Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bargain hunting...in all the wrong places

I come from a family of bargain shoppers. Years ago my dad would drive my mother nuts by going across town for a cheaper tube of toothpaste, passing a half a dozen drug stores en route. His siblings were even worse. After retirement, they'd hit the mall on an almost daily basis, first having lunch, then keeping an eagle-eyed watch on the sales racks until something they wanted finally hit a price they found acceptable.

I have to tell you, this particular gene apparently skipped right over me. Not that I don't love a good sale, but if I need toothpaste, I'm going to buy the brand I like in the store I'm already in. If I find the perfect blouse and it's not yet on sale, it's still mine!

A couple of days ago, while in Ft. Myers to give a speech before a wonderful group, the Friends of the South County Regional Library, I was chatting with one of their members about bargains. David Hauenstein, who writes their newsletter, and I were talking about when a bargain's not really a bargain at all.

For instance, I had customers at my bookstore who would mention to me a particular book they were reading. I always knew when they hadn't bought it from me. They'd driven 45 miles to the big discount store to get it for 40% off the cover price. Not that they wanted to admit that. What they never seemed to calculate was that in my store bestsellers were 20% off, frequent readers got an additional 10% off and accumulated points toward actual dollars off future purchases. So for the 10% or so they saved by buying the book elsewhere, they had to pay for gas for that 90-mile round trip. By my calculations, even at the price of gas back then, they weren't saving much, if anything.

After my return from Ft. Myers I was talking to another friend about outlet malls. She'd just gone on a wild shopping spree and come home with bags of bargains...blouses for a couple of bucks and who knows what else. She'd managed to find the super sales within the discounts. Now, once you find a blouse for $2, chances are you're really saving some money, but I've often been told that unless you're a real shopper and know the prices of certain labels, you may not be saving as much as you think you are.

These days, folks aren't buying much unless it's on sale. Unfortunately, I'm not entirely convinced that all bargains are created equal. I recall a major department store listing an item in one of its ads at 40% off before the holidays a few years back. That SALE price was higher than the regular price I had on the exact same item in my store.

I guess what it all boils down to is how much you like to shop, how savvy you are about it and whether the thrill of the hunt balances out the time expended.

Given the state of our current economy, what does it take these days to get you to buy something? A huge discount? Necessity only? A special occasion? I'd love to know.

Sherryl Woods

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Friday, January 16, 2009

The high cost of modern gadgets

I think I've actually come up with an insight into why consumers have managed to get themselves into such financial trouble. Forget just taking out unrealistic mortgages, paying the high cost of college tuition or buying an expensive car. We've apparently become obsessed with gadgets. These are the little items, often advertised on TV, and intended to make our lives ridiculously easy.

The first time this notion occured to me, I was watching a commercial for some kind of pancake maker that would assure that all your pancakes were perfectly round. I believe it also flipped over for perfectly even browning. Now why anyone needs to spend money to accomplish this is beyond me. When I spoon batter onto a flat griddle pan, guess what? The pancakes are round. And when I flip them with a spatula, the other side gets brown, too. Amazing, huh?

Ditto special grills for making grilled cheese sandwiches. Paninis, of course, are trendy. Whole restaurants (even in my books) are devoted to them, but let's remember, they can be made just as efficiently on a griddle pan. Two pieces of buttered bread, cheese, ham or whatever in the middle and voila, something that tastes pretty similar to any panini I've ever had. Keep in mind, our ancestors were making grilled cheese sandwiches long before anyone invented a panini press. And if they wanted them to look a bit fancier, they put them in the waffle iron.

Then, just the other day, came the special egg cracker, which will crack your raw egg without any mess, help you to crack and peel your hard-boiled eggs AND separate eggs for cooking. Assuming it works as shown, I suppose it can cut down on a certain amount of mess. However, in tight economic times, what's wrong with cracking those eggs the old-fashioned way?

That, of course, is the real argument against all these modern conveniences: the cost, especially when there are simpler, cheaper ways to accomplish the same thing. I guarantee you, though, that some of these things are probably selling like, well, hot cakes. Plus the cost of shipping and handling, of course.

There are tons of other gadgets out there and people are obviously buying them or they wouldn't be airing expensive commercials to sell them.

Keep in mind, as you read this, that I still have dial-up internet service and have yet to make significant inroads into discovering the many talents of my cellphone. Guess I'm just an old-fashioned girl...or a cheapskate. Of course, there is this one handy little tool for dealing with grout that I do have my eye on!

Sherryl Woods

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Customer service? What's that?

Remember way back when the philosophy of any business -- at least any that wanted to stay in business -- was that the customer is always right? Boy oh boy, are those days gone! And sadly, these are exactly the times that call for improved customer service, when every single customer really counts and can potentially make the difference between keeping the doors open and bankruptcy. Wouldn't you think someone would have mentioned that to store managers? Apparently not.

