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  • Jennifer Marks

Rocket science

All the technological innovations that have made the business of selling, tracking and replenishing merchandise so fabulously 21st Century often obfuscate one fundamental: The only face the customer sees is the one she's presented with when she walks in the door.

During a swing through Los Angeles last week, I was reminded of that repeatedly as I popped in and out of stores. And one of the brightest ideas on display was in — of all places — a department store.

Robinsons-May has erected overhead signage in its sheeting, quilt and bed-in-a-bag departments that explains to customers how it classifies the merchandise as either good, better or luxury. An example from the bed-in-a-bag department:

Good: 180-count; cotton blend percale; machine washable.

Better: 200 to 250-count; 100 percent cotton or cotton-rich; coordinated accent pillows and accessories available; machine washable.

Luxury: Jacquard woven; 100 percent cotton; over-sized; over-filled; corded edge detailing; coordinating pillows, accessories and draperies available.

Now was that so hard?

Rocket scientist Rule No. 1: The more detailed information you give your customer about what's on the shelves, the more confident she feels making a selection and the smarter she feels afterward.

However, the absolute nadir of sensible merchandising was on display at a Ross Dress for Less, where the apparel racks were getting a great deal of attention and even the cluttered hard home decor area attracted a respectable number of browsers.

Not so the domestics area, and for good reason. It appeared as though boxes of randomly packed items had been opened and hurled directly on the shelves. Granted, this is the last stop on the train for these cartons — but geez.

And there were some well-known labels there, too, hunkered down sadly like so many outcasts on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Rocket scientist Rule No. 2: The amount of respect you show your merchandise (even if it's a bunch of closeout stuff) speaks volumes about the amount of respect you show your customer.

A happier experience awaited at Strouds, which has been vigorously training its sales associates to consider themselves sales consultants. The fruits of that effort were evident. Every associate I passed not only said hello; most asked if I was looking for anything in particular. (Note: I was not asked: "Do you need help?" The question is guaranteed to elicit a "No.") Twice when I stopped in a department to look at merchandise, I was actually — hold onto your hats now —approached and solicited. It was as though I'd time-warped back into another era.

Rocket scientist Rule No. 3: You can teach associates how to say "hello," or you can teach them how to approach customers in a truly helpful (and potentially sales-stimulating manner) — and the difference boils down to a few well-chosen words.

Okay, so I've tipped the hat to two upper-moderate stores and slammed the bare-knuckled off-pricer. Fair? You betcha. We're talking about fundamentals here. And like the man says, it isn't rocket science.

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