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Jeff Ward: Service Is Downtown Geneva's Edge Over Randall Road

A friendly greeting and personal attention brings me back every time.

As you might imagine, because of my consistent commentary, the topic of comes up quite a bit in conversation these days. And I’m not nearly the only Genevan who believes our central business district’s demise is already determined.

But my while my fellow prognosticators and I may agree on that ultimate outcome, it’s the method by which these downtown merchants will hang separately that separates us. While I see the mortal wound as self-inflicted, the others tell me it’s the Geneva Commons competition that will eventually do them in.

There’s no doubt that will be a line in the inevitable epitaph, but whenever someone says, “they just can’t complete with Randall Road, my immediate response is, “How can you not compete with Randall Road?” Most of those folks on that thoroughfare couldn’t spell the word “service” if you set 'em up with a cue card.

You all know I always think of downtown Geneva first, but when it comes to groceries and used PS3 games, Third Street ain’t an option. So after avoiding it for months, last week, in just two trips to that West Side strip mall wonderland, I had two of the worst shopping experiences I’ve ever had.

We’ll start with Dominick’s.

Despite my describing the horrors of grocery shopping with my wife, because I love her and have some serious masochistic tendencies, I found myself standing beside her as we wandered the massive grocery enterprises’ many aisles.

Being the cook of the family (Yes, ladies! I also cook and clean!), I broke out of our tight formation to embark upon a quest for anchovies. Most grocers stick ‘em in with the sardines and tuna fish, but not Dominick’s.

Coming up empty, I scanned the nearby aisles for some expert help, but since everyone’s cutting back on staffing these days, that effort was fruitless. So it was on to the service desk which also happened to be unmanned.

After standing there for five minutes, I finally noticed two employees intently conversing with each other over a computer set up at the end of one of the registers. My plan was to ask one of them: Who was working the service desk?

But after only getting out the words “Who is,” without even turning around, one of the women thrust her outstretched hand within millimeters of my face declaring, “I’m busy right now.”

When she turned around and saw the look of annoyed astonishment on my face, al least she had the good sense to turn bright red, at which point, I simply walked away.

Though I can’t seem to convince my wife, all my future grocery shopping will take place at Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market, where they still have some idea of what the term “customer service” actually means.

It’s too bad we don’t have that kind of grocery store in downtown Geneva.

On to the PS3 games.

Normally I choose to patronize Play N Trade next to the Batavia TJ’s, because they also understand that “service” is a verb and not a noun. But, despite all those previous bad experiences, I was intrigued that Best Buy was selling pre-owned video games.

C’mon! How could anyone screw up the process of taking a couple of games off the shelf and over to the register and checking out?

But they managed to do just that, because when I got to the checkout, it was roped off with a sign redirecting shoppers to the customer service counter. So now those of us trying to make a quick purchase were stuck with all the folks going through the process of making interesting and convoluted returns.

A wise manager would’ve designated one of the three return registers for checkout only, but the words “wise” and “Best Buy” are almost always oxymorons.

With four customers down and four more in front of me, one of the clerks proceed to try to sell a reluctant patron one of those worthless two-year warranty plans on a disposable electronic item. Figuring that 10 minutes in line was more than enough, I walked around the ever expanding line, set the video games on the counter and walked out of the store never to return.

You never have to deal with that kind of abject stupidity on Amazon.

Now let’s juxtapose those dismal Randall Road episodes with an average visit to Geneva Running Outfitters near Starbucks on State Street.

Upon entry, Eric and his staff offer a warm greeting, which will actually include your name if you’ve been there before. They might even ask how your current endeavor, column writing for example, is going.

They know their merchandise, they know their customers, and they know running. There’s no loyalty card, they don’t try to sell you magazine subscriptions, and they don’t offer extended warranties. If you’re a member of the Fox River Trail Runners, you get a discount.

It’s that simple. And they’re open until 7 p.m. EVERY week night so I can even head down there after dinner.

Because it’s such a positive experience, I always spend more money than anticipated, but still leave with a bounce in my step happier for having a lighter wallet.

Despite the cheaper options and west side convenience, I wouldn’t even consider buying my running gear in a mall.

And that, my friends, is how you compete with Randall Road.

