Customer Service At Big Retailers Often Sucks

Customer service is the most obvious area where "bricks and mortar" stores can outdo their cheaper online rivals. However, a 'shadow shopping' exercise by CHOICE confirms what many of us have long suspected: customer service in major retailers is often poor, and Harvey Norman is the worst offender.

Picture by Richard Kendall/Getty Images

CHOICE sent four shoppers out to branches of ten major retailers (Big W, Bunnings, David Jones, Dick Smith, The Good Guys, Harvey Norman, JB Hi-Fi, Kmart, Myer, Target) and ranked them for availability of staff, product knowledge and returns process. In many cases, the experience varied depending on the store and the staff, but some clear patterns emerged.

Hardware chain Bunnings consistently provided the best experience, while Harvey Norman was the worst. CHOICE's shoppers cited "poor customer engagement; inconsistent product knowledge; some evidence of pushy sales tactics", which sounds exactly like what happened the last time I set foot in Harvey Norman. Staff were harder to locate in the discount chains (Big W, Kmart and Target), but tended to be just as helpful as those in the pricier department stores.

Which retailers do you find most helpful? Tell us in the comments.

Customer service shadow shop [CHOICE]


    Australia is to service what the North Pole is to warm weather. Whether it's retail stores, bars, restaurants the issue is the same: SERVICE IN AUSTRALIA SUCKS . Gerry Harvey's response of sticking his head in the sand and being in denial is symptomatic of a country foolish enough to believe that a modern, educated society is none the wiser or unaware that there are better options out there. Time for Australian businesses to join the 21st century and stop treating their customers like mugs.

      I don't know, most stores I go into these days have friendly staff willing to help, with a few exceptions. Lack of knowledge is the biggest problem I think.

        Shane, it's not that the service is bad per sae. It's that you can get that much better service in other places (America specifically).

        Bunnings has always been good though.

      You have obviously never been to Europe. Mostly it's taken that they are doing YOU a favour!

      Bobby... Customer Service is bad in Australia because customers themselves are stupid, have no idea what they want or what they are talking about and usually forget a very important step towards receiving good customer service, and that is to first help themselves. This does not mean "do it yourself"... this means help yourself by providing correct information when you want something, therefore customer service consultants can assist you with what you want. You need to remember, customer service consultants are not mind readers, we don't know what you're thinking or even what you are trying to say. I've worked in customer service for a very long time, and let me tell you... customers are VERY RARELY correct. Know what you want or what are looking for before you ask and you'll find we will be abel to (and more than happy to) assist you more to your liking, it's just lazy to put the acid on us because you have no idea !

        Shaun it doesn't matter if the customer doesn't know what they are looking for its your job to help them know what they are looking for stop being lazy and do the job you are paid to do

    I have 3 major electrical retailers in my town. Harvey Norman is by far the worst, their lack of knowledge is appalling... assuming you even get approached by a sales person anyway. Dick Smith is not far behind; they lack the knowledge as well but generally try to help. Retravision is the third store, and they are quite good. Their IT guy is amazing with his knowledge and help, and the rest of the staff are friendly as well.

      8 years ago Dick Smiths had a lot of very knowledgable staff. I used to walk in and buy cabling by the metre or electronics components and they'd always be able to offer useful advice.

      As they've made the transition to a generic retailer, most of that has been lost. There's still some smart people lurking but they're seriously outnumbered by those who'll just read you the description on the box.

      Really? Retravision are a bunch of dodgy folks in my town. I went in there and the shelves were almost freaking empty. I used to go there because they had a good camera guy there, but it seems he left, and I don't blame him by the state of the store :-(

        That was likely due to the fact you probably went in there while they had supplier issues, Vince. I'd guess if they haven't closed, the shelves are probably full now. It happened to my local Retravision too. It's funny, they used to have two IT guys, one was really good, the other one was apparently let go during the down turn. That was good, I always found him to be a know-it-all son of a b**** :)

      I used to work at RetraVision: you get approached because they work on commission.
      The store I worked at was a family business - the owner and his wife worked there full time, and made sure there weren't any obvious service problems, because they ran the store and also cared about it's long term performance.
      I was the IT guy. The knowledge of the one before me wasn't bad, but also wasn't great.

