See update at the end of this article.
There is a stank in my local AT&T store. The place quite literally smells like damp, dirty socks.
For years now, my colleague Jason Perlow and I have gone back and forth over the question of whether retail is dead or dying. He contends it is, and I contend it's a business model issue, that some stores are thriving while others are dying.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have an admission to make. I go into actual retail stores very rarely. Very, very rarely. I never liked shopping, I have an Amazon Prime account that meets nearly all my needs, and my work schedule keeps me pretty busy.
Besides, my wife actually enjoys shopping, so she does almost all the local errands. This isn't a gender thing. My dad loves to shop. I just never got that gene from him.
All that brings me back to the AT&T store. I needed a phone case from the store, and it was more convenient to pick it up than wait for Amazon to deliver it to me on Monday.
There was a problem. My wife wouldn't add it to her errands. She refuses to go in there. She says the attitudes of guys who work there are intolerably chauvinistic, in that "you don't know what you're doing, little lady" kind of way.
We both have iPhones on AT&T, so she's had a bunch of occasions to go in there. I bought my phone online, but she got hers in the store. She's also been back in there to look at phone cases and to get unnecessary bandwidth charges removed from her bill (she wasn't the only one).
So, fine, I'll run my own errand. It's only fair. I had tried to call first, but given that they sell phones, I found it a little disturbing that they don't ever answer their own phone when it rings. I called. No answer.
I drove the seven minutes to my local West Melbourne AT&T store. As I got out of the car, two women were getting into their car in the next parking space over. One woman turned to the other and said, "I hate that guy," pointing to the manager exiting the store. She continued, "He's always such a condescending jerk when I come in here."
This did not bode well. Not only was my wife distinctly unthrilled with this store, so was at least one other woman. Ah, well. My needs were simple. I went on in.
The very first thing I noticed was the stank. It smelled like a gym, on a particularly hot day. To be fair, I live in Florida, but it was only in the mid-70s yesterday. It just wasn't hot enough to justify the smell of a locker room.
The store consists of two main counters on the left and right side of the store. There were two salesmen behind the left counter (nearer the entrance) and three more behind the right counter. Each was with a customer. In the middle of the store were free-standing display areas, mostly uninteresting.
Some phones were on the display kiosks and were actually powered up and working, unlike the computers in our local office store (see Have PC retailers lost the will to live?).
That retail experience took me 30 minutes. By contrast, I could have ordered what I needed from Amazon in 30 seconds.
There was a definite Glengarry Glen Ross feel to the store. The man closest to where I planted myself was explaining a contract. The woman to my left was spending a few hundred bucks to buy a MicroCell so that the cell phone she was already paying for would actually work at home.
There were no female workers in the store. While I didn't see any outrageously inappropriate behavior, the sales guy who finished up first looked at me, and the only thing he said was "I'm going home." The store is listed closing at 8pm, and I was in there at 7:30, so he was clearly in a bit of a hurry to get out of there.
He didn't bother to say "Hi". He tried to avoid eye contact. He didn't offer to introduce me to another sales guy. He just wanted out and didn't care about his store's reputation, the possible purchase I might have made (at that point, he didn't know if I needed a phone case or an S4), or the impression he'd make on someone who might be a repeat customer.
He just wanted out.
In any case, it only took me about 15 minutes to get my needs met. I'm hard to miss, so the next free sales guy came over to me as soon as he was done with his customer. He was polite and got me what I needed. I had no complaints.
Even so, as I walked out, I thought once again about Jason's arguments about retail. It took me seven minutes to drive there and seven minutes home. Call that fifteen minutes. It took fifteen minutes of standing around. I didn't like how I was treated. There were other shoppers who clearly didn't like how they'd been treated.
And I had to get there before 8pm. And then there was the stank.
That retail experience took me 30 minutes. By contrast, I could have ordered what I needed from Amazon in 30 seconds. Had I been willing to wait the weekend for delivery, I would have saved half an hour.
Now, to be clear, half an hour isn't that much of a time investment. But when the choice for us all is sitting at our desks or on our couches and hitting One-Click or driving 30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, or more and having to endure waits, standing around, inattentiveness, attitude, or the stank, more and more of us will choose the online experience.
My only disagreement with Jason is that I don't believe retail is destined to die just because of "the online". If retail is dying, it's because the retailers themselves are letting it happen.
This store is simply poorly managed. There was no reason a salesperson should be allowed to let a customer feel ignored. And, of course, there was no excuse for the stank.
But Jason is right. If retailers don't change their ways, retail will be a wasteland. And retailers will have nobody to blame but themselves.
It's not consumer behavior, and it's not Amazon's fault. It's bad management. And, of course, it's the smell of failure.
Update: I've been contacted by a number of officials at AT&T who have expressed concern about this report and have told me they are looking into it.
Gretchen Schultz, an AT&T spokesperson, provided a response for publication: "Our goal is to delight our customers when they enter an AT&T retail store. Most of the time we get it right. Sometimes, regrettably, we fail to meet expectations and when we do, we value the feedback our customers give us and strive to improve."