Brown Bag

Sometimes I wonder if, like Don Quixote, I’m chasing windmills in my efforts to slay poor customer service. I travel a lot and have learned to manage my expectations for good service against a myriad of rationalizations: they’re not a luxury brand, my standards are too high, he or she’s probably having a bad day, I’m having a bad day, it’s Monday, and so on. Yet I still feel a sense of disappointment when a promised service call isn’t returned or when the hotel desk associate doesn’t ask how I enjoyed my stay when I check out. Sadly, these small disenchantments seem to be occurring more and more frequently. Mostly, I just let them go. But when a favorite retailer, one I consider at the very least a premier store (if not a luxury brand), makes what I consider a major customer faux pas, then I have to pick up my rusty sword and rail against customer service injustice!

That store is Bloomingdale’s. I don’t often name specific brands in my blog. Since this blog is devoted to luxury selling skills and delivering premier customer service, I try to remain brand agnostic. But Bloomingdale’s has been a brand near and dear to my heart ever since I was a little girl. I grew up in New York City and my mom would often take my sister and me to the Bloomingdale’s flagship store on Lexington Avenue. We inhaled the intoxicating aromas of the perfume counters as we rode the escalator to the fabulous floors of female fashion. After shopping for an hour or two, we’d grab lunch or dessert in the café, then walk out with those iconic Big Brown Bags weighing down our arms. As malls started to dot the retail landscape, Bloomingdale’s was always my first go-to establishment. I’ve held my Bloomingdale’s Loyalist card for years. I thought we were best friends.

So I was surprised the other day when, after a long session of trying on dresses, I found a perfect fit and went to purchase a beautiful, long-sleeve Tahari V-neck sheath. The sales associate at the register informed me he needed to “B-tag” my dress. I had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently, a few years ago, Bloomingdale’s decided it had had enough of women returning clothing they’d purchased and worn to an event. Now any purchase over $150 (pretty much everything at Bloomingdale’s) requires a B-tag. Take the item home and have a little buyer’s remorse? You can easily return it to Bloomingdale’s as long as the B-tag is still in place. Should you decide you want to keep the item, simply remove the B-tag yourself.

Well, I loved the dress and had absolutely no intention of returning it, as I explained to the sales associate. No matter, the “rules” said he had to attach the B-tag to the dress regardless. I asked to try one to see if I could remove it myself. Though I play the piano and have pretty strong fingers, I had quite a bit of difficulty trying to open the tag. (I’m not alone. Watch Savannah Guthrie try to remove one on the Today Show at 2:58 in the video). Consider that Bloomingdale’s clientele extends to a somewhat older demographic than H&M; this little plastic tag could prove to be a big challenge to someone who doesn’t have a lot of finger strength.

As I stood there trying to manipulate something that honestly looks like a large plastic bug, I wondered why I was being put in this position at all. Didn’t Bloomingdale’s and I have a long relationship together? As a Loyalist member, wasn’t I special? Couldn’t they view my purchase record and see I wasn’t in the habit of returning items?

And that’s when I decided to say bye-bye to the dress (I purchased it later on line at Saks) and bye-bye to Bloomie’s. If you’ve read any of my blog posts, I hope you’ve come away with the message that the essence of luxury selling is developing a relationship with the customer. And, as we all know, relationships are built on trust. With its little tag, Bloomingdale’s was telling me it no longer trusted me and no longer valued me as a loyal Bloomingdale’s customer.

Sure, I understand “wardrobing” (returning worn items) costs the retail industry millions of dollars each year and that this cost is ultimately passed on to the consumer. So you could argue that Bloomingdale’s B-tag is there for my benefit and that it’s helping to keep down prices. This is their solution and perhaps it’s working… for them. But from a luxury selling and customer service standpoint, it fails. How could Bloomingdale’s curb wardrobing and still offer luxury service? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Listen to the customer. Let it be my choice whether to have the B-tag attached or not. Explain your return policy up front. If I choose not to have the tag attached, then it’s my decision to decline the option to return the garment (unless, of course, there’s a quality defect that arises later). Don’t make my life more difficult (trying to remove that darn tag) in order to facilitate your business process.
  2. Treat your Loyalist customers as the special people they are. If I’m a Hertz Gold member I don’t have to wait in line for my car, if I’m a Hilton Honors member, I get free WiFi. Your Loyalist patrons should be extended the courtesy of not having their clothes tagged.
  3. Use your data. Every company on the planet has more data on its customers than it knows what to do with. You have access to every purchase I’ve made, which Bloomingdale’s stores I’ve visited, and exactly how many times I’ve returned a garment (once, with the price tag still on it). If you see me abusing the return policy, then by all means B-tag my purchases (or ban me from the store), but don’t make me suffer for the sins of others.

As far as I know, Bloomingdale’s is the only high-end retailer using this practice. Perhaps others will follow. I find that sad. But perhaps other luxury retailers will continue to value the relationship they have with their customers—a relationship based on trust.