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A lesson from Walmart and the blueberry affair

Walmart had a special going on fresh blueberries -- just $2.50 a pint. So, Frank Mauer headed for his nearby Port Richey (Fla.) Supercenter. But, when he got there all the blueberries were gone. So, Mauer figured he’d just get the blueberries another time and asked for a rain check. That’s when things went south!

St. Petersburg Times’ retail reporter Mark Albright decided to investigate and publish Mauer’s story entitled: “Man vs. Walmart in Blueberry Battle.” After reading it, I think it’s a good reminder for all retailers, big and small.

When Mauer asked for a rain check at customer service, he was told: “Walmart doesn’t offer rain checks.” Mauer explained he didn’t understand. After all, the fine print in the ad circular he’d received seemed pretty clear: “If an advertised item is out-of-stock at your Walmart, upon request, we will issue you a rain check so that you can purchase the item at the advertised price when it becomes available,” Mauer read aloud. That’s convincing, right? Nope. The response was still: “Walmart doesn’t offer rain checks!”

A little frustrated, he thought he’d go higher up. The assistant manager came out and, you guessed it: “Walmart doesn’t offer rain checks,” he insisted. By now, Mauer is ticked, stops arguing and begins telling customers about Walmart’s “false advertising.”

When the cops responded to Walmart’s call, Mauer was escorted to the parking lot and “talked to” for 45 minutes. Then, he went to another Walmart just to see if they would say the same thing. They did. Convinced he was still right, however, Mauer contacted the newspaper.

“We screwed up,” Dan Fogleman, a Walmart spokesman, told Albright. “We are taking this very seriously.” For starters, all Florida Walmart District Managers were told in a conference call to be sure all workers understand rain checks are available for any advertised special (some limitations) that is out of stock. Further, all store managers coast-to-coast were also reminded to ensure the policy is understood by everyone.

So, how can we benefit from the great blueberry affair? First, it doesn’t make any difference if you’re big or small, communication problems with employees can easily exist. Especially in running a small business like a boat dealership, we are often so bogged down with what we’ve got to do that we don’t make the time necessary to ensure our employees know what our customer policies are and what expectations we’re creating for our customers. That’s not fair to the employees or the customers.

Second, our employees should periodically be reminded of the best way to handle a displeased customer. For example, if the employee is empowered to solve the customer’s problem, he should know it. If it’s beyond the employee’s authority, he should know the acceptable way to hand off the customer to someone who can solve the problem.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the blueberry affair should never have gotten to the point of bad publicity and a lost customer. If the customer service reps behind the counter were not empowered to resolve Mauer’s problem, most assuredly the assistant manager was (or should have been) expected to know how to “manage” the situation and effect a positive outcome. After all, what was at stake here was a rain check for a $2.50 pint of blueberries and customer satisfaction. Good lesson!

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