Harvey Norman franchising and the demise of good service

I went to Harvey Norman’s today, against my better judgement, since the last time I shopped there, I made poor purchasing decisions under the extremely persistent and persuasive sales pressure. I wanted to buy a desk lamp (Furniture), a camera cover (Electronics), some headphones and some blank DVDs (Computer). Having carefully selected all my items and carried them around the various sections, I went to the closest cashier (Computers) to pay. She saw my camera cover which was on top of the pile and said I would need to go to Electronics. I went to Electronics and my pile of goods piled up in a different order. This cashier said to go back to Computers for my computer items, and I would also have to go to Furniture to pay for my desk lamp. When I asked why I should have to go to different places to pay for different things within a single Harvey Norman store – surely they could track purchases on their computer system, I was told that actually each division was a separate franchise. I left my computer/electronics purchases at the cashier and went to Furniture to buy my desk lamp (which was the only thing I really needed). I was not very happy at this point and asked the Furniture people if I could speak to their manager to complain (no – not here on the weekend), and if not, could they give me a contact number (no – I could look it up myself).

Why am I writing about this? There are two main reasons. One is the demise of smaller specialty stores because big mega-stores can stock a wide range of things at lower prices. The other is that I find it offensive that, despite all the mantra about customer service, I need to know the internal structure of large organisations (like Optus, Harvey Normans, Westpac etc) to be able to interface with them effectively. They appear to operate as a single entity and apparently that is why I should go to them and trust them etc – but there are all sorts of things that I can’t do, or I have to go to a different department for, or get screwed up because the single organisation is not in fact a single organisation at all, but a whole lot of loosely affiliated systems that are unable or unwilling to communicate with each other. (An aside: I get regular mail from each division of Optus about the massive savings I’d get if I swapped my Landline, TV, Broadband or Mobile service to them – they are apparently oblivious to the fact that I already have these services with them)

To elaborate on small stores versus megastores: I make a conscious effort to shop at smaller, local stores where I can form a relationship with the people with whom I do business. The places I like to shop are specialty stores who stock a range of things selected by the expertise (and whim) of the store owner. I understand that smaller places may need to charge slightly higher prices because of things like buying power, but I also know that the people in the shop have decided what stock they will have to sell. I am perfectly aware when I step into or out of someone’s store and I know who is providing me goods and services at each store. If I get good service in the greengrocers, and bad service in the butchers next door, the butcher’s service does not impact on my assessment of the greengrocer. In contrast, any bad experience at a supermarket, whether it be with respect to groceries, deli items or meat, reflects badly on the whole supermarket.

The only times I go to places like Safeway or Kmart or Bunnings are when I want to shop efficiently for mundane consumables at a reasonable price. So back to my shopping experience at Harvey Normans. The store I went to is laid out like most department stores – open plan with no walls or doors between different departments. (Note: I’m there for shopping efficiency …)  I collected my items – and there was nothing to indicate that I should plan to group my purchases according to department, and there are no indicators to alert me to the fact that I’ve taken one department’s goods into another department without paying for them. (Note: In a normal shopping mall, I go into one shop, buy my things, proceed to the next shop, buy my things and there are alerts if I attempt to take unpurchased goods from one store to another). I was not exactly thrilled at being told to go to different places to pay for different things (inefficiently retracing my steps around the store carrying all my purchases) and I asked what sense it made to have a Harvey Norman “store” rather than going to a regular shopping mall with different shops. The somewhat aggrieved Furniture guy (who could not give me a manager or a customer service number to complain to) then spouted the value of the Harvey Norman brand, number one retailer of this and that and the other thing …

As I left the store, I was thinking that the people working there in sales are just trying to make a living and probably don’t get paid enough to have to deal with the anger of frustrated customers – but I also got to thinking that Harvey Norman have gone a step beyond other “megastores” in depersonalising and cheapening the concept of brand and of service. They have taken the idea of a “megastore” (lots of stuff, good prices, efficient shopping) but implemented it as separate open-plan “shops” (inefficiency of going to different counters for different purchases). There is no sense of individuality, no sense of each section operating as a separate entity – it has all the bad points of shopping malls and none of the efficiency of supermarkets – and none of the individuality and charm of small suburban shopping strips. It was a bit sad to see that the Furniture guy had a strong brand loyalty and pride in working for Harvey Norman rather than for the individual owner of the individual franchise (who that person is I may never know … and maybe it isn’t a person – maybe it is a nameless investment entity). It was even more disturbing that he was offended by my not be impressed by the Harvey Norman name (apparently I should be honoured to be able to give HN my money …).

It seems that 20 years ago, the idea of a supermarket invoked images of uniformity of product, cheap prices and convenience but limited personal service. Now it seems that advertising is how we know what to buy (versus discussing things with a knowledgeable store owner), and good service means cheaper prices and not having to wait in line to pay rather than knowing about the goods being sold. Loyalty means getting purchasing rewards via cards (versus having the shop-owner actually know who you are and give you occasional freebies).  The model of “best practice” and uniformity in shopping experience is now seen as something good and trustworthy, so that trust and loyalty is invested in brands rather than people and it is seen as riskier to go to a small local operator (might not be here next year) rather than a large brand name store (store will be around, albeit with different people).

And all this began with the microwave oven dying – I went to the local small electrical goods outlet that I’ve been to for the past 20 years to replace it rather than to possibly cheaper Harvey Normans for all the reasons above. Unfortunately they don’t stock desk lamps … if they did, I would not have wasted half the day writing about the demise of local shopping and customer service!

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