Why does my AT&T store smell like a locker room?

Why does my AT&T store smell like a locker room?

Summary: If retailers don't change their ways, retail will be a wasteland. Retailers 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.

TOPICS: Smartphones, AT&T

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."

Topics: Smartphones, AT&T


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Rotten customer service will do that

    Unfortunately, the "you need us more than we need you" attitude has been around AT&T for longer than either of us have been alive; and it also seems that when SBC bought out the old AT&T, it kept all of the old company's vices and very few of its virtues.

    A nastygram to corporate headquarters is probably in order. This is an extreme case, so it might do some good, but then again, given the SBC/AT&T culture, it might not.
    John L. Ries
    • SBC

      You do realize that SBC is part of the OLD Bell, before the breakup.
      • Yes

        Apparently the phone company execs in what became Southern Bell were worst than most. PacBell was actually not too bad (it even produced Scott Adams), but quality of service noticeably degraded after SBC bought it out (I lived in San Diego back then).
        John L. Ries
        • Excuse me

          Southwestern Bell, is what I meant.
          John L. Ries
          • I'm in Southern Bell (Now AT&T) Territory

            I have been with AT&T Wireless since before they the became Cingular. In the mid 90's AT&T had very good coverage compared to their rivals.

            When they became Cingular something changed. Not for the good. Mobile calls started getting dropped. Cingular's fix for dropped calls was to mount an advertising blitz saying they have the fewest dropped calls. At first I thought, whoa, if they have the best record for the fewest dropped calls, I sure as hell don't want to switch to anyone else.

            That line of thinking did not last long at all. When Cingular became AT&T it was not the same AT&T that had become Cingular. Only the name was the same.

            I have respect for the old RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies). Atlantic, Ameritech, Southwestern, Bell South, and etc. Back in those days they were regulated for quality in both service and customer service by Bell Lab's Bellcore division.

            I had a love / hate relationship with Bellcore. I loved how vigilant they were on quality (no dropped calls), but I hated it when their inspectors rejected one lot of my products. Except they were correct the person that assembled the units in that lot did bend the leads on the resistors too close to the body.

            I had been hired by Siemens Communications in Boca Raton to design and manufacture a Remote Reset for the Central Office equipment the made for the ROBCs. When there was no technician on site to push the reset button, the Siemens tech support guys could connect to my device via modem and essentially, remotely, press the rest button. If my unit were to fail it could take down a small city's telephone service for the 20 minutes it took to re-boot.

            I had to use a Bellcore approved wave solder machine to solder the components to the PC Board. so I had to bring them to Siemens lake Mary FL facility to be soldered. Lake Mary was a relatively small manufacturing facility they inherited from Stromberg Carlson. But yet there was two full time Bellcore inspectors with their white coats and hard hats, continuously monitoring manufacturing quality.

            The current AT&T, Verizon, and Quest no longer are at the mercy of Bellcore.

            Not too long after AT&T acquired Bell South I would often remark to other how AT&T was not content with just dropping my mobile calls, now they have to drop my land line calls as well. When they brought U-Verse in to my neighborhood, the old Bell South quality went south.

            What I learned from the Cingular dropped call advertising campaign is that when AT&T has serious issues, rather than fix the problem they advertise they they are the best when it comes to what ever they suck at. Case in point their campaign saying they had better network coverage than Verizon. Not true.

            The reason the AT&T store reaks is because AT&T Stinks.
          • Maybe it's time to set up your own law practice

            I'm not surprised that things are as you described, but it's stressful to work for a company that you can't recommend that people patronize.
            John L. Ries
          • Scratch that

            Misread the title. Sorry. I want that edit button back.
            John L. Ries
    • Trouble is, they take this attitude with their staff too..

      Not just them, it's a retail standard. The retail industry works on the assumption that 90% of it's customer facing staff can be replaced in around 10 minutes.

      So as we lambast the sales guy that was going home- the truth is he simply didn't care. Why didn't he care? Because he doesn't actually care if the company survives. It's all well and good to say that he needs the company for a job, but due to the treatment of retail staff, they rarely consider it a career -company goes bust? At least that manager gets fired too.

      It's the product of a targets culture in the industry; the simple ignorance to the fact that people come in to buy something not to be sold something. As this article says, a reason to shop online is the staff. In my experience it's their need to meet targets to get paid.

      Below they discuss apple - now, whether you like the brand or not, when it comes to customer service, they've got it down. When I was shopping for my first mb, I was actually undersold because they didn't think I'd need the more expensive one. Now, I knew what I was talking about, so bought what I went in for, but it stuck with me as the first time a sales guy tried to get less from me. I've sense been in several of their stores all over the world and it's always the same. They actually spend time with you -I was with one guy 35 minutes to buy headphones. Just like the laptop guy, he asked all the questions about how I'd use them, and was surprisingly honest. They were for my nephew and he showed me some at the same price point that were (even to my ears) much better, before informing me that as a teenager he probably just wanted the fashionable ones that none of the sales team rated. - previously buying headphones had been; pick up headphones, take to till.

