An Open Letter to Retailers About Keeping Customers Happy this Holiday Season

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dear [insert the name of your favorite retailer here],

It is hard to believe that another year has passed and I will soon be visiting your store again to buy holiday gifts.

I am a bit concerned about something, however, and thought I'd drop you a note. It seems that many retailers have slashed inventory this year, perhaps more so than previous years. One of my favorite sources of information, Fortune magazine, said that Abercrombie & Fitch's inventory is down 42%, Ann Taylor is down 30% and Talbots is also down 30%. I hope you aren't doing the same.

Look, I know there has been a recession going on. And I get it that consumers haven't been spending as much lately. But let me explain to you the problem. When I come into your store to buy holiday gifts, I have already made a decision to buy from your store. From your point of view, the hard part is over -- I am here, in your store, with money to spend.

Let me tell you the things that annoy me the most about holiday shopping:

1. The noise, the crowds and the frantic nature of holiday shopping. I know you can't do anything about this, but I thought I'd start with the easy ones.

2. Sales associates [I know you probably have a fancy name for them like "Customer Satisfaction Representatives"] who have forgotten that the reason you are in business is because you have customers like me. I do get irked by shop assistants who act as though they have better things to do than work in your store and help me out.

3. Not being able to find what I am looking for because your merchandise is in illogical places and then spending 20 minutes walking around aimlessly either trying to find someone to help me or trying to find the item myself.

4. Not being able to find what I am looking for because you are out of stock.

Now, let's think about that last point for a minute. I want to explain why this point continually haunts me by illustrating with a personal story. A few years ago, we wanted to buy our son an Xbox for Christmas and, as it turned out, so did many other people. Every day for about five days, we visited BestBuy, Circuit City, Good Guys, Target, EB Games, Game Stop, FYE, and Wal-Mart in an effort to locate an Xbox. Each time, we asked three simple questions: (1) what time do deliveries arrive into store; (2) could the sales associate let us know how many Xbox units would be allocated to the store; (3) could we "book" and pay for an Xbox in advance. The answers were pretty uniform: (1) deliveries come in over night, but arrive anytime in the morning; (2) sales associates don't know how many units are allocated to the store; and (3) no, you can't reserve and pay the product. In addition, many sales associates rolled their eyes at us and, if we asked whether more units were due before Christmas, we would get a fairly standard reply "I don't know, perhaps you could come back later", or a more "helpful" reply was "it might pay to shop around". It became clear to us was that the burden was firmly placed on our shoulders, the shoulders of the customer, to do the work in order to spend money. Doesn't make sense, does it? I really hope we are not in for another year like this.

The problem I have in all of this is that I have already decided to spend money at your store but then the burden is placed on me to pursue the products I want to buy. It reminds me of Kmart, who filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2002. There were many given to explain Kmart's demise. One of them was inadequate investment in technology such that Kmart could not track, order and distribute inventory into stores. Please don't fall into the same trap by cutting back on your inventory too severely.

I know this has been a tough year for you, and I sincerely hope the holiday season goes well for you as I like your store and hope to visit you gain in the New Year.

Yours truly,

Jenny Darroch

Jenny Darroch is on the faculty at the Drucker School of Management. She is an expert on marketing strategies that generate growth. See