      There were downsides:
      - the sales guys were ruthless - I saw them sell stuff for over marked prices just to bump up their commission. They'd push you at the product best for their pay packet, not the one best for you.
      - you got different levels of service depending on how much money you were spending

    Gerry Harvey must be smoking something awfully strong to be that delusional! I avoid HN at all costs! A manager at the Cannington store in Perth tried to start my Dad once when he tried to return a HDMI cable which he was told he could return if he wanted. He had just bought a $7000 TV.. obviously their cut was still not big enough. I am still angry I let him buy it!! He ended up getting one from the new MSY store a block down.

    Yeah, Harvey Norman's service sucks balls but try getting someone to help you at Bunnings on the weekend for the worst assistant availability. I'm generally not too worried if the assistant isn't really up to scratch on information as I always try and get as much info beforehand, but assistant availability is my pet gripe!


      Availability of staff at Bunnings is shocking. I frequently go to Mitre 10 because amazingly, a staff member comes to you and asks if you need any help.

    I don't necessarily disagree with any of Choice's findings, but we should probably remember that their data is based on the findings of four people, in one weekend, visiting each store once, in the one city (Sydney). Obviously policies and training are one thing, but seeing as shops are generally staffed by humans, service will probably be different from store to store. My advice would be, if you've had a good or bad experience with the particular staff at your local store, direct your custom accordingly.

    If I actually want some help in a retail store like those mentioned I try to go on a weekday rather than a weekend as that's when the best & most knowledgeable staff are often on duty. If I know what I want and don't need any assistance I don't really care when I go.

    But I am doing more and more shopping of all sorts online as the service is becoming outstanding these days - often there are chat while you shop options or quick and easy messaging which is responded to quickly and informatively. I reently had to do a return to a kitchen gadgets online store and the process was very good - no cost to me, no querying of my integrity and my replacement item was with me in a few days. Gerry Harvey needs to stop finding outside elements to blame for why Australian retail sector isn't doing so well and take a good long look in a room full of mirrors.

    JB Hi-Fi are by far the worst when it comes to product knowledge. I didn't want to get any info off them, but few years ago they had a Samsung 42" HD LCD with a price - Samsung had 4 different 42" HD LCDs at the time. I asked what the model number was - the response was "That doesn't matter, the size and type is all that does." I told them it does as there are 4 different types, and they said "We're the experts, not you. It doesn't matter.

    Another time I was after printer toner (usually buy it at OfficeWorks but was at the centre where JB was) - they had the Y, C & M toners but no black on the shelves. Asked if they had any in stock, and all the printer toner we stock is on the shelf. If it's not there then we don't sell it. I questioned him "You sell the 3 colour toners, but not black?" and he said "Well if it's not on the shelf we obviously don't"

    JB also try to avoid everyone (seen by observation mainly) as well unless you're a hot female.

      Which JB is that? All the ones I go to, I feel like I have to dodge staff members! Being a nerd I just don't need their help, but I have seen plenty of dodgy sales shortcuts from there and every other electronics retailer.

        Loganholme. I've never, ever been asked for help. The 2 times I've wanted help (about the TV & toner) was hard to their attention.

        But I've seen all the staff run up to hot females as soon as one enters that area - asking if there's anything they can do.

          Sorry meant never asked if I needed help

          +1 re the comments about Loganholme.

          Zero interest from any of the staff, so I left.

    Service at companies like Harvey Norman basically consists of Sales staff harassing you whilst you are browsing and ignoring you when you want to purchase an item. It is hard to walk through a Harvey Norman Store, for example ,without several Sales Droids 'jumping' on you . This is not service this is Sales harassment.
    I also notice the local Apple store had a line of staff through which you have to walk...the Sales Droid wall. Reminds me of the line of Pickpockets outside Rome's railway station in Italy.

