Year in Review: An SA's got to do what an SA's got to do

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Note: No Reader Outfits tomorrow, though please feel free to send in outfits for 1/8 anytime! All outfits I've received this week will run on 1/8/2012. 

If 2010 was the year Anthropologie exploded in my closet, 2011 was the year I started exploring other brands again. It's painful to say that since Anthropologie is my favorite store but it's true. Over the course of this week (and leaking a bit into next) we'll review the year that was for Anthro and look ahead to 2012.

During a trip to Philadelphia I watched a curious scene unfold at the Walnut St Anthropologie. I was waiting in line for the cash wrap. The customer in front of me, already at a register, was getting huffy and I couldn't help but listen to their conversation. She had three or four items ready to be purchased and wanted to use the birthday discount. But she didn't have the birthday card from Anthropologie with her, or any form of ID proving it was her birthday month. When the SA explained that she needed to see the birthday card or at least a state ID the customer bristled. The SA offered to hold the items or do whatever she could but unfortunately she knew her manager would not allow her to just apply the discount.

The customer asked for the manager, who told her the same thing as the SA. The customer then proceeded to berate the store manager -- called her names, explained how she didn't know anything, and promised to tell all of her friends how awful a store Anthropologie was and how especially awful the manager was. All this over $40 or so. I had instant admiration for the manager, who even after this inappropriate public onslaught politely told the customer that she was happy to hold the items for 48 hours but that the policy was that she needed to see that card to give the discount. The manager even apologized and explained that without the card, if her totals at the end of the day didn't line up the store could get penalized and that was why she was holding firm, not because she didn't want to help. With one final curse-laden tirade the customer left fuming.

It's tough sometimes being a store associate.

With all of the issues I've experienced with Anthropologie in 2011 one thing has remained top notch: the in-store customer service. I'd need more than two hands to count the wonderful things SAs and managers have done for me this year. They've mailed large purchases to me from the store. They've called me when a new item I'm looking for comes into stock. They've helped me put together outfits and they've helped me find items that a particular store doesn't have. They've opened their doors to me early for personal shopping appointments. And none of this is special treatment -- it's stuff they'd do for any customer.

Many of the NYC SAs know me and are wonderfully friendly. But even outside the city I hardly ever encounter an unhelpful Anthropologie employee. It's the same deal with charge/sends or store pickups. I've been to Anthro in more than 10 states and in 10 states the staff has been wonderful. That's pretty impressive! (And I can't say the same for some of the other chains I visit on my travels.) Every so often I get emails from community members about stellar treatment they've received. I always encourage them to forward these to the home office so the managers and staff can get the kudos they deserve. Besides the NYC staff whose awesomeness I know firsthand, I constantly hear great things about the Durham, North Carolina team, the Santana Row team in California and the Wayne, Pennsylvania team at the first-ever Anthro store.

Issues do arise unfortunately. I hear sometimes about particular stores with unfriendly staff and I know from time to time SAs have bad days. But more often than not the conflicts between customer and staff originate in outside factors. Let's take a look at some.

Inconsistent policies/Wrong Information
Many chain stores post their return/exchange policies right at the cash register. I understand why aesthetically Anthropologie doesn't want to -- they're pretty ugly posters. But I do wish the store associates had some kind of quick reference they could call on when a customer questions a decisions.

For example, one of the most common incorrectly-applied policies concerns price adjustments. Anthro's own website clearly states that items are eligible for PAs within 14 days of the order shipment. Yet I've heard countless SAs tell customers that PAs are based on the order's placement date, not the shipment date. Usually the SAs will give the PA anyway as a courtesy, but when something is a matter of policy there shouldn't be any need for special courtesies!

Another common misgiving is around combining discounts. Can you use the birthday discount on top of other promotions? If a sale item gets an additional cut while on promotional discount can you get both the PA and the promotional discount applied? The new point of sale system at Anthropologie's stores has cleared this up somewhat -- store SAs can't key in more than one discount per transaction so if the price doesn't already include the discount you can only apply one promotion. Yet even with the physical impossibility of applying multiple discounts I've heard customers argue and try to bully their way into paying a lower price.

