and The Associated Press
From Lodi to New Jersey, a "customer comes first" philsophy has been sweeping through America's retail stores this Christmas season.
At the Wherehouse music store in Lodi, employees are trying to get to know their shoppers better in an effort to retain customers throughout the year, store manager Mike Bernard said.
Wherehouse is also trying to gain customers by becoming more involved with Lodi-area bands, Bernard said.
At Wal-Mart, customers might find shorter lines at the cash register, thanks to speedier machines.
Some Wal-Marts even have self-service checkout counters where customers can scan and pay for merchandise themselves.
Lodi's Wal-Mart store doesn't have any self-service checkout counters, but store officials are experimenting with a new service to get customers out the door faster, store manager Eric Papacosta said.
Customers can go to Wal-Mart's layaway counter in Lodi where a machine will scan everything in the shopping cart, Papacosta said. The machine will produce a card, which the customer gives to the clerk at the checkout stand. That way, the clerk scans the card once without the clerk having to go through the customer's merchandise one by one, Papacosta said.
Stores are trying to improve service, in part because business is weak. Stores are also mindful that they have increasing competition from Web sites.
In Lodi, managers at Wherehouse and Wal-Mart say their sales are down or flat this year because of competition from the Internet. However, sales at Big Kmart are up this year, and J.C. Penney reports that sales are about the same this year.
The Wherehouse music store has averaged only 270 buying customers per day in December, compared to the 380 the store enjoyed in December 1999, Bernard said.
A successful holiday season is important to Wherehouse because 35 percent of its annual profits take place in December, he said.
Wal-Mart's sales are being unfavorably compared with last year, when customers stored up because of the Y2K scare, Papacosta said.
Joey Zucchelli, manager of the Mervyn's Lodi store, said she doesn't see competition from Internet sales.
"I think they like to see and feel and touch the merchandise," Zucchelli said.
Web sites have changed customer expectations for service at stores, according to Kurt Barnard, publisher of the Barnard Retail Trend Report, based in Upper Montclair, N.J. In some cases, shoppers who have researched a product on the Web might be frustrated because sales help in a store is less knowledgeable.
Still, there are plenty of problems. At department stores, the retailers that generally have the worst service, tales of messy fitting rooms and lack of help abound.
In Boston's Downtown Crossing shopping district, Paula Higgins said she has been frustrated by the lack of service at department stores.
"I had to wait in line at the register because there was only one girl there. Then she didn't have any change, so I had to use my credit card," she griped.
Tamika Greene, another shopper at the Livingston Mall, said: "Service is horrible. Stores need more help. You're left on your own, especially with department stores."
The good news for retailers is that shoppers are more forgiving of poor service in stores than on the Web, according to Ron Zemke, a Minneapolis-based customer service consultant.
"Online, you can always click onto another site," said Jill Ricardo, a shopper from Livingston, N.J.
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