    No OfficeWorks mention? Regarding the customer service, it is a known fact that most of the Australian population are not satisfied with their jobs. Having said that, retailers suffer the most due to the amount of face to face customer service. However, I believe that the culture set up by leading example by HN, is just plain disgusting. I find Gerry as well as his puppeteers (Franchisees) to be the REAL game changer here. The people that work/have worked in his stores are very approachable and are not different than any other people working in other industries. It is Gerry himself that runs the show in a way that old age typical sales person with minimal general knowledge would run it. But the funny (or sad ) thing is that he comes out on TV and blames the people that work for him. It is always the people, yet, they are the ones that bring profit to him and his stores. What does that tell you? I certainly would not work for person like that. In these tough economical times, people are struggling to survive let alone to express their true feelings. As they say, sooner or later, things catch-up with you. We have seen some downfall of Gerry's dynasty, but the worst is yet to come. I feel sorry for the people that have to work for him as he clearly shows signs of dementia.

    Before I read any other comments, I have to say my experience in the local KMart in Broadway shopping centre was unexpectedly good. They're going through a store refit, and upon asking the doorperson for help finding an item she automatically escalated it when she didn't have an answer, finding someone who could help who then searched their stockroom for me - all for a $5 kitchen utensil.

    Now, to be fair I don't know if he actually searched or just stood around for a minute because he already knew that they were out of stock. But I felt listened to and *served*. A good impression, and I will definitely be back if I need anything else.

      For Kmart, it's pretty much what's on the shelves is what's there, meaning there wouldn't be a check at the back :S

    One of my major gripes with service in Harvey Norman and Myer is that staff work for different businesses within the store, and are't able, or willing to help you in different areas. A few weeks ago my wife was shopping in Myer and picked up a top off the rack that was 30% off. We continued browsing around the area but when we went to pay at the register the discount was not included. When we asked, the checkout check advised that the discount was from a different 'store' in the shop and only the register for that store could give the discount. Very poor customer service. My wife didn't buy the top.

      That's more poor management/organisation than poor customer service - as someone who's worked at Myer, trust me, the staff wish they could, but because of the hierarchy, they can't.

    The last time I went in to a store and didn't already know more than any of the salepeople was before the rise of the world wide web. Do your own research.

    My sour HN experience (I wonder how many people have at least one) occurred at the time of the HP Touchpad fire sale. I'd popped in as soon as I'd heard that I could pick u pa 16gb for $99 or 32gb for $149 (I think?). I chatted to a staff member who advised that they didn't have any left. I was a bit ho-hum, early bird gets the worm and I clearly wasn't early enough! My partner wanted something else from the store and I walked back in with her only to observe another customer being handed a touchpad!!! "What a sec, I was just advised that there weren't any left for sale!!!???" I was really annoyed that I'd been given incorrect information from an employee which caused me to miss out. I'd made a special trip in to secure one of these touchpads and walking out empty handed had cost me time and money, something I can take if they'd run out but a bit more difficult when it's their stuff up. After escalating the issue, the Manager sold me a touchpad that had been put aside for friends/a staff member!!

    EB Games has outstanding customer service both in-store and online. They've done right by me countless times, every time they lost some money, but gave me a better deal which is how to gain a loyal customer who will spend more in your store in the long run.

    One time online, I bought a game, it came through, but the sticker marked it as a couple of dollars cheaper than I paid and I after-the-fact found out that there was an option for free shipping which would save me like $4 (not bad for a game that cost me $8 plus shipping). Anyway, I sent off a polite email explaining the situation and they got back to me that day saying they were refunding me both the shipping and the difference between what I paid and what the sticker said.

    In-store (Marion if it makes a difference) whilst I don't like them trying to press-gang you into buying that shitty gaming magazine, they are brilliant yet again. I was in the market for buying an Xbox - saw a deal for something like $280 for xbox, controller, 3 month Live Sub, Halo Reach and Fable III.

    I rang them up, just to check it wasn't an online offer and made it clear to them (inadvertently) that I was coming down that day to buy the pack if it was in-store. They said "Yes it is, but wait until tomorrow to buy it, when Mass Effect 3 comes out and you get that and a ME3 poster for free with it.