A final common issue is wrong information. Sometimes this on the customer side and sometimes it's with the SA. As word of the birthday discount spreads many people feel entitled to it (as is the case with the customer at the top of this post) without realizing that it's a lottery and a perk that not every customer receives. We'll leave the discussion of the validity of a lottery for another post. And on the flip side, sometimes it's the SAs who don't have the right information about charging shipping on charge/sends or applying price adjustment to out-of-stock items, etc. It's weird when the customer is more informed than the SA but this time of year I'm sure many community members have experienced just that. And it's not because of lack of training, it's just that seasonal SAs especially can't be trained on every scenario. You learn as you go for the outlier cases.

Does anyone work over here?
Ever waited (and waited and waited) to try on a pair of shoes at Anthropologie? I hardly ever see the shoe room at Rockefeller Center staffed -- I almost always have to flag a harried SA down. At Chelsea Market the shoe display is by the cash wrap but the shoes themselves are downstairs, meaning even a nearby SA has to trudge pretty far to retrieve my desired size.  Doing a charge/send is also a guaranteed minute-muncher from your monthly phone allotment, though at least Anthropologie has drastically improved this process by fielding charge/send calls down to the fitting rooms or backstock instead of through the cash registers.

And while Anthropologie has become much better at calling its staff to the cash registers when the line gets very long, I have still waited for 15 minutes or longer during my brief lunch break while 3 or 4 of 8 registers are staffed.

My pet peeve at Anthropologie has to be the fitting room service though. I have waited over 10 minutes for my size before (sometimes finishing up all my try-ons long before the item arrives) and been told my size isn't available only to find it myself on the racks a few minutes later. I stopped going to the 5th Ave Anthropologie for awhile because on Saturdays the fitting room line was routinely 30 minutes long. (Ever waited 30 minutes with 18 items on your arm? I have, and I have the hanger scars to prove it. And yes I realize that in trying on 18 items I am part of the problem!) 

These are all minor quibbles of course and don't detract much from the overall experience. I understand that to remain profitable a store only employs so many people. I guess I just wish they had holiday-level staffing all the time or at least a better disbursement of staff. It's always kind of weird to me when I see the store manager walking behind the cash registers but not actually running one during the high traffic periods. (I know why they do it -- still not sure I agree why it's done that way.) I've seen customers end up taking out this frustration on SAs even though it's not their fault.

A lot times the issue is that SAs and managers only have so much latitude. A policy from the home office might make sense in writing but be plain silly in practice. I hope that Anthropologie will take a look at some of their policies that don't make a lot of common sense. When I worked retail a wise manager told me that the only policy he wanted me to remember was that when in doubt, err on the customer's side. If you do that, he told me, in the end both store and customer will win.

The intent of this post isn't to blame customers or SAs or Anthropologie -- just to remind everyone that we're all human and yes, at the end of the day it is just clothing. I've seen people take the attitude of treating SAs like lower-class citizens which is ridiculous, and I've seen SAs be unnecessarily rude to customers on rare occasions. For us as community members I think it's doubly important to treat SAs well. We're in the stores a lot, we know our stuff, and if we build relationships with the stores they'll reward us with excellent service and maybe a few hints every now and then. Especially at this time of year when customer patience wears thin and SAs are managing large crowds let's remember to treat each other like equal human beings. We'll all be happier for it.

The weekend in-store community post

Friday, December 30, 2011

I have noticed a lot of community members sharing in-store deals and spots in the comments of various posts. Inspired by the weekly Seek & Find posts started by the lovely Alexis over at J.Crew Aficionada, I think now is a good time to start a similar weekly post here.

This post is for community members to trade information. You can ask for help in finding an item, report back on what you saw in-store at your local Anthro, ask general questions, make a request, or just stop by to say hello. I love how helpful this community can be! Please note that items for sale belong in the Trade Market, as do 'looking to find' requests for past season items. Comments that erroneously get posted in this thread will be deleted.

Some FAQs....
- What does "sub" mean?It means that people are subscribing to the comment thread. You can do this by either clicking the small RSS icon at the top right of the comments section or by selecting either subscribe to "all new comments" or "replies" in the comment box in the comment form.
- Someone in the comments said they wanted to buy an item from me, but it's been x hours and I haven't heard squat. What should I do?I give people 24 hours for the benefit of the doubt. After that move on to the next person that contacted you.
- Someone said they returned an item at the store 20 minutes ago but I just called the store and it's gone. What gives?!?
A store associate might have taken a fancy to it or a customer might have grabbed it. Maybe it's just at the bottom of a big ol'pile. Unfortunately, you're out of luck.

