- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

Allida Black didn’t start her holiday shopping until yesterday, leaving her little time to work around shopping hurdles. She wanted to buy a charm for an elderly friend who has trouble hooking jewelry clasps, but couldn’t figure out an alternative.

Employees at Timberland clothing store suggested attaching the charm to a leather shoelace so her friend could slide the elongated necklace over her head.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Ms. Black, 53. “People are going out of their way to be helpful.”

She and other shoppers interviewed yesterday at Tysons Corner and in Georgetown reported positive customer service experiences during what was expected to be one of the busiest shopping days of the season.

“Customer service has been better this year,” Ms. Black said. “There seems to be more employees this year, too.”

The crowd at Tysons Corner Center in McLean was light yesterday morning, meaning most store registers only had a few people lined up behind them and that employees had time to help customers.

Mary Crane, 14, who was also starting her holiday shopping for herself and her father, observed more employees in the mall’s kiosks, many of which had two employees working yesterday. Other times of the year, there is just one person manning the booths.

“It’s better this year,” she said.

Jim Yassine of Sterling was surprised by easy flowing traffic to the shopping center yesterday morning and said buying the boots, scarves and gift cards for his daughters has been smooth sailing.

“So far, so good,” said Mr. Yassine, 52. “But we have a lot to do.”

Keeping shoppers happy during the holidays is important to retailers, as November and December sales bring in 25 percent to 40 percent of yearly sales. This year, the National Retail Federation, a D.C. trade group, expects sales to climb 6 percent to $439.5 billion.

Nationwide, one survey suggests customer service lagged this year. America’s Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., business development firm, found that 24 percent of shoppers this year have walked out of stores where they could not get sales help. Last year, it was 12 percent.

Good customer service is a key factor to a store’s success, said John Swinburn, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a Dallas trade group.

“Customer service really is the embodiment of a company’s brand promise,” he said.

In a survey of mystery shoppers, the group found that 40 percent of people are more likely to return to a store where they’ve had a positive customer service experience.

“That can translate into some enormous dollars for the retailer,” Mr. Swinburn said.

Kim Malinowski, 42, said yesterday that she’s returned to Teavana, a tea specialty store in Tysons Corner, three times because of her positive customer service experiences there.

“This store was great,” said Ms. Malinowski, of Arlington. “They’re pleasant, have suggestions, don’t rush you. They take every tea down to let you smell it.”

As the day progressed, shoppers reported mixed results.

Felicia Meier, who finished her shopping yesterday in Georgetown, said service at the stores she visited — Barnes & Noble bookstore and Urban Outfitters clothing store — was good.

Mary Harms, 54, and daughter Meagan, 23, said the small boutiques in Georgetown provided thorough service while the chain stores were a bit understaffed.

“You usually get good service, but this time of year they’re frazzled and it’s not up to the standard it usually is,” said Meagan Harms, of the District. “It depends where you go.”

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