    Didn't have to do that, but there ya go.

    Also a quick and easy refund/exchange policy. On the same day I bought the 360, I got an HDMI cable for less. It didn't work, took it back the same day, they were very thankful that I brought back the packaging as well and exchanged me for one that worked inside of 5 minutes.

    I've written a lot. Oh well, they're worth it.

    Bunnings i would understand have the best customer service as they have individual employees at specialise in specific areas in which they'll almost always be there.
    Large store + large variety of goods + Good amount of staff.

    Kmart however being a discount chain apply a Cost-Leadership strategy, meaning they'd minimise costs wherever possible (eg. expenses, wages), which is why you see fewer employees in stores and recent trend in hiring younger inexperienced teenagers (first jobs or first retail job). Pretty much you'd expect from Kmart is efficient service, being asking for where items are or if there is any, value-for-money products, and pretty much be able to walk in and out of the store with no problems.

    In general it really depends on employee experience, training and their personal attitude.

    Spot on Choice. While the economic climate has much to do with the retail slump, service and product standards can also shoulder some blame. Abrupt, pushy staff at Harvey Norman (Bundall) flogging defective goods the store and manufacturer refused to take responsibility for was a trading disaster. Scant staff at David Jones Robina sent me elsewhere for a product I got 50% cheaper – the other I got online within five days at a significantly reduced price. Bunnings is great. Mature, well trained and product informed staff leave the robotic, vague youth force at Target, K-Mart, Big W and IT stores in their wake.

    Hardly Normal and JB HiFi - Always Total Assholes.

      I totally agree. I tried to return a defective product to JB HI FI twice ($379 headphones that randomly cracked on the headband - and I took careful care of them). I explained the situation I the staff but they didn't even look at the product or even ask me general questions, they told me that they didn't accept returns and they basically wanted me out of the store.

      I finally got a refund by emailing the store manager with a complaint (I tried phone calling but the lady was so rude) and finally he accepted me with an open mind and told memo ask for him personally, which I did. He took one quick look at the product and said "I'll hook you up with another pair of headphones right away. Which ones would you like?"

      So I did eventual get another set of headphones but it took weeks. It all depends on the store and their staff


    Now maybe Harvey Norman will add value to their service, rather than take away value from consumers by lobbying for taxation on imports.

    I *was* a sale-assistant at Jaycar. I prided myself on my electronics support for my customers. Then we got a new manager. I was 'always wrong'. I quit.

    I still have customers (10 yrs later) walking up to me in the street and telling me about the "Golden age of Jaycar".

    Salesmen (and women) make and break a bricks and mortar retailer. I shop online for electronics unless I need it in a hurry.

    I dare any aussie to experience American customer service for the first time and not shed a tear in the process. Australia is light years behind in customer service, is not Harvey Norman fault , it's just a cultural thing.

    Harvey Normal is definitely the worst offender. A couple of months ago I bought a netbook for my sister as there was a promo at Harvey Norman with a $500 cash back. After I sent away the forms to Harvey Norman I waited 2 and half months with no money. I had to call up Harvey Normal for them to say they didn’t receive my form. Luckily I sent it via registered post so someone did sign for it. After countless hours on the phone to Harvey Norman and also 3 and half months overdue I finally got my money back!

    I don't understand why people think just because you work in a retail store you have to suddenly know everything about every product available. If you are after something and you're not sure what to get why can't you do the research yourself before coming into a store? People only gain knowledge with experience and that takes time. You simply can't expect some teenager in a department store or any new employee for that matter to have extensive knowledge about every product. Do the research yourself it's not hard, then you will have nothing to complain about.

    People who complain about the staff in retail obviously haven't worked in retail. I don't understand how people pass judgement unless they've experienced it themselves. The number of times i have been telling a customer the right information and they disagree is unbelievable. I'm to talking about opinion, i'm talking about facts. Customers these days are stupid, obviously not all, but the majority.

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