Why Is Online Customer Service So Good and Real-Life Customer Service So Bad?

A dead microwave made me understand why shopping on the Internet is so popular

So the microwave died, quite suddenly, over the weekend. I didn’t mourn it for a minute, because it was purchased by my husband and was huge—much bigger than we ever needed—and black and hideous, and also the buttons to set it were inside the door, which made it the stupidest microwave ever manufactured as far as I was concerned. I set out on Saturday morning to replace it, after having done a little bit of scouting online to see what microwaves cost these days. I wracked my brain trying to think of a locally owned store at which I could shop for a microwave, since I’d really rather give my business to the little guys, but couldn’t come up with anything.

I headed first to Best Buy, because they’d had the biggest online selection. In person, standing in the aisle, I had far less choice. In fact, the only white microwave they had in the size I wanted was a floor model, and while the sign said they were willing to knock $10 off the price because it was “out of the box,” I didn’t like the way the door was closing—especially since the door was what had just broken on the black behemoth. Next store.

Walmart was very, very busy. I don’t know what it is about parking lots at Walmarts, but they bring out the crazy in people. Driving highly defensively, I managed to park and head inside. The selection was as spotty as at Best Buy. There was a display model I liked, but, again, it was the only one in stock, so far as I could tell. At neither store had anyone approached and asked if I needed help. So, screw Walmart. On to Lowe’s.

I’d only ever been in Lowe’s once before. I get nervous in those vast warehouse places. But I managed to locate the microwaves. Again, one white model available. What about all the jillions of choices I’d had online? I guess they wanted me to shop online. But these stores, even if they are corporate behemoths, at least employ my friends and neighbors. Besides, dammit, I needed a microwave; I didn’t want to have to wait, and then go through the do-si-do of trying to arrange for delivery.

There were a couple of boxed-up versions of the white microwave that was on display. But the white microwave on display was only mostly white; one part of the exterior shell was actually beige. I looked around for somebody to ask if this two-toned-ness was an aberration. A woman was sitting with a couple at a computer terminal at the checkout desk, helping them with an order. I made eye contact with her. “Go ahead,” the female customer she was helping urged her, but she shook her head and went on with their transaction. Fair enough—even though their transaction went on for another 10 minutes and I only had the one quick question: “What’s with this one beige piece?”

Finally, they finished up. The clerk moseyed over. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I want to buy one of these, but I want mine to be all white, not white and beige.”

“Hmm,” she said. “I don’t know why that’s like that. Maybe because it’s been sitting out?”

So what’s to keep it from doing that in my kitchen, huh? “If I buy one of these and open the box, will it be all white?” I asked.

“Should be,” my customer service ace said.

“Great,” I told her, and put the microwave in my cart.

“Have a blessed Christmas,” she said, with an utter lack of warmth.

I brought the microwave home and set it up. It’s all white. So far.

Here’s the thing, though. On Friday night, I bought my husband a set of martini glasses over the Internet. (Don’t tell him; they’re a Christmas present.) So far, I’ve gotten five separate emails updating me on the status of my martini glasses. The online merchant seems downright frantic to keep me informed of where those glasses are. And right now, I feel a helluva lot friendlier toward the online merchant’s computerized tracking system than I do to the sales clerk at Lowe’s, not to mention the nonexistent customer service people at Walmart and Best Buy.

I know those jobs don’t pay much. I know those stores are understaffed. I understand there’s not a lot of money in the budget for training. But dang, people, if you want me to shop in your stores, you’re going to have to have some actual items in stock, and you’re going to have to have someone available to answer my questions without my having to stalk them through the miles of aisles. Bare minimum. That’s what I’m asking. Or I’m getting my next microwave online.