.  You have the option to boycott them forever, and they reserve the right to deny you the ability to purchase it.

Many stores have try-before-buy goods.  I mean, that's practically all an Apple store *is*.  And many more stores will let you get your hands on something if you seem like you're really interested in buying and have a specific question.  It's just always seemed strange to me for getting angry about not being allowed to.

No reason to let shopping get personal.

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