Can Online Elements Boost Sales in Offline Retail Stores?


Customer service in retail stores is a real crap shoot. Sometimes you get an informed employee who is able to quickly, easily and cordially help you make a purchasing decision or solve a problem. Sometimes you get a clueless kid who seems to have the will, but not the skills, to help. And sometimes you get a surly punk who seems to enjoy providing poor service.


Yes, I know good service is a lot to expect from someone not making a lot of money. I was that person for several years in college when I worked on the front lines of customer service in a discount department store. I dealt with customers in the checkout lanes, the layaway and customer service desks and even a few times (shudder) in the snack bar.


I often fantasize about stores that would combine the best of online shopping (convenience, ability to research purchases, plentiful stock) with the key strengths of offline shopping (ability to see and touch merchandise, more immediate problem resolution). I've written about a few efforts in that direction, including Staples' trial of videoconferencing kiosks that connect store customers with remote operators, andBorders' initiative that brings online features such as audio and video downloads and customer reviews into stores.


The clicks-and-bricks strategy apparently hasn't done much to help Borders, which is in danger of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange following a steep drop in sales last month.


Yet a similar strategy is boosting sales at the first CompUSA store to try it, according to Los Angeles Times columnist Jon Healey. At the behest of Gilbert Fiorentino, chief of technology products group at Systemax, parent company of TigerDirect.com, which bought CompUSA last year, the store began putting product information from TigerDirect's Web site on its TV and PC monitors.


Customers can bring up more detailed information by clicking keyboards in front of items. They can access the same information for products not featured in displays by scanning boxes at a machine placed at the end of aisles. Like Staples, the stores connect customers with networking and software experts in call centers who can answer questions and offer advice.


Will this idea improve sales at other CompUSA stores? It's too early to say, and the sinking economy certainly isn't going to help. But at least TigerDirect/CompUSA is trying to inject something new into a shopping experience that has remained static for too long. Customers accustomed to shopping online want some of the same benefits when they venture into stores. Says Fiorentino:

The retail experience is a bad experience. It hasn't changed in 10 years. It occurred to me that the entire experience had to change.