Wednesday Morning Musings – Amazon Prime Wardrobe

Until Sunday, I’d worn the same pair of athletic shoes for fifteen years. It was time. Having a toddler with a relentless, almost maniacal, energy demands I have proper footwear to keep up.

This meant doing one of the things I dread the most: go to a store.

With a sigh of surrender I packed Young Master Oliver up and off we went to our local tan shopping center. I’ll look for shoes, maybe a pair of pants, and of course find a wicked cool toy for the young lad.

2 hours and 5 stores later what did we find? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Oh they had inventory but nothing that fit or looked right. I did find one shirt that was kind of sort of but not entirely ok…and it cost almost as much as my mobile phone bill.

When we returned home weary from the excursion, I glanced at my phone and realized something marvelous.

Amazon rolled out a new benefit for subscribers of their Prime subscription service. Prime Wardrobe allows customers to have up to 8 items sent to them, free of charge, in order to try them on and see how they look, feel, and fit. You can then return what you don’t want in the same packaging it came in with the included prepaid label. You’re only charged for what you keep.

I ordered 6 pair of sneakers. They arrived on Sunday. 30 minutes later and I found my sneakers, right in the comfort of my living room. I packed up the rest in their original resealable box and by Monday they were on their way back to Bezos and the gang. Simultaneously, another Prime Wardrobe box was being sent my way with 8 pair of pants.

I may never visit a store again.

I mention this not to throw even more business to Amazon but to highlight a strategy and philosophy that Amazon has embraced since its birth: make it easy for the customer to do business with you.

If it’s more difficult than it’s worth to purchase something then I’m not going to purchase it. I’ll either do without or I’ll find somewhere else to buy it.

Something as simple as a return can be a make-or-break moment for a retailer.

How simple is the process?

Does the customer service rep show reluctance towards accepting the item?

How many people have to walk to the register and enter codes and approve the transaction?

I returned a pair of defective headphones to my local Wal-Mart less than 48 hours after receiving them. I had the original packaging and receipt and even the protective stickers were still on headphones. It took 45 minutes, not including driving to the store, parking, and driving home.

First I got in the line with a massive sign having above it that read “online purchases and returns HERE.” Then, after about 10 minutes I was told “That’s not a line. That sign doesn’t mean anything. You have to get in this line.”

So I waited in that line….and waited.

Then the rep paged someone in electronics to ask about serial numbers and whether they accept returns on these particular headphones.

The electronics rep didn’t know so they paged someone else. Meanwhile my rep paged another rep. While this was all playing out I googled information on the serial numbers and went to to find their return policy. I gave the representative the information she was looking for. She then paged a third person, presumably a manager, who came over to approve the return, issue my refund, and sent me on my way.

It seems every time I try to give my money to another retailer I walk away thinking “I should have just bought this from Amazon.” This trip was no different because by the time I walked back to my car I had placed an order for new headphones from Amazon.

Whether it’s  a matter of just wanting to get it over with and avoid waiting two days or if I’m attempting to “support independent local businesses,” it always seems that I go through more trouble than it was worth. I couldn’t find what I was looking for despite being told it was in stock. The item was defective and the return process was tedious. No one in the store could answer questions about the item they purportedly specialize in selling and supporting.

So what ends up happening? I order it from Amazon anyway. I’ve almost entirely stopped bothering with brick-and-mortar retailers.

News and opinion pieces are published, seemingly on an hourly basis, bemoaning the continuing struggles and failures of our beloved retail stores in the wake of Amazon’s rise. Steeped in nostalgia, these pieces attempt to evoke some measure of Rockwellian tender longing for some bygone era that I’m not convinced ever actually existed.

What will happen to our society in the absence of our most cherished centers of community, the shopping mall?

Every click of the “Place Your Order” button is another dagger into the heart of the retailing traditions that have bound our culture of commerce for centuries.

Or maybe, Amazon just makes it easier to buy stuff.

Now, I don’t expect a small independent shopkeeper to have the selection or buying power of Amazon but what about a store like Wal-Mart?

Amazon has approximately 330 domestic facilities devoted to fulfillment, warehousing, returns, sorting, and delivery with $51 billion in 2018 1st quarter revenue.

Wal-Mart has 42 distribution centers and over 4000 locations, not including Sam’s Club. They reported over $120 billion in revenue for over the same period.

Despite having every resource available and over twice the revenue, Wal-Mart continues to struggle with both their in-store customer service as well as their e-commerce platform.

Wal-Mart has every resource needed to offer a Prime Wardrobe service. Wal-Mart has just a robust product selection as Amazon. Wal-Mart revolutionized logistics and supply chain. Wal-Mart, like Amazon, allows third-party vendors to sell items through its website. They employ over 1 million people in the United States while Amazon’s entire workforce is less than half that figure.

Their acquisitions of Bonobos , was supposed to signal a new era in which they would attract a fashion-savvy and younger customer base away from other retailers. Yet, Bonobos’ servers aren’t exactly failing beneath the traffic of all these new online orders.

Bonobos’ website boasts that if you happen to live near a one of their “Guideshop” you can try your clothes on before buying them. You can even return online purchases at these local storefronts.

Wal-Mart and Bonobos aren’t exactly disrupting the marketplace with these bold strategies.

The Prime Wardrobe program, by contrast, is another example of Amazon being more creative, more forward-thinking, and more willing to take risks on ideas that seem unheard of to traditional retailers.

