The recession has made retailers reconsider how they do business, sometimes to a fault.

For retailers, all consumers are ‘OK’

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

Take, for example, the old mantra of “the customer is always right.” Some organizations are reconsidering their position on this, and it’s a mistake.

In “How to Become a Marketing Superstar,” author Jeffrey J. Fox devotes a chapter to this topic and maintains that there are good (OK) customers, and wrong customers (not OK). Fox’s point is that in order to stay profitable, an organization must distinguish between the two.

This makes sense on the supply side. Large organization even hire analysts to determine if a customer pays their bills promptly and is not too costly to service — or if the customer is “not OK,” a slow payer or so high maintenance that the relationship is no longer profitable.

However, the debate over if a customer is always right or not doesn’t apply well to retail.

Know of customers who always return items? Or they want to take up more of your time than you’re willing to share? In such cases, we can’t afford to make judgment calls.

An assistant store manager I knew was once called to the service desk to settle a dispute. It seems a customer tried to rent a video but the computer showed they already had two videos checked out. The chain’s policy would not allow this, or at least the clerk at the desk wouldn’t allow it. The customer protested, and denied she had any outstanding rentals.

King Solomon the assistant manager wasn’t, but anyone could tell the customer was a keeper. Her two-cart order of groceries heaped over the edges.

“We can’t let her rent anything until the other two come back,” the clerk confided behind the counter.

“Allow the rental and ask if she wouldn’t mind looking around at home for the other videos,” the assistant said. “Maybe one of her kids rented them, and she doesn’t know about it.”

That was exactly the case, and the next day the customer returned the late videos with full apologies. The assistant manager assured her there was no need. He was glad to get them back, but was even happier to have her back. She was obviously an “OK” customer.

However, he said later, “We came close to losing a good customer over a couple of $5 plastic tapes.”

I see this attitude taken too often. Clerks size up a customer who doesn’t fit what they perceive as OK. Perhaps that customer isn’t dressed as nice, or they shop the bargain rack. Maybe they ask a clerk to cut a head of lettuce in half. None of this should matter.

Personally, I like the two-rule explanation:

  • 1. The customer is always right.
  • 2. If for any reason they aren’t, refer to rule No. 1.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail

Has your approach to customers changed with the recession? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.