Recommended reading:
Gigi's tips for a successful swap

Guide to commenting with IntenseDebate.
How to add photos to your IntenseDebate comment.

**IMPORTANT NOTE** At the moment,  the 'subscribe' feature is not working consistently in the comments. It's only working for people with IntenseDebate accounts, and only sometimes.

Year in Review: When Anthropologie's technology fails us

Thursday, December 29, 2011

If 2010 was the year Anthropologie exploded in my closet, 2011 was the year I started exploring other brands again. It's painful to say that since Anthropologie is my favorite store but it's true. Over the course of this week we'll review the year that was for Anthro and look ahead to 2012.

There is an incredible shift happening in the commerce landscape. While sales at many brick and mortar stores decline, online sales surge. On Christmas Day alone online shopping was up over 16%, with mobile purchases up over 170%. Online-only stores are using your local businesses and chains as their test drive centers. People are using their smartphones and tablets to purchase items at triple-digit growth rates. Consumers are shopping online more and more with the expectation of fast, effortless on-demand browsing and purchasing.

In the apparel world, many stores seem unprepared for this dramatic digital onslaught. In 2008 and 2009 J.Crew's website suffered constant downtime, be it application unavailability or the dreaded 500-series internal server error page. They seemed to have mostly solved their issues while other brands have suffered since. Earlier this year the Ann Taylor family of stores ran a special promotion for just a few hours on their website. They were so unprepared for the traffic surge that their websites crashed.

If it's not a problem with scalability (perhaps some autoscaling is in order, CTOs?) or server load then inventory seems to be the issue. Rumor has it that faced with stock issues in their warehouse, Barney's scuttled to the store racks to fulfill some online Christmas orders. Best Buy cancelled some eagerly-awaited Black Friday-placed orders just 10 days before Christmas.   

And then there's Anthropologie. Since it's the shopping website I visit most often the problems probably seem amplified to me. We all know the many fun games Anthropologie likes to play on its website, from product page redirects to the endless popback items that aren't actually in stock. While the site has had its quirks for as long as I can remember, these small failings become epicenters of frustration when you repeatedly examine them. Anthro's certainly not alone in these usability issues but since this is an Anthro-centric site they get the star treatment. I'm sure they're thrilled!

It's in stock. It's not in stock. It's back in stock?!?
Stop me if you've heard this one before. You order an item from Anthropologie's website. There seems to be plenty of the item in stock, yet a few days later your item is cancelled. Alright, that sucks but it's not the worst thing in the world. Then while surfing Anthropologie's website to soothe your disappointment you notice the item that you just got a cancellation notification for is mysteriously available. So you order it again! And a few days later you once again get a cancellation notice. What gives?

The underlying issue here comes from inventory reconciliation. I'm going to dive into the business end a bit here: Anthropologie places orders for each of its items through a Purchase Order. When the items arrive at the warehouses, the teams receive a certain number of the item, let's say 1000 just for kicks. So the warehouse team reports receiving 1000 of an item and now the website's database has 1000 of the item available to purchase.

More likely than not a few of those items get lost along the way. Maybe 5 fall out of the bin in the warehouse. Maybe 10 get lost. Maybe 3 rip or break. Maybe 2 get stolen. This isn't really a problem when there's 500, or 250 or even 100 of an item left to buy. But when you get down to that last 10 it becomes a big issue. The website doesn't know that Anthropologie really only has 997 of an item when there were originally 1000. So I place an order for my ring as the 998th order, which gets sent to the warehouse picklist and the warehouse team cancels my order because they can't find stock. The warehouse team might not be able to edit the inventory for the website manually though, so when my order is cancelled the website still thinks it has 2 of the ring available. So it shows the item as a popback that's back in stock. Then someone tries to order the ring and the same thing happens to them until someone on Anthro's team can finally tell the website database that no, actually we only had 997 of the ring so it's out of stock for good. Until that fix is made these ghost popbacks keep happening -- an item appears in-stock but there's nothing in the warehouse to fulfill the order with.

Another issue that happens is that too many people order an item at the same time. This is primarily the case on sale mornings or during special promotions, like the 50% off sale Anthropologie had on Black Friday. The ERP (that's the system companies like Anthropologie use to keep track of inventory, among many other things) could be the fastest application known to man, but unless there's some kind of stock-wait programmed into the website, 100 people could easily order an item within milliseconds of each other. Unlike at a physical store where you can see when the shelf is empty, it takes even the fastest database milliseconds (or more) to catch up with the order requests. So you and I and 98 of our friends might all want the same item, in the same size, and we might all get an order confirmation at 9:38 AM, but if there's only 10 of that item in stock only 10 of us are gonna get it. The other 88 of us are going to be pissed off in a few days when the cancellation notice arrives.

