Until a few months ago, the last time I visited a Wal-Mart store was more than four years ago. There are no Wal-Marts in Africa (yet), nor are there any in central Seattle where I live now.
Last Christmas, however, I received a gift that I didn’t really have a use for. Attached to the gift was the original store receipt from Wal-Mart, so I decided to break my four-year unofficial boycott of America’s low-price leader.
I should say first that I haven’t really harbored any long-standing resentment against Wal-Mart. I think they could certainly do a lot better in the employee relations department, but I don’t think Wal-Mart is the Evil Consumer Goods Villain or anything.
My objections to visiting a Wal-Mart store are mostly based on the fact that Wal-Mart just isn’t my style. I’m pro-small business, and it’s clear that Wal-Mart has done more than its share of putting a lot of small retailers out of business. I also can’t stand the crowds that usually shop there.
But I also respect innovation and efficiency, and Wal-Mart surely didn’t become the big-box behemoth it is now without some degree of both. In this spirit of checking out this culture of productivity, I decided to give it a fair chance and end the four-year boycott. I also needed to return my gift.
My visit to Wal-Mart store #2690 in America’s heartland was the most stressful and mind-boggling retail experience I’ve had since, well, maybe four years ago when I was last at a Wal-Mart.
Pretty much everything that could go wrong did. Even though I had the original receipt and the item was unopened, I was hassled to no end about the return. At first I was told that Wal-Mart did not accept returns for any reason. (I’m not making this up.) Then I was told that the $37 item could only be refunded to the original credit card. Since it was a gift for me and I don’t buy my own gifts, that didn’t work. On and on it went.
The Customer Service Manager who had been called over finally agreed to let me make an exchange. I asked for a gift card because I was running late by this point, and with the gift card I could also shop online at WalMart.com—a much more appealing prospect than wandering through the aisles dodging soccer moms and runaway children. Of course, asking for the gift card proved futile: the card system had been down all day.
(I could dwell on how odd it is that Wal-Mart successfully sells hundreds of millions of dollars in gift cards before Christmas, but after Christmas when people actually want to use them, the system no longer works. But that would be a digression.)
Thus I was sent to forage throughout the store for my choice of replacement items that would total up to $37.15. I headed back to Electronics and Cameras, where I quickly located two things that would work for me: a $17 memory card and a $20 Nintendo Wii points card. Both of these items were kept behind separate locked cases, so I walked over to find an employee.
I found two of them, chatting to each other about what they each got for Christmas. After it became apparent that they weren’t planning to end their personal conversation to help me, I politely spoke up and asked for help. One of them looked over with visable annoyance. “Just a minute,” he said, leaving me standing there all alone. Always low prices, often low service, I thought.
The unfriendly Wal-Mart guy finally walked over and got me the memory card, but not the Wii card. “For that,” he said, “You’ll have to go to electronics. I don’t work in that department.”
I looked back at the desk where he had just come from. It was directly next to a big Electronics sign, but no matter. By this time I was just ready to move on. Fine. Whatever.
My second Wal-Mart guy wasn’t exactly unfriendly, just bored. He ambled slowly over to the case and fished out the card after straightening up a bunch of other items while I looked on maddeningly. I held out my hand for the card, but he shook his head.
“Nope,” he said. “You have to pay for that here.” I explained that I had a return and needed to bring it to the Customer Service desk at the front. After considering this for a while, Bill from Electronics finally decided to walk me up to the front of the stores which my Wii points card in hand.
My new friend Bill took what seemed to be the longest possible path back up to the service desk. By this time I had summoned all my positive thinking skills in an attempt to see the good side of this experience instead of the stressful side.
I made a quick thankfulness list in my head:
- I am thankful that people care for me enough to give me gifts
- I am thankful that I will soon have a new memory card for my camera and a Wii points card for my video game system
- I am thankful that I don’t have to work at a place like this. God knows that if I did, I certainly wouldn’t feel very motivated to help customers either.
- I am thankful that I could go four whole years without ever entering a Wal-Mart. I think I’d like to try that again, starting right now.
The return process took more than 40 minutes—the better part of an hour to return a $37 item. Maybe stuff like this only happens to me, but I doubt it. I suspect that this is par for the course at Wal-Mart, because their focus is on pricing strategies rather than service-oriented strategies. I’m glad it works for them, but that’s certainly not the way most small businesses succeed.
I should make the disclaimer that there are probably lots of great Wal-Mart “associates” out there in the big-box world who really do strive to serve customers well. The fact that they can do that in spite of being paid $7 an hour and being denied overtime and health benefits is a testimony to their character, not the values of Wal-Mart. You guys, if you ever happen to read this, are not the problem.
As long as I have anything to do with it, I won’t be back at Wal-Mart for as long as possible. Instead, I’ll stick to Target, or even better, Internet shopping. I have a lot more to be thankful for when I can just get online.