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When Retailers Get it Wrong, Ease & Common Sense Make it Right

Last Christmas, my wish list included a set of dinnerware from West Elm. I am a fan; they offer well styled, well priced, trendy pieces for the home and I’m a frequent shopper at their Vancouver location.

My mom found the dinnerware set much cheaper on the US site (mostly due to astronomical shipping fees in Canada) and decided to order from there and pick up the item across the border. Christmas morning I open the box to find a broken plate. No big deal, it’s a plate and there’s a store down the street; I can just go in and they’ll replace it.

At the store in an attempt to fix my problem, I was informed that unfortunately stores don’t provide support for any online orders and that the fact that it was a US order was an even bigger issue. The $9.00 plate in perfect condition sat on the shelf 10 metres from the till. They politely asked that I call the US website.

The CSR on the US customer service line was very understanding of the hassle it would be to cross the border again and very apologetic about the breakage, but her hands were tied. The best she could do was to ship a replacement plate to the same US address the initial order had gone to and they would in fact just ship a whole new set of dishes because it was easier for their system.

In summary, instead of replacing a broken plate on site, in store, the company ended up shipping an entire new set of dinnerware to a PO Box in the US.

Customer Experience Takeaway

How many times have you interacted with a company online, or in store and wondered why it was so difficult? How many times have you heard horror stories from people trying to return somethin, or having to explain an issue to someone over the phone only to be transferred, and have to start all over again? Customers want EASY – period.

Principle #1: Make Things Easy for Customers

In this particular instance as a customer, I was first disappointed that a part of my item was broken upon receipt. I then felt undervalued and frustrated in the store because the $9.00 plate was on the shelf and no one could see sense to just give it to me, and write it off as breakage if that was what was necessary for customer satisfaction (spoiler alert: I bought the $9 plate because I wasn’t rushing across the border to pick up my new set of dishes). And finally, they have lost my trust as a brand because I now question the business practices of this company that shipped a $100 dinnerware set because it’s “easier” than replacing one plate.

Principle #2: Don’t Let Business Processes Get in the Way of CX

Unquestionably as companies grow, more and more processes and procedures become part of the operation. Many of these are necessary, but they also require a regular audit for process overload, and to highlight potential process improvements. US and Canadian operations may be separate entities, but to the customer they are one brand. Customer Experience should always guide decisions, as opposed to being an afterthought.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique story. Whenever I recount this tale, I’m always met with horror stories from others, usually about large retailers who have lost sight of what is important. What companies need to do is empower their employees to make the best decision for the customer. If this business had a customer-centric culture where employees were told that making things easy for the customer was Priority #1, we wouldn’t be writing this post.

Do I still shop there? Yes, but never online. They have a number of products that aren’t available in store, so I’ve cut down significantly on what I buy.

Process Improvement Takeaway

In the competitive retail landscape, customers are less forgiving if there is a hiccup in their service experience. A business’ ability to get things right the first time is paramount. In this case, the customer had four touchpoints before reaching a resolution. Processes should be designed to deliver value right the first time and eliminating customer frustration by eliminating unnecessary touchpoints. Not only does this maximize value, but it improves the speed of providing a service, and ultimately lowers the cost to the business.

Your organization’s ability to provide consistent service goes a long way to providing value to its customers. Customers expect consistency each time they interact with a business – whether they are shopping online, visiting a brick and mortar store, or shopping internationally. Regardless of the channel, the customer is still interacting with one brand. An effective omni-channel strategy provides customers with a seamless and consistent experience, regardless of the channel.

Processes should be designed for the end-user across all channels. Start with the customer first approach to evaluate your omni-channel strategy. First, start with defining what your customer values before designing support processes to reduce customer friction. To facilitate a seamless experience, your processes should be simplified and standardized across all channels. For example, a storefront employee should be able to communicate eCommerce or international shopping policies to the customer without hesitation.

