- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The success of online shopping has changed the way retailers — online and traditional — serve their customers.

Retailers are making shopping more convenient and more personalized to try to improve their image and make spending money in their stores easier.

Electronics retailer Best Buy in 2002 bought Geek Squad — a computer and electronics support provider that embraces the stereotype of geeky computer whizzes — to make buying and using complicated electronics easier.

The group of electronics specialists, or “special agents” as they are called at Geek Squad, go to a home or fix a device in one of their stores or locations within Best Buy stores.

Geek Squad is one of a number of services traveling to customers in their homes instead of waiting for busy people to come to them.

Safelight AutoGlass in Bethesda and Capital Heights will come to customers’ homes to repair car windshield glass. And Bergmann’s Cleaning Inc. in Kensington and Arlington provides free pickup and delivery.

Geek Squad encourages customers to use its home service. Employees say they cannot guarantee that a product, when fixed in the store, will work with customers’ home speakers or other products.

The service also has found that when their workers are in customers’ homes, they build a relationship in which customers can freely ask questions about their complicated technology.

“Being invited in and a guest at [their] home, you understand their lifestyle and how best to help them,” said Nate Bauer, a special agent at Geek Squad.

The U.S. Postal Service also has started focusing more on customer service. In the D.C. area, 15 post offices have extended their hours, most to 7 or 7:30 p.m.

The Postal Service has been hurt by competition from e-mail and companies such as FedEx and DHL. First-class mail volume did not increase last year, ending an 80-year trend.

“We’re looking to keep our revenue up there where it has been in the past. Part of this is we’re not being as convenient,” said Deborah Yackley, a U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman.

The number of automobile dealers nationwide offering evening and weekend hours has risen from 18 percent to 22 percent over the past five years, according to an annual survey by the National Automobile Dealers Association.

For example, the service department at Rich Morton Lincoln Mercury in Annapolis has extended its Saturday service hours from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to accommodate people who work during the week.

While good customer service can help a company, poor customer service can hurt a company much more.

“If you have a bad customer service experience, you’re going to tell the world. If it’s good, you might not,” said National Retail Federation spokesman Scott Krugman.

More Internet shopping options have given consumers the upper hand in bricks-and-mortar retail stores, said Claes Fornell, a professor of business at the University of Michigan and the executive director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which has tracked customer service for 10 years.

“They’re more powerful relative to the seller than they ever have been in the past,” Mr. Fornell said. “There is more pressure on the company to try to satisfy the customer.”

The companies that understand the relationship between good customer service and good sales will prosper, he said.

“They’re trying to capitalize on the generally pretty poor service and benefit from that by doing better and providing something different to get more personalized service,” Mr. Fornell said.

Online retailers have made buying their products easier than ever.

Peapod LLC, an online grocery delivery service provides Web sites that record shoppers’ previous shopping lists, convenient for shoppers who buy the same items each week. Shoppers can find selections personalized for their diets or nutritional needs. Peapod is owned by Royal Ahold of the Netherlands, which also owns local grocery chain Giant Food Inc.

“You can watch for sodium, fat content, calories or sugar,” said Elana Margolis, a Peapod spokeswoman.

Peapod will even place groceries on the kitchen counter.

Netflix, an online DVD rental company, provides customers with their own page on its Web site where Netflix recommends movies based on which ones the customers have said they liked.

“It’s personalized to each person,” said Steve Swasey, a Netflix spokesman. “There are 3.6 million customers and we have 3.6 million Web sites.”

Customers keep a list of the movies they want to rent and Netflix sends them to the customer. Depending on the package, customers can have one to nine movies at a time.

Booksellers Amazon.com and Borders.com also suggest items based on previous purchases.

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