If I'm Anthropologie (or Ann Taylor, or any of the other stores that have experienced this purchase flood), my first call would be to Gilt, or RueLaLa, or Hautelook, or one of the flash sale sites. I want to chat with their CTO and development team about how they manage inventory during the rush at 11 AM or Noon or whatever time it may be. I want my team to make sure the marketing is super clear that there are only limited quantities of these sale items available and once they're gone, they're gone. I try to take a zen attitude with my orders -- especially with popbacks. Low inventory is very hard to manage. But that can't last forever. Because while a 25% off coupon is a nice consolation for a cancelled order at some point my patience will run out.


It's on sale...or is it?
I enjoy playing the Sale Guessing Game with the community on Monday nights! Come Tuesday morning however my patience wears a little thinner. So come the overnight when sale markdowns begin to show few things annoy me more than having to click through each and every product to verify my sale list. Sometimes items will show up on sale overnight, only to be back up to full price come 9 AM ET. Other times they won't show as being on sale until that time. And other get the picture.

In Anthropologie's defense they'd probably say it's best to just wait until 9 AM ET to see what's on sale, when items officially move into the website sale section. But we all know here that our favorite item might already be gone by that time. The waiting game is one we don't want to play.

I don't think Anthropologie has any nefarious intentions on Monday overnights -- I think they're legitmately having issues getting all the sale items to show at the same time. I can't decide if it's website glitches or something else coding-related that are causing the irregular markdown reveals we see. Whatever it is, it's annoying beyond words and I hope Anthropologie fixes the problem quickly in 2012.

You get free shipping but I don't. You get the emails but I don't.
This isn't a coding glitch -- it's a purposeful marketing and I detest it. Loathe it! Wish it would die a slow, painful death. What is it? Multivariate testing. A marketing ploy designed to see what works and what doesn't to draw a sale out of the customer. Sometimes multivariate testing can be good -- let's see what happens if I put this button here, make that box blue or red, etc. But when the tests revolve around some customers getting promotions while others don't it makes me seethe.

I had a boss awhile ago who used to say: "All customers are equal. But some customers are more equal than others." Meaning that while the general customer base should always feel special, the VIP customers are the ones really receiving that VIP treatment. And while I get that in the shopping world those that spend more will always get behind the velvet rope something so obvious as a promotion that works for thousands of customers but not others is going to piss people off. Earlier this year Anthropologie started experimenting with free shipping promotions. Some people got free shipping on all orders. Others on orders over $150 or $200. Still others until a certain date. And some people got nothing at all. (Ah, the control group.)

Worse, the company started splitting email blasts into groups. Anthro members get some emails and not others. That new outfit set on the website? Maybe you hear about it via email and I don't. I get an email about sweaters and you get an email about dresses. I am invited to a store event but you're not. Etc. You and I both contact customer service and ask to be on every email list. We both continue to get just some of the emails.

The issue here is that up until 2011, Anthropologie has had stellar customer service. Incredible. Heads and tails above most other stores. They successfully spread the perception that each customer was invaluable to the company and they would do whatever it took to keep us satisfied, within reason of course. Now the message is more like, "You're important to us sometimes, and other times we could care less. You'll take what we give you and like it!"

What kind of message does Anthropologie think it's sending by giving some customers information and not others? Or giving some customers discounts and not others? They avoided this game for so long. This year they've gone right off the reservation. The only thing these games stir up in me is apathy. I look at my spending at J.Crew -- huge in 2007 + 2008, down a bunch in 2009 with the website issues, nearly zero last year and this year with the stupid promotional games. Saks 5th Ave -- jerked me around on a PA last month, won't be getting any of my money for the foreseeable future. Customers hold long grudges. Does Anthropologie want to bet the farm on marketing games? Hopefully not in 2012.

Hey, remember that catalogue from 4 months ago?
This one is more a plea than anything -- Anthropologie, please don't wipe your catalogues from the site after 3 months! You want to cut catalogue circulation but won't let people access the pretty pictures a quarter from now? What do you have against your own art?

