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'TWAS THE BIG HASSLE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

I've been talking a lot lately about love. Not spine-tingling lust; not best-bud agape; and not our sad but genuine shots at "unconditional." I'm talking about real love. Retail Love. This has been my thesis, my conviction, my raison d'etre for the last year. Stores are no longer -- can no longer be -- just Places for Stuff. They have to be repositories of love. It's too big and too small a world now for you to just offer nice things at good prices. We're branded, baby. "We" are the world. The buyer knows. The retailer beware! You've got to, yes, have the goods, but also give your customers an experience where they feel they've been heard and cared for, seen -- in effect, loved.

But never mind love; let's talk about Sears.

I wanted to buy my parents a big-screen TV for Christmas. This is about two weeks before Christmas. Amazon.com doesn't ship big-screen TVs. (My parents live in Hawaii.) Fair enough. Big opportunity for damages there. But Sears has the best price, I find out (having, like a lot of shoppers, done research over the Internet). And they've got a store right there in Hawaii! The problem is they will not take my perfectly nice other credit cards on the Internet, nor over the phone. They have to have a Sears credit card, but, no, you can't get a Sears credit card over the Internet. You have to apply in person. I don't want to.

I really, really love my parents, though, so I grab a friend and drive in a rainstorm to the nearest Sears. It's 3 p.m. On the way up to Electronics, I stop to buy a vacuum cleaner -- which I need, but which also opens a Sears credit line for me.

I find the electronics department, I find the TV I want. It costs $3,500 and I know my parents will resist because they will sense how much it costs, and their North Dakotan genes will flinch.

My friend runs into a salesman who, yawning, asks if she's finding everything she needs. "I happen to be finding everything I need in life right here in this aisle, thank you, but my friend [she points to me over near the Rabbit Ears] is buying a big TV and if you work on commission." The words are still hanging in the air as he takes the end wraps like Edwin Moses and reaches me, panting. Now I would have gladly given him the commission, but two things happened. First, I had a specific question about the pedestal this TV is on, and he didn't know the answer. In fact, he stood in front of me as if I had just asked him quite a hard math question. Then he shrugged and shuffled off without a word.

The second reason lies a little deeper, though. Word spread, apparently, that there's a potential big TV sale near antennae, and before I know it, I've got three -- count 'em, three -- salesmen buzzing around me. (It's now 3:20. My friend, assuming -- as I know what I want, where to send it and have the money to buy it -- that this transaction will take a fairly short time, just sort of roams around. She later calculates it took so long she could have roamed to actual Rome had she been moving in a straight line.)

Because they have a Sears in Hawaii, even if I do the paperwork and footwork and credit checks and handshakes in Seattle, the Hawaii store gets the commission. That's the gist, anyway. That's also why it went from three salesmen buzzing around me like spring bees to three salesmen buzzing around me like put-upon hornets. No matter how hard they try, no matter how friendly they are or are not, they won't see a dime of this commission. This angers them. I mean, clearly.

Now it's not my fault that it takes the skills of Madeleine Albright to finish this transaction. I just want the TV. I'm not leaving without the TV. And it's also not my fault that they have a commission schedule that favors Hawaii. But the next time I apologize for spending $3,500, I better be bailing out an accomplice from jail.

I couldn't buy the TV because I didn't have enough Sears credit. I had enough credit but not with Sears. My card doesn't have that much credit. Not unless I buy, like, a big-screen TV, although I can't, but if I could, then I could get the credit. But not before.

Let us, let us, please, cut to the chase. By 5:58 p.m., I had bought, returned and bought again (my scheme) a big-screen TV, a sound system and a three-year warranty. I had more credit with Sears than Singapore. I knew every salesperson's name, their positions and half their dreams. (All of which were to get the hell out of there.) We all oddly ended up liking each other, although it's got to be some niche of the Stockholm Syndrome as they openly resented me/us for keeping them past closing time, not to mention making them work when all they were getting in return were paychecks.

As my friend and I threaded our way through a darkened Sears (running into clothes racks and groping our way down a stopped escalator), she asked, "Is it me, or did you just drop a load of cash on this store and not get thanked?"

"No, it's not you. I did. They didn't." We took a few more cautious steps in silence toward the dim light left on at the exit.

"Let's go drink," she said.

"Good idea," I replied.

"Let's go drink a lot."

Boys and girls, I don't have to point out, do I, that good retail does not lead to drinking? Treat your employees right. Treat us right. Spread the word: Spread the love. (And P.S.: Remember your pleases and thank yous.)

J'amy Owens is president of The Retail Group Inc., a full-service brand strategy, design and consulting firm based in Seattle. Contact The Retail Group through its Web site, www.theretailgroup.com, or call (206) 441-8330.
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Author:Owens, J'Amy
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Feb 12, 2001
Words:1032
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