Shit happens. Great stores deal with it.

IKEA could learn a lesson from Trader Joe’s

IKEA’s a retail juggernaut. But its success comes in spite of—not because of—customer service.

Back in 2011, when Trader Joe’s opened its first store in Kansas City, I got a job as a Crew Member, worked undercover for a year, and wrote ‘Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s’. People asked me if I planned to do the same thing when IKEA arrived in KC with great fanfare last year.

I didn’t; it’s probably the kind of thing you can only pull off once per career. But, I am a customer-service nerd by instinct as well as profession. I study interactions between front-line retail staff and customers every time I shop. I pay special attention at IKEA, because it’s clear the company obsessively engineers the shopping experience and as such, invites a critique of customer service; after all, that’s the single most important component of the retail UX.

That — and a large pile of dog shit — prompted me to write this commentary.

Early on, I realized that the IKEA employees you see standing at those little work stations along the programmed walk through the store are not taught to initiate or even invite customer interaction. When I’ve had occasion to ask one of them a question, I usually feel that I’ve interrupted them — even though they never seem to be occupied doing anything else.

Ikea and Trader Joe’s are both great retail brands. They’re both privately held companies, with famously idiosyncratic ownership. Ikea’s Ingvar Kampgrad is an obsessive cheapskate who brings the little paper envelopes full of salt and pepper home, after he’s eaten out at fast food restaurants. TJ’s owner Theo Albrecht was so secretive that when he died, German newspapers had to run a 20 year-old photo in his obituary. But one thing the two companies definitely do not share is an approach to front line retail staff and customer service.

I suppose I’ve just interrupted their reveries. Whatever; suffice to say, IKEA’s no Trader Joe’s. Some of my interactions have been barely above hostile; on one occasion, the IKEA staffer I spoke to had pronounced body odor, detectable from several feet away.

But I digress.

On January 5th, my wife and I seemed like perfect IKEA customers as we stopped for a plate of Swedish Meatballs in the bright, spacious cafeteria on the way into the store. I’m sure they put the restaurant near the entry so shoppers can fortify themselves for that winding hike through the store.

There were a few people ahead of us in the food queue, including one group of three who stood out: a woman of about 40, severely disabled in a heavy motorized wheelchair, with a service dog; her companion, a rather frail older woman wearing a surgical mask; and a girl about four or five years old. The dog appeared nervous but I thought nothing of it. It was, after all, in new surroundings and being crowded by strangers.

By the time we got our meatballs and reached one of the three cashiers, the source of the dog’s discomfort was evident. It had dropped a large, wet, stinking turd right in front of one of the cash registers.

Picture the scene. The woman in the wheelchair, whose dog it was, was physically incapable of cleaning it up. The five year-old cast her eyes about, wanting to be anywhere but where she was at that moment. That left a frail old woman to root through the wheelchair’s ‘glove compartment’, looking for a poo bag that was going to be plainly inadequate, for the task at hand.

Meanwhile Mary and I paid at another cash register. My wife apologized for creating a delay while she searched for exact change. Our cashier said, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not busy.”

As I carried our food to a table, an ashamed realization sunk in: I should have interrupted the old woman, told her and her wheelchair-bound companion to pay for their food and find a table, and cleaned up that mess. That is what any gentleman would have done and anyway, I’ve got a dog; I’m not squeamish about picking up turds.

By the time I’d completed that thought however, the old woman had done her best at cleaning it up herself. They moved on. I couldn’t enjoy my meatballs. Partly, because I couldn’t get the smell out of my nostrils, but mainly because I felt so guilty about not helping them out.

I was mentally excoriating myself for my bad manners when I suddenly thought, “What about the fucking cashiers? Why didn’t they do something?”

Given that IKEA owner Ingvar Kampgrad’s a notorious tightwad, it would be too much to hope that cashiers have any discretion about telling a distraught customer their meal’s on the house, but that would have been the ultimate.

After all, if a customer drops a tray of food, it’s not up to the customer to clean it up. There’s gotta’ be some mechanism whereby servers or cashiers can call for a clean up.

But three cashiers sat and watched, completely impassively as those people struggled to clean that shit up. What’s worse: that they didn’t care, or didn’t notice?

Come on, IKEA.

If you’re going to operate stores larger than indoor stadiums, that take in 5,000 customers per day, I’ve got news for you: You’re going to have service dogs in there, and once in a while, they’re gonna’ take a dump. And regular customers are, occasionally, gonna’ puke or cut themselves and bleed.

In short, shit happens. And when it happens to your customers, cleaning it up really isn’t their problem — or it shouldn’t be. It’s your problem.

Anyway, after the dog shit incident, the floor still needed immediate attention from a janitor with a mop and bleach.

Like Trader Joe’s, IKEA is a fantastically profitable privately-held company. I’m sure that IKEA’s senior management don’t give a shit what I think about its lackadaisical customer service. But they should. Not because they lost much business by leaving those poor people to their own devices, but because they missed a fantastic opportunity.

If one of the cashiers had jumped up and said, “Hey, just pay for your food and don’t worry about it,” then grabbed one of those ubiquitous ‘slippery when wet’ warning pylons and placed it over the pile of poo, then run to find a janitor; if the others had smiled and made a little joke, or commiserated with those poor people — if those things had happened, they wouldn’t have just not lost business, they would have created customer evangelists.

When I worked at Trader Joe’s, we drilled on procedures to handle customers dropping and spilling things. Several times a day, some hapless customer would drop a bottle of Two-buck Chuck and for a moment, they’d be profoundly embarrassed. But while one crew member picked up broken glass, another ran into the back to get a cleaning machine we called the ‘Zamboni’ and within minutes, it was as if the accident had never happened.

In IKEA’s defense, I have had decent customer service experiences when I’ve gone back to the store to replace missing or defective parts.

That rapid response made shopping easier and safer for all our customers, but the genius of TJ’s response to those situations was the way good crew members instinctively comforted the person who dropped the wine in the first place. We reassured customers that people dropped bottles all the time, it was no big deal, they should just get on with their shopping and definitely not stay around to help clean it up.

We turned that embarrassing experience into another reason to love Trader Joe’s. We turned customers — who at that moment, wanted to be anywhere but where they were — into people who would, in the future, always choose to come back.

It’s a lesson IKEA could learn. Unless maybe ‘Ikea’ is Swedish for, “We don’t give a shit.”