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Are You Time Gouging Your Customers?

Time gouging, simply put, is all about wasting your customers’ time—and I’ve seen more of it this year than in my entire life. The excuse is always the same, but it’s bad, bad, bad.

In retail, we have talked endlessly about the Customer Experience (CX, as they say), and the importance of providing a good one, since almost anything can be bought anywhere in typical times. Technology can certainly help support that experience, and vendors provide excellent support for a great Customer Experience both customer-facing and employee-facing, to create an efficient but effective experience.  And every day we hear retailers talk a lot about the importance of their employees to create that great Customer Experience.

Well, everyone is still talking, the technology is still there, but beyond that, this is probably the worst era of customer service I have ever seen in my very long retail life. It’s stunning, especially if a customer has a simple question she needs answered.

Guys, guess what…it’s time to stop blaming COVID for the Great Resignation and lousy customer service. Two years is quite long enough to adjust, and as far as I can tell, beyond the unfortunate independent retailer and restaurateur, profits are there.  So what’s wrong?

We all know what price gauging is, and most of us have been either been perpetrators and/or victims of items suddenly having their prices doubled and tripled in times of scarcity.

In fact, in Florida there’s a law against price gouging.  It was once a common occurrence for retailers to jack up the price of hurricane supplies like plywood when a hurricane was projected to come. Passing a law against it, and a hot line for shoppers to report it were both very good things.

Product shortages remain a fact of life, and while I can’t understand why, for example, cream cheese disappears for weeks on end, there’s no doubt our supply chain is broken.

That’s the product side of the equation. Ultimately, this makes for a crummy customer experience and drives shoppers into the arms of Amazon, which is a pity, unless you’re hot to go to Mars or take a ride to the edge of space.


But let’s look at the customer-facing side as well

Back when I first became an analyst, there was a lot of talk about “making retail more like the airlines” by using technology to support more self-service options.

Back then, I used to say that absence of pain does not equate to a positive experience. We’re still talking about it, with cashierless checkout being “frictionless.”  I’m not even going to go there now. Let’s talk for a minute about the current state of our “ideal,” the airline industry.

A new technology has come to town. Rather than have a caller wait on hold for 20 minutes or so (like they have tried to do at Walgreens, for example), airlines and other hospitality providers have introduced call-back technology.

You know the drill. “…Rather than wait on hold, we can call you back when our representatives are free.  Expect a call back in X minutes.” This was quite convenient for a while, and it’s a good technology. It works.  I’ll even give companies a pass for putting me on hold for a couple of minutes when they call back. So, you’re no doubt saying to yourself “Well, that’s a time saver.  No time-gouging there.”  Right? Wrong.

I recently took my first vacation in over 2 years. After much debate, my wife Kim and I decided to go to the Bahamas, mostly because it’s close, quiet, warm, and we’d never been there. The logical (and only) airline to take to Eleuthera from Miami is American, we both had unused tickets from plague times and so, we tried to book our flights.

Somewhere along the line, we had to talk to a human, mostly at first, because we needed to swap our old tickets.  Imagine our surprise when we were told, “rather than wait on hold, we can give you a call back.”  Well, sure.  Then the punch line: “Expect this call after more than FOUR HOURS.”  What????

We got our tickets, but had to make a change, and here’s where the fun really began. Kim called at 4PM and received the four-hour warning. Guess when she got her call-back? One-thirty AM. Who does that? How is that even remotely okay? Try it! Call 800-433-7300 and ask for a Customer Service Rep. (note: I discussed this with partner Steve Rowen and he said Delta is offering 8 hour call back windows.  I really am speechless).

In an exquisite irony, American Airlines is now running ads on Facebook looking for new Customer Service Reps.  “Work from home and make $12.50 an hour.”  Oh boy. In the middle of the Great Resignation, AA is offering $12.50 per hour for someone to get browbeaten by frustrated people who’ve been waiting for over 4 hours to talk to a human?


I feel like I’m being time-gouged every day, every time I want to do much of anything

Xfinity? You can’t get to a human until you reset your modem, even if you just reset it on the last call.  Do they have good technology? Sure.  But they really do need a simpler way to get to a human who actually understands what you’re saying.

Instacart? A great combination of technology and people. But the stores are ALWAYS out of the things I want, so I spend my time on my iPad chatting with my shopper who is busily finding substitutes for the substitutes.

This really must stop. We have technology. We have people. They’ve just changed their expectations. Deal with it. COVID is no longer a valid excuse. Really.

I’ve joined the advisory boards of a couple of early-stage software companies: one to help out the small to mid-sized retailer (this is my passion, and I’m happy to be able to do that), and the other to help create the best shopping experience possible. The technology is good and will likely get a lot better.

But here’s the thing: if you don’t make sure that you’re saving the consumer time, you’re wasting your money and you’ll be disappointed with your sales results. We’ve already had the Great Resignation.  Next up?  The great exodus from poor customer service retailers.  Count on it.


Technology is my passion. But service is table stakes.

Please don’t kid yourselves, and please, please, please change the voicemail message that says, “Wait times are longer due to COVID.”  Please? It’s embarrassing.

We are fond of talking about “Retail Time.” The context used to connote how quickly retailers change.  We knew it was becoming too slow for consumers, but this is silly. Two years is long enough to adjust if you want to.  Let’s get on with the business of serving our customers.

Ask yourself…am I time-gouging my customers? And how can I stop?