While strolling down Boylston Street, Boston, this spring, this visitor couldn't resist the impulse to stop at a shoe store that possessed an impressive collection of boots from Frye, Ecco, and other well-known brands. What happened next was surreal even for an experienced shopper like me. And I have a few theories why some businesses remain in operation despite bad service, inflated list prices, and bad reviews - even when social networks and mobile devices are making it easier for people to swap information about businesses and organizations they love and hate.
First, the back story. Once inside the store, a pair of tall Ecco boots caught my attention. With a 2¾ inch heel and rubber sole, they were stylish. Yet they seemed practical for my typical daily routine that includes dashing up and down subway stairs and dodging tourists on the way to and from work in New York's Financial District.
A sales associate volunteered to bring out a coffee-colored pair, size 38, and I gave them a test drive. Perfect!
So, what about the price? The sales assistant said they were 50 percent off. Which begs the question: 50 percent off of what? I was told they were now $150, which means the original price must have been $300.
I put the boots back into the box and then did what any prudent shopper would do. I whipped out my BlackBerry and searched on Google for "Ecco boots" to see what they were selling for elsewhere and what other people were saying about them.
That's when a balding man - maybe in his 60s and maybe the manager - charged out from behind the sales counter and grabbed the box containing the boots. "You do not trust me," he yelled at me, causing a ruckus in front of other shoppers and leaving me speechless for a second. He then informed me he would not permit me to buy the boots.
His mood turned even darker. He sputtered, "f---, f---" before he changed his rant. "Thief, thief," he bellowed and then pointed at me.
I screamed back, saying that I would report him to the consumer protection bureau. (I did not.) And I told him he should call the police on me. (He did not.)
I thought he was going to have a heart attack or that he would hit me. He did neither.
After I left the store, a search showed that the Nordstrom's list price for the boots was $200, but marked down to $138. That represented a savings of $12 compared to the Boylston Street merchant - respectable, but not a deal breaker. (I ended up buying the boots from Zappos.com.)
Another search for this merchant on Yelp.com also turned up a mix of reviews. The first one was positive: "At the risk of being a total contrarian, I liked the place…" And review highlights on Yelp also emphasized the positive: "I like their selection of boots in that they carry my beloved Frye's."
Sort the reviews by date and you'll get another picture. "Too expensive and the customer service sucks. Spend your money elsewhere!" read one of many negative reviews.
This begs the question: How can a store with such bad service stay open for businesses even though social networks and consumer-generated reviews are set up to expose horror stories. Some theories:
My only regret: I wish I had been carrying a video camera with me that day. The ranting sales man would have been an instant hit on YouTube.
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Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
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