Quality: It's Not What You Think

Have you ever wondered why you shop at the places you do?

Posted Jan 30, 2020

I'm not really a shopper in the sense that I wander through stores and shops. When I go to a store, it's usually because I need something. However, when I worked in downtown La Jolla, there was a high-end clothing store a block from my office where I would go to kibitz with my very favorite salesperson. She showed me around, told me what new merchandise was coming in, what was going to be on sale, etc. Sometimes I would buy things, most often I wouldn't, although since my closet is filled with clothing from that store; obviously, I was buying more than I remember.

So why am I telling you this? Because as I began writing this blog, it occurred to me that what I wanted to write about was something that I had been unconsciously aware of for a number of years. That is, how you and I are treated, responded to, and dealt with determines whether we have a quality experience.

In this blog, I provide examples of positive shopping experiences in three types of stores, including:

  • Retail grocery markets (Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods)
  • Retail clothing stores (PS and Banana Republic)
  • Technology stores (Costco and Apple Store)

And finally, in contrast, the very bad experience I had at a well-known, big-box appliance and electronic branch store, which actually was the impetus for this blog.

Grocery Markets

The main thing that Trader Joe's (TJ) and Whole Foods (WF) have in common, compared to many other national food market chains, is what happens when you ask for help. The staff at both stores almost always respond with a smile and go out of their way to be helpful. While I'm not a foodie (and have often said I will eat anything that isn’t moving and even some things that are moving slowly), I like food to taste good and that usually has to do with the ingredients and the preparation.

At both WF and TJ, after being faced with six different kinds of pasta, if I ask someone to tell me the differences, they do. Sometimes, they even provide additional information such as how to prepare whole-wheat versus regular white pasta.

Source: Canva

If I ask WF and TJ customer service people where something is, someone takes me to the area where the food I want is located, rather than vaguely pointing in some direction and saying, "it's on aisle five or maybe 15. I don't remember which, but if you look around you’ll find it.” While WF has many more choices and is often more expensive than TJ (except for the 365 line), both are similar in staff quality and how they respond to customers.

Men’s Clothing Stores

I return to the relatively high-end men store I used to frequent, but these days the experience is not the same. The merchandise is now almost entirely super high-end, but more importantly, my favorite salesperson is no longer there, and her replacements seem more eager to make sales than to know me as a person. I still buy things on occasion, but rarely.

However, when I visit Banana Republic (BR), while confronted with so many choices that I feel overwhelmed and often challenged with the constantly changing prices (60 percent off the sales price or 40 percent off if it’s not on sale—huh?), the staff is patient and helpful, always willing to explain such things as the differences between regular fit, slim fit, and skinny (I'm somewhere between regular and slim fit, but nowhere near skinny—but that’s another story). The major thing is that:

  • I'm always greeted with a smile, no matter how many things I eventually buy or don’t.
  • If I return two items, exchange two others, and am then suddenly seduced by a cool looking shirt after everything has been tallied up, no worries, it’s fine.
  • Every single purchased item is wrapped individually before being put in a bag.
  • If I don’t have the receipt when I come back to return something, they tell me to just insert the credit card that I used for the purchase—no big deal.

Going to BR, whether purchasing or returning items, is always a positive experience and often a pretty thrifty one as well.


Now let's talk about Costco (C) and the Apple Store (AS) (full disclosure, I own some Apple stock), two very different stores. AS is all about technology, while C has just about everything. So why do I like the C experience?

First of all, as I walk around, I’m offered a variety of goodies at almost every corner, so much so that it often becomes my lunch. But like WF and TJ, it's also how I am treated by customer service people. If I'm looking for something, a person will direct me very specifically and/or walk me to where the item is. If I am comparing printers, sometimes it takes a while to find someone to help me, but when I do, he/she takes the time to explain all of the differences. While checkout lines are often long, they are faster than you think they will be and the cashiers are friendly, interactive, willing to pack things in boxes, and make the experience as good as it can be.

Going to an AS (at least in San Diego) is always a good experience. While not totally technophobic, (see my blog post "Geriatric Technophobia") I am far from being a techy whiz kid! If I ask about the different Apple Watches, the customer service person is patient, knowledgeable, and supportive. One of the useful things about buying something at Apple is that the salesperson has you unpack the item, loads the necessary software, and carefully instructs you on the next steps to take. You can also make an appointment to solve a problem. My experience at AS has always been very positive and those helping me (whether a college student or an older adult) readily accept my lack of knowledge, are never judgmental, but rather courteous, supportive, and instructive.

Source: Canva

In contrast to the above positive experiences, I recently had a TV problem that I have been trying to solve for some time. A year or so ago, I purchased the first Apple TV which allowed me to watch Netflix and other streaming channels. Recently the unit began to fail and I wanted to replace it. I went online, (yes, I know how to go online) did a search and found there were updated versions.

The person I previously used to help me solve audio/video problems was no longer available, so I decided to visit the appliance/technology big-box store to purchase a new Apple TV and have it installed. Though the store was virtually empty when I arrived, no one offered to assist me. When I finally found someone, he was friendly, but not knowledgeable about the items I wanted. Furthermore, he had no idea about either the price or the process for getting the item installed. So, after about 20 minutes of nonproductive interaction, I left feeling frustrated. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I needed, and while the person helping me was pleasant, clearly, he was untrained and uninformed.

Bottom Line

  • The 60+ population is the fastest-growing demographic in the United States with a lot of disposable income. (See "The Graying of America: More Older Adults Than Kids by 2035," "Incomes of Older People").
  • Older people are not as likely to buy online because they still enjoy going to stores, socializing, looking around, and being served. (See "Who is the Online Shopper?").
  • For people over 60, quality lies both in the buying experience as well as the item.
  • Retail establishments: Older adults have money. If you want us to shop in your stores, get your act together and serve us right. If not, you lose big time.
  • Older adults: When you go to a store and are ignored and/or not treated with courtesy and respect, tell somebody at the store right away, preferably the manager. If this continues, go someplace else to shop where you are treated better.

Finally, what kinds of quality experiences have you encountered?