Sunday, July 31, 2011

Nothing Special

We live near a small strip center with a Starbucks, Subway and Panda Express. It’s close enough to walk to, but far enough away that we don’t suffer from the traffic that it attracts. We liked Longs Drugs, which anchored the center. It had a lot of what you need, so that if you run out of milk or batteries, you could make a quick trip.

Longs also had a funky edge. As various holidays approached, you could always find some cute “yard art” – which Donna loves – like a three-foot tall “Monster Crossing” figure for our front porch at Halloween, or an appropriately patriotic gizmo with American flags that we break out every 4th of July. And their variety of Christmas lights and knick-knacks was as equally impressive as its prices were reasonable.

About two years ago, CVS/Pharmacy bought out Longs Drugs nationwide, and our favorite neighborhood drug store was transformed. The aisles are cleaner, the lighting a bit less harsh, the paint and carpet fresher. But its character was lost in the name change.

Much less funky. Fewer cute holiday-themed kitsch. Longer lines at the check-out. Fewer smiles from the pharmacy staff. In fact, no one looks like they’re doing anything more than waiting for their shift to end.

What CVS does have, however, is an “Extra Care” rewards program, where you rack up credit for purchases. You may not feel much employee-love now, but you’re always asked if you have an “Extra Rewards” card to scan with your purchase. And you’re encouraged to approach a free-standing scanning station each time you enter the store – and if you’ve racked up enough credit, money-savings coupons are automatically dispensed. To be honest, the savings can be worthwhile.

As I’ve confessed in earlier posts, I’m a Starbucks fan, and Donna and I usually stop by for a cup of coffee on Saturday mornings, and sometimes on Sundays as well. With CVS right next door, we still shop there. But less often than before.

Beyond locational convenience, there’s nothing that distinguishes CVS from other drug stores. Not the service. Not the selection. And the bribery of the “Extra Care” rewards program is not earning our loyalty.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Water Bob

We moved into our home five years ago and inherited a reverse osmosis drinking water system. And a water softener. I’m not a fan of the water softener, but for peace in the family, I live with it. But I love the RO system. An oft-repeated platitude is that you need eight 8-ounce cups of water a day. I drink about twice that. Everyday.

Each year, we call Five Cities Water – aka Water Bob – to tune up the drinking water system. We have no idea who “Bob” is – presumably the business owner – but we do know Brandon. And Bob should be proud. Brandon never disappoints. He has been the “face” of Five Cities Water for five years.

Our RO filters are changed quickly and efficiently. He asks questions and gives us tips about keeping the system at peak performance. And one of our two dogs likes him. As do Donna and I. Never underestimate the “pleasant, helpful” factor if your business is providing a service. Being good, proficient at what you do is expected. That’s not exceptional or memorable. Same goes for banks. And locksmiths. And motels. And thousands of other service-industry businesses.

This year, Brandon noticed that we’d remodeled our kitchen since his last visit. Then he noticed that our “old” RO water dispenser did not match our “new” brushed steel water faucet. He offered to install a new one for us, and just happened to have one in his truck that matched our faucet perfectly. So was that good salesmanship, or good service? Both.

Ten minutes later, Donna, I, and the two dogs were admiring our updated RO water dispenser. It was the final exclamation point on our kitchen remodel. Brandon cleaned up, gave us the annual speech about “checking for leaks” three times over the next few hours, presented an invoice, shook our hands and moved on to his next appointment.

Two weeks later, we received a “thank you” card from Water Bob. He asked that if we were satisfied … tell a friend. Will do. And we’ll see you again next May, Brandon.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Steaming Cup of Consistency

My father was a coffee lover. He’d make a big, big pot of coffee in the morning and drink it all day long. Black. Lots of sugar. Me, not so much. I never drank much coffee until a few years ago. And it’s strictly decaf.

My coffee drinking is social. A friend has stopped asking me to go with her for coffee. She likes to walk down Higuera Street, order a cup and bring the coffee back to work. For her it’s all about the coffee itself. Not for me. I like to go to the coffee shop. To sit and relax. Carry on a conversation over a steaming cup. Or just open my laptop, sipping, checking up on email or the latest “news” on HuffPost.

Lots of people don’t like Starbucks. But I do. There’s one four blocks from my house. Two more – facing each other, one in a Barnes & Noble – five blocks from my office. And tens of thousands worldwide. Their sheer numbers make them easy targets for naysayers.