Yesterday I made a trek to a store, which shall remain nameless mainly because this could have happened in any store, and all stores should take note. I had a list, which is rare enough for me. After accumulating all but two things on my list, I headed for check out. There were maybe four lines open, so I got behind a young couple in one of them and waited to begin putting my items on the conveyor.

As the clerk finished up with the couple, I started unloading my cart. The clerk turned off her register and announced she was leaving. For about ten seconds I just stared at her, then announced that I was leaving, too, and walked out leaving probably $50-75 worth of merchandise sitting there...some on the conveyor belt, some in the cart.

Now that's not a huge sale. It may not hurt their bottom line. But it also will cost employee time to restock all those items. And, the part the manager may never know about is that I am now planning to sell my stock in that particular company, because I have had one too many similar experiences in that exact same store. Ironically just the day before I had told my broker not to sell, despite their recommendation. Today, I've changed my mind. That's why customer service to each and every person who walks through the door is critical. The clerk and manager can't possibly know the ripple effect that one careless action may have.

It's not that I'll sell my stock and the next person might not own stock. That next customer may have friends who shop there and will spread the word about how they were treated. Pretty soon not just one, but dozens of people stop coming. And management at the national level will start wondering why same store sales are declining in that location. In these tough economic times, there's not a store of any kind that can afford to lose even one customer, especially one who spends as much as I do there over the course of a year.

So, take heed. As a customer, don't just grin and bear it when service is rude or non-existent. Take your business elsewhere. There are plenty of other places to buy almost everything, places where the managers and clerks know that without you their jobs are on the line, places where you will be treated with courtesy and respect.

Managers, you need to take heed as well. Corporate culture starts with you. If you insist on good customer service, that message will filter down and be carried out. Jobs these days are too scarce and good people who need them too plentiful to tolerate anything less than outstanding treatment of every customer who walks in the door.

My very favorite customer service story happened years ago to a friend of mine who was shopping for shoes at Nordstrom. I'd been waiting for her in the mall and decided to wander inside, where I found her walking around in the shoe department while frantic employees hunted for her shoe. She'd taken it off to try on a sample shoe and some zealous employee had dutifully picked it up and taken it . . . somewhere. It couldn't be found. The manager arrived in the midst of the hunt, was told the situation, and said without hesitation, "Give her a pair of shoes." Now that is good customer service. Nordstrom is known for it. Every other store should be as well. As a postscript to that story, my friend's shoe was finally found later that night and returned the next day. She got to keep the new shoes!

Sherryl Woods

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy, uncluttered new year!

My name is Sherryl and I'm addicted to clutter! There, I've admitted it, in public, for anyone out there to see. I don't want to have piles of stuff sitting on most available surfaces in my house, but on the days when I really take a good long look around me, what I see is clutter.

Keep in mind, I come by this addiction naturally. My dad kept just about everything, in piles, on every available surface. It's taken me most of the ten years since his death to work my way through even some of those piles. I used to refer to his room as "the great black hole." I swear, things went in there never to be seen again. Sadly, though I joked about that with him, I've discovered some of his traits are in my DNA. I occasionally walk into my room in Virginia, look around and moan, "Oh, sweet heaven, I am exactly like my father."


So today, on January 1, 2009, I am decluttering. Really. Not that many hours into the new year, I have worked my way through one pile of papers. I've paid bills, written notes, tossed papers I will never need. I've shredded stuff, put away Christmas decorations, cleaned out the refrigerator -- that's a whole other issue -- and taken a drawer from a bathroom cabinet to my car to be tossed into a dumpster. That makes two drawers now in the trunk of a car. I hope I remember, so it doesn't become yet another refuge for my clutter. I have two more drawers to toss, but first I have to get rid of the accumulated cosmetics, most of which are old enough to pose a danger to anyone daring to use them. I currently have these junk drawers in the middle of the floor, because over the summer I had both of my bathrooms renovated and this is where the contractor left the old stuff. It is also where I left it when I arrived in Florida and immediately went into a deadline frenzy...and then straight into another one.

Today, however, I have a break and a renewed determination to start the new year by tossing things. Hauling bags to the trash room fills me with a sense of accomplishment. Hopefully this enthusiasm will last long enough to make a real dent in the clutter, but I have my doubts. After all, come Monday, I am going back on deadline to finish the next book and turn it in. I'll be listening to the whispers of characters, not the shouts of my conscience. And, as we all know too well, clutter multiplies when we're not looking. Surfaces disappear. Papers vanish into piles. And the process starts all over again.

Happy new year! Whatever your resolutions, whatever your best intentions, I hope they last. But if they don't, console yourself that you're just like the rest of us.

Sherryl Woods

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