Recently, I made a shopping trip to my local Office Depot (which is, incidentally, two storefronts down from the Circuit City I’ve been haunting). While I waited for the mysteriously absent manager to resurface (she was the only person with a key to the room where they stored the copy of TurboTax I was trying to buy), I noticed a sign neatly tacked up above each register, in plain view not only of the cashiers but of customers.
This “Cashier Script” (which looks to me like it’s a slide from a PowerPoint presentation) is a good example of the basically poisonous nature of extended warranties and other protection plans. They’re so absurdly profitable that retailers can be tempted to go to extreme measures to push them on customers. In this case, the pressure to sell them is apparently so profound that store management wants every clerk to “recommend” them, every time. (Call it the Krusty the Clown “I heartily endorse this event or product” school of marketing.) And with the signs out in the open, all the artifice crumbles away–protection plans aren’t about providing informed advice to customers, they’re about closing sales.
So I was fascinated and disturbed–but not completely surprised–to read an investigative report at Laptop Magazine’s site that charges local Office Depot stores with telling employees to flat-out lie and say that in-stock notebooks are out of stock when shoppers try to buy them without agreeing to purchase extra services. The theory is that this isn’t official Office Depot policy, but the unhealthy result of the lengths the chain will go to to browbeat its staffers into browbeating customers into agreeing to be upsold. Employees get commissions on service plans for laptops but not laptops themselves, and their jobs can slip into jeopardy if they fail to sell a sufficient number of plans.
Office Depot’s response to Laptop is, pretty much, a statement that it tries to provide good customer service and is looking into the situation. But it’s not a denial.
I hope that public embarrassment forces the company to crack down on funny business hard and fast, but I also wonder whether any business model that involves forcing clerks to peddle these plans is savable. Here’s one way the Depot could assure that its staffers wouldn’t lie to customers in cases like these: It could end commissions on service plans and stop penalizing employees who don’t sell enough of them. There might be a short-term hit to its bottom line. But won’t sales tactics that actively drive away customers do more harm in the long run?