Doug Jones February 13, 2012 at 01:26 PM
Jeff Nice article! Thank you for mentioning the Fox River Trail Runners. Doug Jones VP - Fox River Trail Runners
Colin C. February 13, 2012 at 01:48 PM
Great article Jeff. Those who have lived in Geneva since before Randall Road's malls existed have witnessed many ups, downs, and evolutions in downtown Geneva. The health of local stores ebbs and flows with the economy. We have seen empty store fronts before but Geneva has not been as badly hit by the malls as have many downtowns. Still, we are not immune to recessions and poor planning. Two things that have helped Geneva weather the storms in the past are the wonderful selection of restaurants that we now have (a rather recent development) and the selection of specialty items available in many "boutique" shops that simply are not available elsewhere. I think that service is important but retailers offering unique items that are not widely available comes in a close second. Remember, we started with the Traveler and about a dozen antique stores who did not even try to compete with mass merchants. I still think that's the philosophy that will win in the end.
Noel G. Rooks February 13, 2012 at 01:52 PM
It never fails to amaze me that Dominicks is still in business. The bad service and bad selection isn't limited to the Geneva location, every one I have ever been in is like that. That's one of the reasons why I disagree with your theory that Geneva's downtown will decline - I would so much rather pay a little extra and not be treated like I'm inconveniencing someone by spending money in their store.
Jeff Ward February 13, 2012 at 03:06 PM
Noel, I just wish there was a grocery store in downtown Geneva! Jeff
Chad Baker February 13, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Jeff, I am with you when it comes to supporting businesses in Downtown Geneva including any business that is not owned by a large corporation. The problem is that many of the Downtown Geneva businesses make it tough. With both adults in our household working, we need stores that are open in evening, preferably until at least 8 PM. I prefer to shop during the weeknights because the weekends always are booked with sports, scouts, etc. So where do I head, Randall road. No service, but great hours. Downtown Geneva business owners have to understand you can’t close at 4, 5, or 6 and expect long term success. The one that really blows me away is the Great Harvest Bread Company which closes at 5 PM. The most crowded train of the night arrives in Geneva at 5:58 PM, wouldn’t you want to stay open for people that want to stop on the way home for fresh bread! I suggest that that the Downtown Geneva businesses model themselves after the urban shopping avenues of the past. Stay open on the “traditional shopping nights”, Monday and Thursday until 9 PM and close early the other nights. That would be a great help.
John Usedom February 13, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Jeff, you may or may not be right about the demise of downtown Geneva, but you are 100% correct in regards to customer service making or breaking a business. This applies to any business. Whether located in the Commons or in downtown Geneva, stores like Geneva Running Outfitters and Yankee Candle make guests feel welcome. Then there are other stores where you feel like a dollar sign or an interruption to a staffer’s day. For all my visits to downtown Geneva stores, whether alone, with family or friends, unless I am a regular, most locations do nothing to make someone feel welcome upon arrival or appreciated when leaving. As my business is customer relationships, I watch to see if others are treated with the same lack of respect. The bittersweet answer is, it is not just me. I’ve seen staff talking amongst each other not even look up to acknowledge a guest. When you consider the size of the typical store in downtown, it is hard not to know you have a guest in your store. Your view of downtown Geneva’s demise may be prophetic, but as Colin suggests, changing the focus has the ability to change the future. Businesses need to focus on their customers. Make every guest who takes a chance by walking in, realize how appreciated they are. Treating people with respect will keep them coming back time after time after time. The majority of the stores in the Commons started out with just one store on some Main Street in some town. Customers grow businesses.
Colin C. February 13, 2012 at 09:09 PM
Chad brings up an interesting point. Perhaps downtown merchants should think about opening from noon to 8 PM or something like that. "The Ladies Who Lunch" can eat, then shop. Those who work regular hours could still make it downtown before closing. As for competing with the malls and online, my wife made her first solo purchase at the Merri-Lee when she was still in grade school, many more years ago than we care to remember. Since that time she often shopped there--that is until several years ago. She told me that whenever she dropped in there was always something different, unique, that struck her fancy. But recently it was just like going into Chico's or J. Jill or one of the other chains. That change made her and both our daughters very sad.
Jeff Ward February 13, 2012 at 10:16 PM
Chad, I've made that evening hours argument over and over again to no avail. However, I do know the owner of great harvest bread and will pass your thoughts along. Jeff
Jeff Ward February 13, 2012 at 10:17 PM
John, The sad thing is you're dead on about downtown Geneva's lack of customer service. I was hoping that framing a positive example might be a better tactic this time. Just don't tell anyone else! Jeff
Marty Kane February 14, 2012 at 01:34 PM
Chad- The reason Great Harvest closes at 5pm is simply because there was little to no business in the last hours. Trust me, we stayed open later for years in the hopes that the train crowd would stop by, it did not happen, my guess is that we are too far from the train parking lot, its not top of mind when you worked all day and want to get home. Bakeries also are not a late night destination like other places on 3rd street. Our operating hours are longer than most on 3rd street, the difference is that we open 3-4 hours before most places. Please come by on Saturdays though, our superior customer service and quality products cannot be beat.
robert poznanski February 14, 2012 at 02:09 PM
The best customer service, ever given, will not work, if there are no customers!! This economy,has been very hard on quite a few people, including the business', who rely on traffic (customers) to sell there wares!! Its not to hard to figure, if wages remain static, jobs are hard to come by, and the price of gas takes more and more from the working person's wage, something, has to give! If you want to blame customer service, or the lack of it, as the main reason for a business' success, you are just partially right, but having the "traffic" to purchase your wares, is the most important part of any business plan,and without it, you can see the results, on the corner of 3rd and State!!