      Contrast that to PC world where it's almost impossible to get out of there - 10 minutes to choose a PC, then 20 minutes to get through the warranties, protection, antivirus, cases, printers sales pitch. Or carphone warehouse where they do their damnest to stop you leaving with what you came in for. Now I know for a fact that pcworld pay is based on commission because as a teenager I worked there.

      The phone shops are far worse. Not only do they live on sales commission, but it even comes down to which company is paying them the most to sell their phones. I have a colleague that worked at one of them who describes having a room full of white boards showing not only sales figures but which phones you are supposed to be selling. By his own admission one week he'd be telling every custome that X Samsung phone for example was the best for them, the next it'd be X Blackberry phone. He even told me that they're not interested in iPhones and blackberries because they didn't get enough commission on them.

      If only the apple store sold other brands...

      It's simple psychology -treat customers well and they come back, leave them feeling ripped off and undervalued they won't. I'd never buy a Desktop from apple - far too expensive relative to what you get. But I have long paid the premium on their laptops because of the Genius Bar (I once tried PC world'd version - 2 weeks to change a screen is bordering on the ludicrous). It's a real thing I struggle with now with mobiles; my work phone has to be apple, but I left apple at the 4s. Their phones no longer appeal to me, but having had to deal with a smashed motorola screen, and a water soaked Samsung one, the technical backup is a real lure. I honestly think that even if my work phone didn't have to be apple it would be, just so I could get it sorted if it goes wrong.

      Here's the thing; right now I'm really interested in the new Nokias we've been reading about. Now there's no Microsoft store, apple don't seem to sell them, so in terms of the high street, there's not really anywhere to go. If I go to the networks, I have to compare tariffs buy walking from one to the other, if I go to carphone warehouse, they'll hide half the tariffs from me. And I have no idea how I'd handle technical support. What will I do? Buy an iPhone 5? Some would, but I think I'll pass... I'll buy it online and take out insurance on it.
      • I'll say it again

        The investor-centric business model is a lie because investors rarely, if ever, get treated better than customers do; and you can't get good customer service (or products worth buying) out of throw-away employees.

        The customers are the people that bring in the money to pay both investors and employees. Their wants and needs have to come first.
        John L. Ries
    • vices

      By that do you mean all their vice presidents...that is many time most of the problem
  • At first, I wondered why you had to make a point

    about liking to shop not being a gender thing. Then I read the line about your wife's comment on chauvinism and it made sense.

    So, what your wife is basically saying is that she is letting other people's opinions and attitudes control her life. That's an awful lot of power she is giving them over the way she lives.
    • OMG

      Power of the consumer my friend. His wife is just as enpowered to take her business elsewhere.

      Why should she reward someone for poor customer relations?
    • Not about opinions and attitudes

      It is about treatment. If she is not treated with respect, she declines to support the business in question. She is retaining her power by the choices she makes. Only victims go back for repeated abuses.
      • Good one.

        You sound like those guys who say "She had it coming. Look how she was dressed.".
        • Probably best leave this one there...

          Can we avoid the comment section diverting off into an area where we are comparing poor customer service experiences with actual rape please?

          I think we're all better than where this is going..
        • So Mr. DT Long?

          Are you saying that only a woman that goes back for more is a victim? So if a woman is a victim of chauvinistic behavior, she is a victim only if she goes back for more?

          I know what you meant. But because you are such a dick, I call you out on your lack of ability at articulate correctly.

          My apologies to others that wasted their time reading my post. I do not like being this guy, but DT Long has made inaccurate accusations toward me on other posts, and he took me over my limit of good nature. Sorry.
      • D.T. Long In Case You Missed It

        See my posts about you on the "Google I/O by the numbers: 900 million Android activations" blog.
    • You're overlooking something

      "she is letting other people's opinions and attitudes control her life. That's an awful lot of power she is giving them over the way she lives."

      No, it's power the salespeople bestowed on themselves. If the sales person looks at her as "clueless little lady", who says they won't try to take advantage of that and oversell or undersell her, giving her what they think a "clueless little lady" will like?

      With that in mind, would YOU trust the employee helping you out to be offering up accurate info?
      William Farrel
  • The big trend I hate...

    Is the idea that everyone needs to follow the apple store model. You go into any mobile device store and have to be put on a waiting list to speak to an idiot who usually knows less about the product than you do. I'm not there to have an organ transplant or a sit down with the president. I'm there to buy a frigging phone.

    I went into AT&T recently and was given a 30 minute wait to speak with a sales person. They told me that I should have called ahead and scheduled an appointment. Really? I need to call ahead to avoid a 30 minute wait so that I can be lied to by some high school dropout about how I really need a facebook phone because that will definitely serve all my business needs?

    I walk over to best buy and it's not better. I don't need an appointment, but I pay almost double the online price for that convenience... These guys deserve to go out of business.
    • I actually like the Apple Store model

      You setup an appointment, get there and know you will speak to someone. And in the case of Apple (My experiece), the people working there can actually solve your issues. They have for me and it's what keeps me coming back.

      Contrast that to Best Buy where you walk in, wait in line for some "Geek Squad" looser to upsell you all these unnecessary services before they will try to look at your problem. No thanks.