Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hands-On Or Hands-Off?

I was reading a post about someone fondly remembering his time working in a bookstore. To quote a phrase or two:
I was surrounded by great books all day, and I could always snatch a few moments to write during the work day. Now, I worked a lot, six and sometimes seven days a week, without taking a break or vacation for five years. But those stolen moments during the day were wonderful. It made each work day somehow more alive.
Now, he's talking specifically about jobs vs personal writing time, but it got me thinking...


I visit a Borders store on average once a week. As soon as I walk into the store I'm usually greeted by an employee and asked if there's anything I need help finding. If this conversation isn't made near the door, I'm usually addressed as I'm wandering. Sometimes I'm asked multiple times (by different people). Employees are seldom stationary (unless working a busy register) and always seem to have a book or three (or a stack) in their hands to re-shelve. Even those 'stationed' at the information desk (recently renovated into an e-reader/e-book station) seldom stay there for long unless working with a customer. Actually, the few times I have needed help, there was no employee in sight and I ended up going up to the register (though I think this was due to the holiday rush and being understaffed).

From having worked in the customer service industry, I'm pretty used to the "connect with customers" angle that stores often try to enforce. It was the same where (movie rental store) I worked - we were supposed to say "hello" to everyone who walked in the door, offer our services in locating their wants, and suggest other selections that they might enjoy. Customer Service is about the customer...and what will make them come back and spend more.

Of course, just down the street from my local Borders is another bookstore that I visit quite often. Not quite independent, but not a corporation either, Powell's New & Used Bookstores are a proud staple around here, well, at least among the book-buying community. Often a cross between a warehouse (in size and inventory) and a coffee shop (in coziness and atmosphere), their stores are pretty much made of awesome.

The inventory of the stores is pretty even: Both have comparable new/current releases; Powell's has a good selection of older and used books while Borders has music and movies. However, the one difference that stands out (and what Bryan's Post made me think of) is the employee protocol.

Powell's employees don't usually make an effort to engage their customers. They either stay at the registers or they're stocking the shelves. They don't dress in uniform, and they're actually sometimes hard to spot if you don't happen to see their "Ask Me" sticker. Even if you do happen upon one in the aisles, they're more likely to apologize for needing to squeeze by than ask if you need help. And yet, I don't feel any less welcome there. Because there's usually someone posted at a register or information desk, they're easy to find. And if you do have a question, they're always very knowledgeable and friendly.

As far as working at a store goes, I think either one of these would be great. But I guess I'm curious...

Which would you prefer to shop at?

Assuming you're dealing with knowledgeable staff, would you rather the hands-on but endlessly-busy workers, or the hands-off but easy-to-locate workers? Have you ever felt intruded upon by inquiring employees, or been reluctant to bother those behind the Desk Of Power?