The Hess Report

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Sad Casualty 

It used to be that when people would ask me about making a tech purchase, I would send them to Circuit City. And when I found myself in the infrequent position of making a tech purchase in a brick and mortar store (as opposed to ordering from Amazon, NewEgg or Dell) I shopped "dumb" as a service to my friends and family. I pretended I didn't really know what I needed, and evaluated both the technical knowledge and the ethics of the people who served me at the store. Did they really try to help me come up with a solution to my specific need, or did they just tell me what the most popular product on the shelf was? Did they try to drastically up-sell me into a level of product that was completely beyond my needs?

For a long time, Circuit City (at least the ones local to me) passed these tests every single time. Their salespeople new their product area well. They never tried to oversell me, and a couple of times they even directed me to a lower-priced product that could be used "off label" for something that I needed to do. Once, a Circuit City salesperson told me "This is the only thing we have that can do that. It's pretty expensive and totally overkill. If you go to Wal-Mart, you can get product X, which will do what you need and costs half as much."

That's great service, and the reason that I always referred people to Circuit City. They were smart, and had always dealt more than fairly with someone whom they thought knew next to nothing. I cannot tell you how many people I had referred there. It was a lot. They certainly sold a bunch of stuff they otherwise wouldn't have, just because they impressed me with their knowledge and integrity.

Now, you might be thinking, that's exactly why they went out of business! Giving away the farm! Sending people to other stores! And if you think that, you would be wrong.

A couple of years ago, Circuit City management decided that their floor staff was making too much money. So they fired them. All of them. Then, they restructured their personnel chart, which is to say, they created a bunch of new positions that essentially did the same thing as the old positions, but with fewer people and for much less money. After that, they gave the fired formed employees an "opportunity" to apply for these new jobs.

I remember bitching about it at the time, and saying it was the end of Circuit City. Their floor staff was what differentiated them from the other stores, and they destroyed it. Willingly. Foolishly. Circuit City management was acting on the impression that floor staff was there to sell product, when in fact floor staff was there to provide service. The service sold the product.

And now, they're done for. I swung by the Circuit City closest to me last night to pick through the bones of their Going Out of Business sale. It was sad, really, to see this place that had such potential mostly bare. People were haggling with the out of town closing specialists over the discounts on the display models of digital cameras. All the employees in their Circuit City and Firedog polos looked like a PR department's worst nightmare: slovenly, listless, kind of depressed. If you've ever seen a behind-the-counter poster for proper worker appearance and dress, these folks all looked like the "Don't" picture.

I walked around the store for about twenty minutes. They had nothing there that I needed, or even wanted. Then again, I never came to their store for the products -- I came for the service, and that disappeared years ago.

Circuit City is not a casualty of the recession. They're a casualty of their own stupidity and greed.

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