I mean really? Who thinks it is a good idea to just ship product to a customer without them paying for it first? It’s so absurd that it’s brilliant.

So while traditional retailers continue to rebrand their private label clothing lines or develop new pricing strategies in hopes of attracting customers that have long since fled, they ignore what Amazon teaches them every day: make it easy for your customers to do business with you and they will keep doing business with you.

Too many companies are entrenched in a belief that business should be done on their terms and then struggle with the reality that business is being done elsewhere.

The marketplace is no different than our normal lives. Agility and flexibility are two of the most important attributes to have.

That’s it for today. Have a great rest of the week!

Be Well and Kind,

How Instacart turned a customer into an apostle

One of the most influential people in my professional life is a man named Shane Frame. He’s one of the men behind the incredible Guitar Sanctuary in McKinney, TX…and one heck of a country guitar picker!

One of the lessons he taught me was the difference between customers and apostles or brand ambassadors.

He used to tell me, in that loveable twangy tone of his “Jason, we don’t want customers. We want apostles! We want to be so good at what we do that they go and tell everyone they know about us.”

That has always stuck with me. We shouldn’t strive for employees or customers. Anyone can do that.

Instead, we should strive to be so good at what we do (whatever that may be) that through sheer respect and appreciation people spread the story of who we are, what we believe, and how we do things.

No advertising campaign, no slogan, no amount invested in marketing of any kind can reap the benefits of incredible customer service.

Which brings me to Instacart.

Now I admit that I embrace crowd-sourcing and mobile apps more than anyone I know.

I jumped for joy when the press release about HEB and instacart serving my zip code hit my news feed.

I had been searching the web for food and grocery delivery services but found no one worthy of repeat business either because of ridiculous fees, clunky apps, or just the lack of that certain “wow” factor that draws us as consumers back to a given brand.

I also admit that I am not the kind of person that will use a service like instacart with significant frequency. Neither my budget nor my preference for picking out my own bananas make me the “typical” customer for same day grocery service….and I feel a little guilty about asking someone else to do something like grocery shopping for me.

But we all have “those” days (or weeks…or months haha) where we need a hand and instacart has been there on more than a few occasions.

Yesterday was just such a situation.

The Wife and I had been dealing with a sick pet, a sadistic (yet ridiculously adorable) toddler, our full-time careers, and everything in between. We had an exceptionally busy weekend with my school assignments, my nephew’s birthday party, all that sort of stuff.

I found myself out of baby food, out of bananas, out of pretty much everything so I logged into instacart, “did my shopping” and set a delivery time for the evening. Oh the wonders of our modern suburban lives!

The evening came and “Veronica” dutifully brought my kid cuisines and cold cuts right to my door and as I unpacked everything I stopped dead at the site of my shampoo and conditioner bottles. They were TINY…slightly bigger than a trial sample but not by much.

I had paid about the same as I would have paid had I gone to schmancy salon to buy my own schmancy brand shampoo and conditioner but I got about a third of the quantity.

I opened my app ready to shout to The Wife, “They brought us the wrong size!!”

Instead I shouted “I’m an idiot. I ordered a tiny size and they just charge as much as the regular size. Ugh.”

So we get our wildly gorgeous yet more than a little unruly baby to sleep and I’m fidgety. I got the “will you rate your transaction” email and I thought to myself…”why not?”

I clicked 4 stars and then hit “other” and explained that I thought it more than a bit lame to charge so much for such a small size but oh well, mea culpa.

I thought nothing else of it and fell asleep.

This morning I awoke to the standard “thanks for your feedback” acknowledgement and again, thought nothing of it and went through my day.

What happened next is what turned me from a customer into an apostle.

Instacart reached out to me to apologize for the issue. We had a thoughtful exchange about pricing policies and strategies, Veronica being awesome, and my own lack of attention to item descriptions.

With no reason to do so, instacart gave me a credit…waaaay above what was necessary and thanked ME for my loyalty and understanding.

Understanding? I understand that I didn’t read the description. I understand that you have very clearly stated pricing policies that state prices vary from those in-store. I understand that they did absolutely nothing wrong. I also understand that I was entitled to nothing.

BUT – they understand that they didn’t want me walking away from a transaction just feeling OK.

They understand brand ambassadors are worth more than a few bucks on a single order.

So I write this for two reasons – 1. It’s been a topic I’ve been mulling over for a while because Shane’s influence will last forever and 2. Because I believe that not it’s important to give credit where it’s due and to make sure we are shouting from the rooftops when companies do things RIGHT just as much, if not more, than we do when they do something we dislike.

If you haven’t tried instacart please do.

If you tried them and were happy, tell 10 people.

If you tried them and weren’t so happy tell THEM! Give them a chance to turn you around. They can’t help you if you don’t let them know…and be realistic and honest.

Get your message across to them and be willing to hear them out.

In the end, not every company is going to blow us away and not every company is going to get it right every single step of the way.

Instacart hit a homerun today and for that they get my incredible thanks and have earned a devoted customer. I’m now MORE likely to shop MORE often than I was two days ago…because I know they value me and they want to not just do good business but they want their customers to walk away feeling like they’re doing business with honest, devoted people.
And the idea of having my groceries delivered by someone listening to “In Bloom” by Nirvana is pretty freakin’ awesome.

Anyway – that’s my piece for today. I love instacart!!!
Who do you love?

Until next time…

Be Well and Kind,