The author of Doing Business in China For Dummies shares his unhappy experience buying a toilet in a Shanghai store.
I was recently surprised to learn through a bad experience that major foreign retailers operating in China outsource portions of their sales force. Several weeks ago, I paid my first visit to a Shanghai B&Q store in order to buy a toilet for our new office. B&Q is a large U.K.-based home improvement retailer.
Since 1999, B&Q has been aggressively building a presence in China. B&Q is so entrenched in China that when Home Depot entered the Chinese market by acquiring The Home Way, a Chinese home improvement retailer, there was a good deal of skepticism as to whether Home Depot could compete with B&Q. Given that B&Q has been operating so long in China, I am surprised it risks its brand equity by using a retail model I consider to be deceptive and anti-customer, the crux of which is that the store does not always employ its own salespeople.
Instead, B&Q uses manufacturer representatives to sell certain products in the store. However, the manufacturer representatives, however, are dressed in store uniforms, creating the illusion they are salespeople who actually work for B&Q.
The saleswoman with whom I spoke was dressed in an orange-and-white B&Q apron. After listening to my requirements, she directed me to a toilet brand from Australia with which I was not familiar. When I asked whether they (in my mind, B&Q) could deliver and install, she replied, “Yes, of course. There will be an extra charge, though.” Fine. I told her they would have to first uninstall the existing toilet. “No problem.” Then, I told her the existing toilet is a squat-style toilet, which is when she began to look concerned. I also told her it was an elevated-squat-style toilet when she asked whether it was an elevated- or indented-squat-style toilet.
“You will have to get somebody else to do the installation.” What? Why? “Because it is too much work for us to do.” What if I pay an extra fee? “No, I’m sorry. We cannot do it.” I then asked for her to call her manager over. She replied that her manager does not work for, nor at, B&Q. Huh? Rather, her manager works for the particular Australian toilet producer in question. Ah-ha! I asked whether it would be that producer that would deliver and install the toilet. “Yes,” she confirmed.
I informed her I would like to buy a brand whose employees did not mind a little hard work. Disingenuously, she blurted out, “None of the other brands will install it either. They all work this way.” I did not believe her, but what was I to do? Nothing for the moment. I walked away to another part of the store.
When I returned to the land of toilets 15 minutes later, the first saleswoman was gone. Another one stood in her place. I felt out the new one, and it seemed that she worked for a different brand. I was hopeful that I would get somewhere. Just when she agreed it would not be a problem for some brands (hopefully including the one she represented) to uninstall the squatter, the other saleswoman appeared. When the more helpful woman realized that I had been speaking with the Australian brand representative earlier, her tune changed entirely. “No, I do not think that any toilet company will uninstall an elevated squatter.” She did not want to embarrass her quasi-colleague. %#@&!!!
I ultimately bought the Australian toilet and found a third party who would take out the unwanted squatter. However, the B&Q experience still upsets me. It recalls the time a raving, old woman chased me down the aisle of a Shanghai Carrefour store insisting I buy a seven-yuan mop instead of the three-yuan model in my cart. Carrefour is a massive French retailer whose stores are similar to those of Wal-Mart. (That incident was the impetus for my discovery that Carrefour also uses manufacturer representatives in certain situations.)
Trust is not abundant in China. There are good reasons for this. Yet, I would have expected foreign retailers to attempt to offer a model in which the agendas are much more transparent. (Best Buy is an example of a Western retailer doing things right by exclusively using its own salespeople, and by not paying them commissions.) Chinese consumers walking into home-improvement stores generally know far less about home repair than their U.S. counterparts do. By not offering unvarnished advice, B&Q is missing an enormous opportunity to generate goodwill toward its brand. Instead, it is doing the opposite – at least among consumers, including myself, who expect more.
Carson Block is a USC graduate (B.S. Business Administration, 1998) and is now a Shanghai-based author and consultant. He is co-author of Doing Business in China for Dummies (Wiley, 2007) and the founder of ChinaPrimer.com.