My preferred coffee is flavored. On weekend evenings, I like mine with Kahlua and cream. Sometimes with Baileys. But my favorite is with chocolate – a big mocha. Decaf, of course, no whip. It’s how I size up coffee shops. Starbucks makes my favorite mocha. And the best is at the downtown SLO Starbucks.

What makes it “best?” Consistency. It’s always made the same way. Not too sweet. Heavy cocoa flavor. No thick syrup residue at the bottom of the cup. One young barista, with short platinum hair, is the queen. When she’s making the drinks, it’s going to be great. Excellent staff. Smiling, cheerful, friendly, and helpful; genuinely engaging without pretense. And there’s a refreshing sameness; I frequently see familiar faces among relaxing customers, regardless of when I visit.

I like Peets Coffee in downtown SLO. Tables outside, in a prime people-watching spot. Excellent iced tea. Cool vibe. Efficient staff. But not a great mocha. And that’s my gold standard. It all starts with the “product.”

Saturday, June 4, 2011

OSH b'gosh

We had honey-do projects planned around the house for the three-day Memorial Day holiday. I was to replace the lighting on our porch, and Donna wanted to repaint our front door – red! So, off to Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) we went. It’s close to our Arroyo Grande house, and unlike Home Depot, it’s not overwhelming looking for the things we need. And it was “we pay the sales tax” weekend – the best time to buy!

We walked in the front door and right to the paint section to check out color swatches. After selecting the shade of red from a plethora of choices, it was off to the paint aisles. Which brand? Flat, satin, eggshell, semi-gloss, gloss or enamel finish? Good, better or best grade? Choices, choices – so many choices. But choose we did, and our next stop was the paint counter to have our perfect shade mixed for us.

Ricky was great! He asked questions and guided us to a more informed – and cheaper – choice for painting our front door – the first thing people will see when approaching the house. And his best tips of the day – prophetic when Donna started painting the door – were that the wet paint will look disappointingly pink when wet, and we’ll have to give the door multiple (final count was five) coats, since red is among the most difficult colors when covering a white surface.

Flush with painting confidence, we set off to the lighting department and found an equally daunting number of choices. I liked these three, she liked those two. And then we both saw exactly what we wanted. One problem. We found three lights and needed four. Enter Jared, the store manager who just happened to be walking by and asked if he could help. Yes, please! He checked – no more in the back room. Worse yet, this model was being phased out and might not be available. Scarcity – which, of course, made us want it all the more!

Jared checked around and found what we needed at the Paso Robles OSH. He called the store, asked them to set one light aside, then called his assistant manager – who lives in Paso Robles, but works at the AG store – at home and asked him to drop by the Paso store on Monday morning and pick up the light on his way to work in Arroyo Grande. Then he gave us a rain check so that we’d pay the “no sales tax” price.

Monday morning, shortly after 8 am, OSH called and let us know that our light was at the Arroyo Grande store, ready for us to pick up, at our convenience.

I don’t know if we could have purchased the same lights elsewhere, for less. But the customer service we received was of great value. And we’ll gladly go back to OSH for our next home project. Hmmm … come to think of it, our bathroom light fixtures are looking a little dated. Might be time to go shopping.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Almost Joyful

I don’t tend to see myself as a person susceptible to infomercials. In fact, I tend to view them as lower-scale entertainment and a bit campy: exaggerated expressions, graphics and overly serious announcers or spokespeople.

I’ve had nagging lower back issues for years. I visit a chiropractor regularly and do back exercises several times a week. And it has helped. But while at Kennedy Club Fitness in Arroyo Grande on consecutive mid-Saturday afternoons – a prime time for local TV stations to fill their programming with infomercials – I viewed portions of a 30-minute BackJoy message without sound and just the graphics and closed-captions to convey the wonders of this lower-back miracle product.

I smirked the first Saturday, but mentally noted and checked it out that evening. By the second Saturday, I was intrigued enough to further investigate – including checking and eBay – to see if I could find the product (or a knock-off) for less than the truly amazing $39.95 (plus $11.95 shipping and handling) advertised on their website.

Mysteriously, my lower back was tweaky the next week, so I convinced myself to try an experiment. I ordered my very own BackJoy – made easier by the “money back guarantee” which pushed me from interested to committed.

