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Blue and Yellow Bedding from koskela Sydney

Is bad Service to Blame for the Demise of Bricks and Mortar Stores?

I was watching Sunrise on Monday morning (my preferred morning show of choice) and came across a story on a recent undercover shopping survey that took place across Sydney and Melbourne.

The survey saw secret shoppers go in-store to score hundreds of major retailers. The stores were scored based on factors like customer service, staff attitude and store atmosphere.

Blue and Yellow Bedding from koskela Sydney


The most shocking revelation was that over 70% of bricks-and-mortar retailers failed, with the shoppers claiming staff were nowhere to be found, that they weren’t friendly and that they didn’t make the customer feel welcome.

Now, I know that you have to take these surveys with a grain of salt at times, but it has made me wonder about the future of these retailers and how we’re going to shop for homewares, furniture, lifestyle products and clothing moving forward.

So today, I ask you: how do you feel about bricks and mortar stores?

Personally, I adore an in-store experience. And that’s coming from someone who has recently launched their own online store. I love nothing more than entering a gorgeous homewares shop – especially an independent – and browsing their collections. I love to meet the people, I love to wander about and I love to take it all in.

Kelly Osbourne for Westfield
Above: Kelly Osbourne as Westfield style ambassador. Image credit westfield.com.au

It’s one of the dreams on my bucket list, actually; to own a bricks-and-mortar homewares store. I also, especially leading up to Christmas, live for seeing the festive decorations in shopping malls like Westfield. The David Jones windows are by far my fave.

So trust me when I say that this is not a retail-bashing blog post. My book, which is coming out in Jan 2016 (yay), is all about the best places to eat, drink and shop in Sydney. So I am ALL about supporting local businesses and championing the ones who are doing it right. That said, I have genuine concerns about the way some stores operate.

A few weeks ago, actually, I went into a homewares store near my house. Being a newbie to Melbourne, I’m on a mission to check out as many local homewares boutiques as humanly possible (please list some in the comments below – I need to know where the good ones are at).

Plant Bag from Clickon Furniture Rosebery

Upon entering the store, I greeted the lady behind the register. She didn’t greet me. Now, the one thing I will say about myself is that I am all smiles, sunshine and rainbows when I meet people – especially in a setting like a homewares store. But this lady wanted nothing to do with me. As I got closer to the register, I actually asked her how she was. To which she muttered, faked a smile and went about drinking her coffee.

I did a few laps of the store and left, a bit downtrodden, actually. The store looked so good from the outside and I expected – at the very least – I’d get some warmth and service. One thing I did notice her doing, though, was watching me like a hawk as I walked around. Was she expecting I’d steal something? Whatever her intention was, it made me feel uncomfortable.

Needless to say, I won’t go back. And this isn’t me doing a ‘do you know who I am?’ thing. It’s just about basic customer service and how retail staff should make you feel. If you don’t have a passion for it, you’re in the wrong job. Sure, she may have been having a bad day (and trust me, as someone running their own business, I get it), but we’re in too volatile a market now for bad face-to-face service. Or bad service in any aspect, come to think of it.

I’d love to take over the store and show her how to make a local feel welcome. I wonder how much longer the store will be around for, actually.

Love greeting card from Garden Life Redfern

I imagine in this modern age, where almost everything is done online, that it’s bloody tough to keep a bricks and mortar store going – and to make it profitable. But I do think it comes down to making people feel a part of something. It’s human nature to want to belong, to feel part of a club or a tribe. I think if a bricks and mortar store makes you feel like part of the family, and continues to stock products you love, you’ll be back time and time again. I know I would.

But if you give your customer one bad experience, as I had in that local homewares shop, they’re gone for good.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments below. Do you go to shopping centres anymore or do you only shop online? Do you own a bricks and mortar store, because I’d love to hear from you too! Have you had a phenomenally good experience in a store?

Boutiques in Sydney who do it well and who always gave great service when I was in-store include Koskela, Clickon Furniture, Garden Life, Humble Beginnings, No 12 Trading and more. What are some of your faves?


