Is customer service becoming a lost art?

May 28, 2010

Trying harder. Isn’t that what you’d expect from hurting retailers and their sales clerks who might one day be out of a job?

As you know, my happy place is San Francisco Macy’s, followed by the one in Valley Fair/San Jose. But I noticed a small satellite Macy’s in downtown Sunnyvale less than a mile away from our house. Surprising, since a bigger one is only a few minutes away.

Downtown is being redeveloped so finding the actual store was harder than you’d figure. It’s hidden away behind construction fences.There was no directional signage at all. And no crowds to follow: it was Sunday, 12:15pm and no wonder the place was empty.

I was looking for cosmetics. A new foundation, to be exact, and I wanted to scam some trial samples to bring to Ireland in two weeks. I wanted to try various brands so when I got home, I’d know which to buy.

I’d already picked up two branded samples in San Francisco, but I needed a couple more brands for variety and also to be sure I didn’t run out in Europe and have to buy (and carry) a big bottle.

The Sunnyvale Macy’s cosmetic department had all the usual suspects: Lancome, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Clarins, Shisheido and many more. All were deserted.

Not as salesclerk in sight.

I walked the entire department and finally found a group of five cosmetics clerk gathered in a corner chatting it up. I stood by a counter about 10 feet away and waited.

They were reluctant to leave their conversation. Even for a customer.

After a few minutes, one looked over and asked, not “May I help you?” but: “Did you need some help?”

Umm. Not really, I just thought I’d lean on the counter aimlessly and stare for a while, I wanted to say.

I explained what I wanted and thought I’d try the Clarins brand.

“The Clarins person isn’t here today,” a young woman told me. “I could try to match you but it’s not my line.”

It couldn’t have been clearer that she didn’t want to even try to show me the brand I wanted. How hard could this be? It’s not rocket science. Find a few colors that look like they might match and slap them on my face to see if they did. I could even do it myself.

She asked if I wanted to try Lancome, which WAS her brand. I didn’t. Because I’d already gotten Lancome samples from the very helpful folks in San Francisco Macy’s, who had customer service nailed.

“What about Estee Lauder,” I asked.
“Oh that person is not here today.”
“I’m surprised,” I said, “that it’s so hard for a customer to get help.”
“Oh it’s Sunday,” the girl responded. “We’re not fully staffed.”
“I didn’t realize the cosmetic counters closed on Sunday…” No, I didn’t say it but….

Just then, the Estee clerk arrived. She was about my age and delighted to help me. After sanitizing a color-matching card she held it to my cheeks. Her hands stunk of cigarettes and so did her entire person.


But, she was the only game in town. I held my breath as I let her color-match me and try some shades on my face. She gave me a nice sample of a foundation that is probably too yellow for my skin. I needed to take a breath that didn’t remind me of a stale ashtray, so I turned down her offer to do my eyes and cheeks as well.


Seems to me if you work in close proximity to people and put your hands on their faces you would be sensitive to the fact that your hands, clothes and hair smell like an ashtray. Ironically, she made a really big deal about sanitizing her tools. Hey, I wanted to say. How about not smoking. She was very nice, but clearly in the wrong job.

The young clerks who were too busy chatting to help a customer must not understand that retailers without customers close, clerks lose their jobs and there are fewer jobs than ever for unemployed retail personnel. If I were in that position, I’d jump right up when I saw a customer and be a lot more helpful, if for no other reason than to act in the interests of staying employed.

And if Macy’s wants to actually make sales, it needs to teach their sales personnel customer service techniques and supervise them more closely. Certainly in cosmetics.

Actually, I needed a couple hundred bucks worth of cosmetic products from Macy’s and had been prepared to buy. But it was so much trouble to get the attention of the clerks I figured I’d go to another store and maybe not even a Macy’s.

A store just a mile away should really be getting my Macy’s business.

But it won’t.

I expect this satellite Macy’s to close in the not too distant future. Perhaps the writing is already on the wall and that’s why there’s no staff and no customers to provide service to.

Even if they knew how. Which it’s clear they don’t.

Thumbs down, Sunnyvale Macy’s.

I sent a version of this to Macy’s Sunnyvale and got an email back saying that the matter had been called to the attention of the cosmetics department manager who would be discussing this with and providing training to her staff.

3 comments on “Is customer service becoming a lost art?
  1. Poor customer service is one of my biggest pet peeves. They say it’s hard to find work in Calgary right now and I don’t believe that because it seem like most places will hire ANYONE. I don’t need to be sucked up to, but I do expect to at least be politely acknowledged when I enter a coffee shop or clothing store or whatever business it might be. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

  2. I’m with you, sister.

  3. What a disgrace. It’s the same in The Bay up here in Vancouver. The “ladies” look at you as if you are disturbing their conversation. Harriet, I agree about coffee houses too. What does it take to SMILE and utter the words, “I’ll be with you in a moment”?

    I wonder what the cosmetics manager will say… probably not much.

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