The online ordering process couldn’t have been easier. And with a tracking number to follow my package, I checked its progress across the country to my front porch. After thoroughly reading the instructions, I took my very own BackJoy to work and put it to use on the first day. And the second day, which included a 3-hour round trip drive to Santa Barbara. My back felt fine, but I kept feeling that my legs were losing blood circulation.

By the third day, it was clear BackJoy was not for me. I checked their website, called the toll-free number and requested the money back guarantee. My customer service rep was pleasant and shifted into problem-solving mode to salvage the sale, asking questions about how I used BackJoy. To no avail. She then explained the returned-product process. Ten days later, my charge account was credited (less $11.95).

So, what did I learn? I’m not immune to infomercials. But this product did not live up to the lofty expectations I had for it. Was that my fault or theirs? Fortunately, it all turned out well. And my “experiment” cost me only shipping and handling.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Late for the party

I am not much of a shopper. At least not in brick-and-mortar stores. I don't enjoy the "experience" of shopping - browsing for just the right item. I much prefer, Zappos and online shopping in general. What's not to love? Easy price comparisons, delivery right to your home or office, no-hassle returns. All that's missing (for me) is being able to touch or try-on the items, and the instant-gratification that buying at a store provides. I do most of my gift buying - and a fair amount of my personal shopping - online. Which makes it all the more puzzling that I have only recently discovered the wonders of eBay, first-hand. Credit my wife. Donna had a Dooney & Bourke all-weather-leather handbag when we met. She loved it, but gave her purse to a friend a few years back. After that, it seemed a fading memory. Until I started teasing about her "man bag" - the not-particularly-attractive purse that seems more like a small piece of luggage; once an item finds its way into it, and settles to the bottom, there's not much chance of it ever being seen again. I've been told in no uncertain terms that they are quite "popular." My comments and her work friend sporting a "vintage" Dooney & Bourke that her husband bought her online spurred Donna to Google research. That led her to eBay and a breathtaking assortment of D&B items. After a quick and steep learning curve about auction bidding, she purchased a beautiful purse. Then another. Then I got hooked, and added to the growing Moon family Dooney & Bourke collection. Again, what's not to love about eBay? It can be online shooping at its best. A massive inventory, which changes by the minute. The fun of competitive bidding - it's almost as addictive as gambling - so that you control the price you're willing to pay. All the watch lists and instant notifications to keep you continually informed about the status of your bids. The social element of sharing photos and descriptions of items with friends. And of course, the ease of PayPal to complete your transactions, and encouragements to rate the sellers. Now Donna teases me about my "murse" - the man-purse D&B satchel I bought to carry my iPad. It's a good thing that I'm confident in my masculinity. Usually.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fumble Recovered

Among my Christmas presents from daughter Katie was an iTunes card. Music is one of my passions and I view gifts like this as a “permission slip” to load my iPhone with songs outside my usual well-worn comfort zone.

While preparing to add the gift card sum to my iTunes account online, I was a little too eager, evidently, and scratched off a portion of the 16-digit code along with the security tape that covers it from prying eyes. Whoops, now what?! Never fear, there’s an Apple store in San Luis Obispo. So, I thought, I’ll drop by on my lunch hour and see if they can help me. (If this had happened to my wife, she’d be Google-ing within minutes, and in retrospect, her approach would likely have been more efficient.)

My visit to the Apple store was disappointing. A friendly Apple employee reassured me that I was not a complete idiot – my iTunes card scratch-off problem happens to other people. But … he couldn’t help me. The iTunes “store” must be accessed online to reconstruct the secret code. He did not offer to walk me over to one of the dozens of live Apple products to help guide me through the process so I could self-serve myself right there and then.

So, back to work I went. That evening, I used my MacBook Pro to sign in to iTunes, access their “store” and navigate my way to a form to fill out. An immediate automated-response email message confirmed that my form had been received and I now had a problem resolution number and a commitment that I’d receive a personal response, within 24 hours.

Slightly less than 24 hours later I did, in fact, receive a personalized email message from “Manu” the iTunes customer support specialist. He (I’m making an assumption Manu is a man) was polite, seemed to care and, most importantly, fixed my problem; my iTunes Card code was located and step-by-step instructions were provided to redeem it to my account.

Oh, and 24 hours after that, Manu sent another message to see if I was experiencing any difficulties with the card or the iTunes Store. Nice touch.

After a shaky start at the Apple Store, this is a story of good service “recovery” and ultimately a satisfied customer. And I just ordered an iPad 2 … but that experience will have to wait for a future article.