Effective process design also considers instances where the process or policy may need to be updated. Where possible, employees should be provided with parameters where exceptions can be made to policies. In the service experience outlined above, if either the storefront employee or the CSR had been provided with the guidelines to make an exception (i.e. exceptions can be made on items $10.00 or less), the customer would have walked away with a great experience. Instead, the customer has eliminated interactions with an entire channel altogether.

Strategy Takeaway

One of the benefits of organization is a division of labour, often across jurisdictions, but another less attractive consequence is the growth of rules and systems of measurement that prevent the use of common sense. Of course the right thing (lowest overall cost, fastest, most evidently sensible, etc.) to have done in this situation would have been to just give you a plate, immediately.

There are multiple failures here. Let’s assume that West Elm is a differentiator. They compete and win by delivering some form of solution that satisfies a segment of the larger dinnerware-buying population. That difference may arise from selection, service, specialized knowledge, and so on. But it’s essential to ensuring that a customer has sufficient willingness to pay to avoid comparison shopping.

Or, let’s assume that West Elm is a low cost producer. This strategy wins by ensuring that low costs translate into low prices. But it’s a tough strategy to implement - there can only be one true low cost producer.

Regardless of the competitive strategy, West Elm failed. They looked at you and instead of seeing a customer, saw a border. Your relationship with the US parent was not “valid” in the Canadian context. Their internal organizing logic created behaviours that were stronger than the business logic of retaining a known West Elm buyer within their own community by doing whatever was necessary to solve an obvious and easily remedied problem.

This leads to measurement problems. At a corporate level, West Elm is better off regardless by keeping its replacement costs low. A $9 plate given over in Canada must somehow be a cheaper solution than a full set of dishes originating in the US - especially when the value at risk for action is, prospectively, the lifetime value of that customer. Notice that the alternative to a $9 plate is time, travel, border hassle, and so on - from the customer’s perspective. This is worth far more than $9. So paradoxically, West Elm could spend $9 and deliver to their customer a major multiple of perceived value in time and hassle costs avoided.

But corporate logic won. And the impression is left that the real cost of the dish set must be so low that the decision to ship such a set is in the hands of a CS rep, whereas a store employee can’t spend $9 in pursuit of customer satisfaction.

Such rules and practices make no sense. They become stories that are the antithesis of the kind of story that companies spend heavily to obtain. And they break the image of West Elm, just like the plate in question, because they prove unmistakably that customers don’t matter at West Elm - but borders do.

Verdict: #fail.


Lindsey Turner

Founder, Bold Ink Strategy Inc.

Lindsey founded BOLD INK STRATEGY in 2014 after 15 years in sales & marketing across a variety of sectors. Ever committed to customer experience and process improvement, her journey led her to several senior leadership positions within well respected hospitality organizations.

A committed brand builder, connector and collaborator, she has combined her experience in business and brand strategy with a positive spirit and passion for community in her consulting.

Marilouise Muller

Founder & Principal, Propel Solutions Ltd.

Marilouise Muller is a recognized Business Transformation Specialist with over decade of experience delivering exceptional results for leading global services organizations. Marilouise is founder and principal of Vancouver-based management consulting firm, Propel Solutions Ltd.

Propel Solutions is Western Canada’s leading Operations Improvement Firm. Through a Business Process Improvement Methodology pioneered by Marilouise, Propel has helped companies in every industry optimize their business processes to foster organization-wide improvement and instill a culture of continuous improvement.

Douglas Reid

Principal, Reid Here + Associates

Douglas Reid has worked as an advisor to companies and corporate managers since 1985, initially as a vice president with a global consulting firm, then as head of Reid Here & Associates starting in 1990. In 1998 he joined the faculty of a leading Canadian university, which took his practice to a higher level. He has worked across Canada, the US, the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Today his efforts focus on helping busy executives translate evidence into action by combining innovative educational experiences with one-on-one development – all grounded in management research about what works in practice.


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