Throughout my youth, my mother made it a primary objective to educate me in the ways of business by explaining to me her gripes (and praises) about establishments where she spent her money. By walking me through her thought processes, she unknowingly created in me an internal checklist that I still use to evaluate how I feel about places I shop. In condensed form, here are the three most important aspects of a retail shopping experience I learned from Mama.
The one thing that can turn Mama away almost instantly is an establishment that is not cleaned properly. The examples that stick out most vividly in my mind are the lunch and dinner stops at highway fast-food chains while traveling.
There is an unwritten family list of McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's locations at various exits from Virginia down to Florida that we will not stop at to this day. All it takes to be added to this "no stop" list is one visit where the tables have not been wiped off, there are flies buzzing around, or the bathroom (by far the most important consideration) looks like a group of kids had a mosh pit in it. Perfection is by no means required, but there is a bare minimum level of acceptability that Mama just won't compromise on.
2. Helpful service
Helpful and courteous service always garners a compliment and a return visit from my mother. When she looks for new flowers to add to the garden, she prefers to go to Lowe's (NYSE: LOW ) because she says that the employees take her to the item she is looking for, explain to her its planting requirements, and answer her questions knowledgeably and with a cheerful disposition.
Conversely, she just about boycotts the local Best Buy (NYSE: BBY ) because she says that there is rarely anyone available to help. When she has trouble finding a product, they will direct her to the general direction of the store where it may be located and leave her to her own devices to find it.
3. Customer-friendly store policies
A great way to get my mother back in the doors of a retail store is by having a straightforward and hassle-free return policy. If you ask her what her favorite place to shop is, she will answer unequivocally: Kohl's (NYSE: KSS ) . She raves about how the customer service desk is always well staffed, how they take back just about anything, how they execute the transactions quickly, and how they generally make the whole process as painless as possible. When a mother is working full time and shopping for her kids while they are at soccer practice or Boy Scouts, it is quite helpful for her to be able to buy the same things in a couple of different sizes, have us try them on at home, and return what doesn't fit.
General disclaimer: Store experiences can vary greatly based on regional management, local culture, dispositions of individual franchise owners, etc. Mama's wisdom reflects personal experiences and is not necessarily characteristic of the parent companies as a whole.
What it means to us Fools
The main takeaway that I gathered from hearing about and witnessing these real-life examples is that it only takes one bad experience to ruin someone's perception of a brand and for the company to lose out on all or most of that customer's business. The fundamentals of a business are very important, but without quality people to support it, success is hard to attain in the long run. Paying attention to the business's bottom line is of course extremely important, but forgetting about the customer can cost you dearly. By investing in creating a positive company culture, it's possible to attract customers who not only want your products but will also be loyal to your brand. If you are doing it right, they might even tell their friends about how well you treated them.
In my mind, a quality retail company is one that cares enough to keep its locations presentable, hires helpful people, and does its best to cater its services to its customers. When evaluating companies as a potential investment, it is a useful exercise to visit a location, call their customer support number, or actually try their product or service. Your personal experience can offer insights that don't appear in annual reports or shareholder presentations.