John Usedom February 14, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Marty, This is a perfect response and should be the standard for every business owner in the city. While you may have started or gotten in to your business as a love or for shear enjoyment, you still need to make money to stay in business. That said, if enough of YOUR customers wanted you to stay open you surely would do so. It's your business and you and only you should have the final say on your hours.
Justin Eggar February 14, 2012 at 04:13 PM
First of all, what ever made you shop at Dominick's? There are quite a few other places that are far superior (in every way). The customer service at Dominick's is atrocious. I used to go to a Dominick's some years ago, but I'll be honest... I stopped going because I just don't care to hear how people hate their jobs (or their bosses, other customers, life, etc) and have them act like they were doing me a favor to allow me into their business. Dominick's is obviously one of my hot buttons... but back to the point at hand. There are a few places in Geneva that really do customer service well. Grahams 318's staff is always welcoming and take the extra time / effort to provide excellent customer service. Likewise, GRO / Eric have great customer service and always make customers feel appreciated. There are more places than that, but I won't mention them all. On the other hand, I can't tell you the number of times I've walked into a store and either been treated like a $ or ignored completely (until it just got so awkward that I had to say hello). To be honest, I've been treated like that at far too many places. That does need a change... at some point in time, people realize they don't need to shop with you any more if you only smile at them when they flash $. To another point, the hours most Geneva stores hold just aren't enough. One store can't hold later hours and change anything though... there has to be a larger consensus from store owners to create momentum.
Marty Kane February 14, 2012 at 04:16 PM
Thanks for the response John. All of us who own a small business do it for the love and freedom it can bring, but we also need to make money in order to live and support our families just like everyone else. We try very hard to produce a quality product and strive to be the best at customer service. We like everyone else are doing what we can to survive in this crazy economy. Small business does not have the ability to buy in bulk like the big box stores, we also do not get the tax breaks like the big guys...that is why we do our best to make your experience at Great Harvest a positive one. We create value in other ways. Its not always about a price point. Now I have to go pull the Dakota bread out of the oven. Happy Valentines Day!!! Open to 5pm...
John Usedom February 14, 2012 at 04:18 PM
This is the chicken and the egg discussion. Customer service is so much more important when the economy is down and people are far more selective on how and where they spend their money. The number of shoppers may indeed be down, so the business should have more time for each shopper they are lucky enough to get. Fewer people may be spending but most who choose to spend will still pay more for quality service. Treat these people well and they will tell others and that is the absolute best marketing any business can get and it’s free. Changing our eating and exercise preferences will not show immediate results, it takes time. This is why a business doesn’t want to miss a chance at giving great customer service at every opportunity – each person who receives it, will surely tell another. The better the service, the more people who will hear about it. The more people who hear, the more customers a business will have.
Justin Eggar February 14, 2012 at 05:18 PM
I keep my office open until 8pm (except Fridays') and Saturdays (which isn't the norm with insurance)... do I do that because I like paying the extra payroll or working 60+ hour weeks? No, I do it because my customers are real people living real lives working real jobs, and they are every bit as busy as I am. As a business, I can not and should not expect them to work around my schedule. I'm not doing them a favor. I mean sure, we will always do the best we can for our customers... but, that doesn't mean I'm doing them a favor, it means I'm living up to the promise I make them. They are doing me a favor by utilizing my business in a market that to be honest, is chock full of insurance agents and financial advisors. We need a few different things here... longer shop hours being just one of them. 1. More businesses that will attract an evening crowd (we already have people down town at our restaurants during this time frame). 2. More business run events that encourage people to be downtown (by business run, I mean something that isn't completely put together by the Chamber... they pull their share already). 3. More diversity downtown. This ties to my first point... we are doing great as a "boutique town", but we might find that in the years to come towns relying heavily on this type of business will suffer. There are quite a few other things that could be done... but, we might want to look at St Charles and incorporate some of the things they've done successfully.
Katlyn Eggar February 14, 2012 at 09:33 PM
I think this is a great article because I love downtown Geneva and want it to thrive and grow as well. I do agree that some diversity downtown (i.e. a Trader Joe's) and longer hours would be a great change to see. However, longer hours do not necessarily mean better customer service. I think that great guys like Marty should be recognized for the great service they give regardless of the hours they choose to be open. Wal-Mart is open 24/7 but I rarely receive exceptional service there and therefore do not shop there. That said, I do agree that many of the shops downtown would see an increase in revenue if they 1) seriously considered the stats for staying open longer and 2) held more evening hours in-store events to create excitement and drive traffic.
Noel G. Rooks February 15, 2012 at 02:34 PM
Jeff - I think the problem with a grocery store in Geneva is parking. The thought briefly crossed my mid when I heard all the Merra-Lee shops were closing that maybe we should push for, say, a Whole Foods or something similar in that space. Then I thought - have you ever tried the WF parking lot on a Saturday? Where the heck would all those people park? It's a complicated question, downtown development, because unfortunately so much suburban life revolves around the car, and old downtowns predate this.

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