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Alf's Articles

Dispatches from the Retail Frontlines

by Alf Nucifora

After a bout of frenzied retail buying, I always get the urge to share the experience. Most times the feedback is negative. This time, however, I can report back with a satisfied smile and a contented spirit.

It's been car buying time again. A task that I normally associate with root canal surgery, a proctological examination and an IRS audit. Inevitably, the patient suffers. But this time around, it was a pleasant surprise. The journey begins with research on my part. The reliable online sources, www.edmunds.com and www.kbb.com (Kelley Blue Book), provided the information on my car of choice, together with dealer pricing, relevant premium packages and cost, and the inside scoop on current manufacturer rebates. I was able to use an online calculator run the numbers on various leasing options as well.

Armed with this information, I visited the dealer, reviewed the colors and kicked the tires. Not having the time, energy or inclination to sell a car privately (either online or through the classifieds), I inquired about a trade-in price on my old Acura. "Don't make us take it," said the dealer, "We'll give you a lousy price and probably send it to auction any way. Go to CarMax," he advised. "They'll give you fair value and treat you well." And, he was right.

At this, my first trip to a CarMax lot, I was greeted by a young, friendly sales representative who responded enthusiastically when I told him I wasn't buying, only selling. He took the keys, handed the car to an appraiser and within 20 minutes (literally) I had a written purchase estimate, valid for 300 miles or 7 days. The estimate, incidentally, was right in line with what my online research had indicated. I returned the following day with car cleaned out, necessary documentation in hand and walked out 30 minutes later with a check. CarMax settled the outstanding loan on my old car directly with the bank (all they needed was the loan number). To cap it off, the sales representative gave me some valuable inside scoop on how to handle my new purchase. Next time I'm in the market to buy or sell a used automobile, guess where I'll be going? The experience was flawless in every respect and helped change my opinion about the retail automotive category, a byzantine world, traditionally populated by a few good guys, a lot of wheeler-dealers and a not insignificant number of rogues and scoundrels. Next time around we'll report on how it went buying the new car.

The good news continues. As a frequent business traveler, I've become a convert to the world of online booking for airline, car rental and hotel reservations. My recent experiences with two online hotel sites, www.quickbook.com and www.hotelres.com (for the San Francisco area) have turned me into a true believer. I get remarkably low prices the majority of time, the ultimate room selection matches what was specified in the reservation and, on the two occasions where I've had difficulty (one occasion, a hotel chain that wouldn't meet its commitment, the other technical trouble in making the booking), a quick call to the site's customer service hotline resulted in both matters being resolved by courteous, committed, friendly customer relations representatives. Online is definitely the way to go for business and leisure traveler who wants great prices, variety and choice and ease of transaction when booking a hotel room.

And just to reaffirm the conviction that there are still those out there that don't get it, I give you Starbucks, renowned far and wide as an industry-leader driven by a culture of delivering customer satisfaction every time. Why then is the music always at jet engine- decibel level, this in spite of the fact that most of the coffee sippers are trying to read a newspaper or book, or engaging in quiet conversation. The coffee house is, after all, the third place, neither office nor home, instead, a meeting place to talk, unwind or simply kick-back. Loud music doesn't fit the picture, yet it blares in the majority of Starbucks locations I've been in. I finally reasoned why. The music stays cranked up for the benefit of the staff members, the majority of whom are in their early 20s and, therefore, genetically predisposed to everything loud. Anything to break the tedium of the job. The customer be damned. What a shame this misstep in the in-store experience serves as a difficult-not-to-notice pustule on an otherwise peerless visage.

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