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Chris Carroll

Outside of writing this blog, Chris is an interior designer, presenter and author. He’s also spent time on TV, on Channel 10’s Changing Rooms, as well presenting segments on Channel 7’s Sunrise and The Morning Show. If you’d like to book a design consult with Chris, you can find out more here

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16 Responses

  1. Hi Chis,

    Glad to hear you are exploring the Melbourne Shopping scene, I have no doubt you are loving Melbourne! I do hope you drop in and say hi to Travis in our South Yarra store and Melissa in our Emporium Stores – and their team’s of course – who I certainly hope are friendly, welcoming and just nice people 🙂

    As you know I have REAL stores and online stores at top3 by design – so this is an interesting topic for me. I spent all day today in my Crows Nest store and it was WONDERFUL to chat to people and see some regulars, some new visitors and some visitors coming in that had not been in in AGES. I love a good chat – much of my team do too. Sometime though it is a very fine line though – lots of customers give off a vibe that they don’t want to be approached and it is a complicated position to be in for staff. As the owner you can have more confidence in approaching and chatting – but I know some staff have had some bad experiences with being snapped at but people “just looking” etc (and I have too) – and we are not “salesey” as a general rule at all – my team genuinely love design. I am sure that customers have their moments, as do store staff – we all do – it is super hard to be “on” all day every day – but I hope the terrible service moments are few and far between for us – but am sure that happen. I have probably had my own moments as much as I would hate to admit it! We are people!!

    I would suspect for smaller stores the “call from the counter” is increasing since they are also managing their online stores and ordering from their own store-front – keeping them in front of the computer more than they probably like….

    At top3, we certainly hope to create a space for people to explore, ask questions, and discover as much as possible – but if they want to be left alone, then a polite, “give me a moment to take a look – I will let you know if I need anything” would go a long way sometimes.
    I had a wonderful experience in South Yarra when I was there a couple of weeks ago – a super friendly customer who (as it turned out was from my childhood town of Merimbula) I discussed with my manager Travis after she left what was different with her to other customers ?? She was RECEPTIVE to conversation. We have to remember that we get back what we give out. We had such a lovely chat – because she was also up for it. The next customer walked in and said “just looking” before I could even say hello!

    I do think that customers themselves have to consider their behaviour and treatment of store staff too… I have experienced several times first-hand quite rude treatment for no reason at all – generally straight up as soon as they walk int eh door – and mostly they are not regulars – and then they tone down when they realise we are helpful and nice! – and I remind my staff (any myself – as it can be very upsetting) that it is more a reflection on their day than on their experience at that moment.
    It is our job to turn their day around.

    In short – staff (with no excuse) should be friendly and helpful – that is their job (and hopefully they nature) but they are not mind-readers – sometimes customers need to think about the vibe they are giving off….
    I have certainly experienced more than my share of bad service – and it sucks. i hope we can avoid bad service in our stores, but I am sure it happens too 🙁

    Chris – Would love to catch up again some time – let me know if you would be interested in us stocking your book 🙂
    Enjoy Melbourne – a fabulous city!


    1. Thanks so much for weighing in and sharing all of your thoughts, Terri. Rest assured, when I used to go into Top3 at Supa Centa Moore Park (which I did a lot), the staff were exceptional. Have never met a group of people who can gift wrap the way they do.

      And I do agree re the customers needing to enter with a good attitude. We are all human after all. I don’t believe you should be allowed to be a rude customer and expect the retail staff to be sunshine and rainbows to you just because they’re behind the counter.

      Would love to catch up some time too. Will definitely let you know re the book. It comes out in January, which is beyond exciting!

      Thanks again for sharing all of your thoughts 🙂

  2. I was just thinking about sales staff and recently shared a great shopping experience I had on my Instagram. It was at Chadstone and there were some stand out sales assistants. I must admit they worked for large chains and were clearly well trained.

    I think in general most boutique style stores I have visited have been very friendly. If you are in retail, the customer is your business. It’s hard to get the balance of being too salesy and giving too much space. I find myself shopping online more often due to lack of time to go out shopping. That said, when I do get to go shopping it is very disappointing if I get bad or rude service and will usually result in not visiting that store in the future.

    1. It’s so good to hear good service stories Michelle. I too have been into stores and had the most amazing service. I went to clothing store Industrie in the city a few weeks back and had the nicest conversation with a staff member in there. Honestly, I’d go back there over another store just because they staff actually cared. It makes such a difference.

      I have heard amazing things about Chadstone Shopping Centre. I am new to Melbourne, so it’s on my list of places I have to go see! 🙂

      1. Welcome to Melbourne! I’m sure you’ll love Chadstone. There are some really beautifully designed stores there. A new one just opened is the Kikki-K flagship store – definitely worth a visit if you just love visiting beautiful spaces. Another recommendation (outside of the Metro area) for shopping and a day trip is Sorrento. There’s a few good homewares stores and newish the Country road concept lifestyle store. 🙂

  3. Hi Chris,

    I began my business online 2-years ago and after a few months, customers were asking to visit my garage. As a result of so many visitors, I decided to open a warehouse in January 1 day a week (now 2 days due to the demand) and we have people visiting every week from not only Noosa & the Sunshine Coast but Australia wide as they want to see the products.