I'm only scratching the surface only items, wishlist limits and frustrating UI design, reviews where I have to re-enter my information every time. Blargh. I'm exhausted just thinking about it. I feel for Anthropologie's tech team, who I'm sure is just as annoyed as me by some of these issues. Other decisions though leave me wondering if Anthropologie remembers who its customer base is.

What say you community? 

Eye Candy: Anthropologie January 2012 Catalogue

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A new year is nearly upon us. What can we expect from Anthropologie in 2012? The January catalogue offers us the first sneak peek. There's barely a sweater or long layer to be seen! Instead Anthropologie goes for the 'thinking of spring already' angle with lots of bare arms, legs and faces. At first I wasn't very excited but as I look more closely at the items I see a lot to love. Could it be...cute fantastical prints? Flattering dresses? Some adorable classics with a twist? I think Anthro is on to something here!

The dresses are gorgeous as always though some of my favorite new releases, like the Vesta Chemise ($188), the Lorna Dress ($188) and the Geneva Dress ($288) didn't even get the catalogue treatment. Others like the seriously adorable Grass Court Dress ($168) seem more like an afterthought. Anthro should be promoting the heck out of their more whimsical items! I'm cautiously optimistic after seeing the newest items. I still have no idea what I might spend the birthday discount on from the clothing side (if I get one, hasn't arrived yet!).

Eye Candy below! What do you think of this January catalogue preview?

Dropped Dots Dress ($158) with Jameson Boots ($258) 
and Tromso Satchel ($498).

Three pairs in this shot: the Flyaway T-Straps ($368), 
the Wainscott Heels ($308) and the Jujube Heels ($418).

Anthropologie's SALE is on like clockwork!!!

It's a smaller sale than we've seen the past few weeks. I'm sure for many in the community this comes as a welcome relief. The 50% off sale promotion has ended but FREE SHIPPING on orders over $100 continues for USA Anthro lovers. Some highlights from this week's cuts include the Beaded Felt Pencil Skirt (now $150, review here), STYLE #23517600, the Flickering Slip Dress (now $100), style # 23539786 and the Pamyla Dress (now $120), style # 22948350. Starter list of cuts below -- I'll update later in the morning.

Do you see any 2nd/3rd/etc cuts on your wishlist? Please let us know in the comments! As always, Happy Hunting!! Accept no imitations.

Audrey Tulle Dress (now $200), style # 23452642

Bright Ideas Dress (now $80), style # 23796493

Brocade Paisley Dress (now $200), style # 23571086

Chardonnay Sheen Dress (now $100), style # 23265564

Flickering Slip Dress (now $100), style # 23539786

Hourglass Sand Dress (now $80), style # 20993630

Jolee Sweater Dress (now $70), style # 23908114

Pamyla Dress (now $120), style # 22948350

Poised Pleats Dress (now $100), style # 23761091

Polished Platinum Dress (now $200), style # 23553084

Rising Snowdrops Cardigan (now $90), style # 23492309

Softer Diamonds Cardigan (now $50), STYLE #23427701

Woodland Haze Top (now $70), STYLE #23091895

Dazzled Bryony Shell (now $100), style # 23417306

Illilouette Fall Top (now $30), STYLE #23427487

Midnight Blooms Corset (now $60), STYLE #23630635

Beaded Felt Pencil Skirt (now $150, review here), STYLE #23517600

Cleft Maxi Skirt (now $100), STYLE #23552144

Glasbury Pencil Skirt (now $80), STYLE #23074586

Inlaid Sweater Skirt (now $50), STYLE #23448319

Paruma Skirt (now $120), STYLE #23629280

Starshine Bolero (now $70), style # 23531353

Tineke Rose Shorts (now $80), STYLE #23581614

Wintertide Shorts (now $60), STYLE #23632839

Borrowed Cables Sweatshirt (now $50), STYLE #23299712

Fleece Moto Jacket (now $70), STYLE #23061054

Madero Hoodie (now $50), STYLE #23160559

Pinwheel Breeze Loungers (now $30), STYLE #23410509

Plain-And-Simple Cami (now $10), STYLE #953438

Safe Keepings Hoodie (now $50), STYLE #23301708

Silken Hoodie (now $60), STYLE #23060262

Softened Edges Loungers (now $50), STYLE #23563638

Wisp Maxi Chemise (now $40), STYLE #23614464