    I find that it is ‘extremely’ important to give good customer service and show a genuine interest in why people are visiting my store. I love hearing their stories as so many of our products invoke memories. It helps to have a passion for the products and know the history behind those products. People love the stories of products.

    So I think there is definitely still a market for bricks and mortar stores but to survive they have to love what they do and love having customers visit. (why else have a store?)

    You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned that it comes down to making people feel a part of something and that it is human nature to want to belong, to feel part of a club or a tribe. I think if a bricks and mortar store makes you feel like part of the family, and continues to stock products you love, you’ll be back time and time again.

    I look forward to my customers coming back and also seeing photos of the products that I found in their new homes. That’s a big bonus! 🙂

    1. What you say is so heartwarming and totally backs up my initial thoughts about bricks and mortar stores, Sally. I truly believe you can stay in business as a bricks and mortar, but the key (as you rightfully said) is to connect with your customers, know your products and have a genuine interest in them. Thanks so much for commenting and see you for next week’s Conversation Series 🙂

  4. I fill the category of time poor business woman / mum.

    My issue is I don’t have time to visit retailers. If I do *have* to shop I am choosing something like a Myer when I can go to one spot, be pretty much assured I can get whatever birthday party present, I have a rewards system that reliably sends me little $20 vouchers for my activity and I am in and out.

    But in my heart I love my local shopping centre strip for supporting independents, for me its Centre Rd Bentleigh and that works too. Sussan’s and Target Country is there so i can get clothes, food, books, house stuff and birthday presents. It saves time because I don’t have to drive to it, I can walk or its literally in or on my way to wherever I am other wise going.

    But if its outside these two spots, I just don’t go.

    Service and even price, doesn’t really become an issue because there is no time in my world at the moment for browsing, considering the provenance of an item, or taking the time to ‘shop around’.

    Funnily enough despite being the time poor demographic I haven’t gone online either. there is still a level of distrust or a sense that if I can’t see it its not real.

    1. That’s so interesting re your hesitation to shop online Suzanne. I think for some things I couldn’t possibly shop online (like clothing – one stores 30 waist is another stores 42). But for homewares I adore a good online store. That said, I still love nothing more than randomly discovering a new bricks and mortar store and pottering around in it. Now that I’m in Melbs I am going to try and work my way across all of them!

  5. Hi Chris, have you been reading my mind? I too go into homewares stores excited for a great experience. The staff at Crate Expectations are a stand-out for being consistently engaging and helpful. Also very attentive at Yen Home Concept. I have a background in retail customer service and I think it’s one of the most challenging jobs around. Having staff with a business ownership mentality shows, and this is when you get the best service. And for heavens sake, smile!

    1. I totally agree with you Leila. I think if you employ staff who are on the journey with you and really believe in the brand, it makes such a huge difference. And retail is a super-tough gig. I have done it in the past as well, so people in this industry are definitely doing it hard!

  6. It depends what I’m shopping for. I gave up on buying clothes onine a while ago. Whole Asos or another online retailer might have great products, more often than not they don’t fit me well. I know they usually habe a return policy but that’s too much effort.

    Electronics I’d always buy wherever is cheapest once I decide what I want.

    Other products are variable.

    I’ve had plenty of crappy experiences in stores but I’m not a huge browser, so I just get what I want and leave. Trying to return products in store an make for some interesting experiences; a particular shoe chain store comes to mind.

  7. Love online stores for finding stuff quickly eg typing “Lorna Jane I-phone pocket t-shirt” into Google was way easier to find said shirt than convincing the Lj staff that they actually stock them and should find one for me.

    LOVE going to an actual store to see what the product looks like irl, feel its texture, understand its dimensions, try on clothes, enjoy the store’s atmosphere etc. It is good to get out and not be stuck at home.

    My pet hate is that staffers these days “greet” me when I enter the store by standing behind their desk and yelling across the room. This is especially awkward when there are a few staff members and they each do it to me within the space of a few minutes, especially if my back is turned. A staffer in an expensive clothing store once bitched that I was rude because I didn’t respond to her shout. I hadn’t even realised that she was talking to me! I sigh for the days when people actually walked up to customers to ask if they could be of assistance.

    1. Totally hear you Justine. The individual attention goes a long way. I too have been greeted by three staff in the same store with the same “day off work today?”. But that’s in a clothing store frequented by youngins lol, so I think they can be excused there for trying it on an oldie 🙂

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I’m interior designer Chris Carroll, and at TLC Interiors we’re all about helping you create an amazing home without breaking the bank. It’s affordable designer style at its best, and we make the whole process easy and fun for clients & readers alike!

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