A New Sales Incentive

A CREATIVE BRAINSTORM RECENTLY CAME TO ME DURING a period of personal discomfort. Waiting endlessly for my wife to finish her shopping in a cavernous department store, it occurred to me that the patient men and women who accompany their spouses when they shop are really the forgotten consumers of today. The partners who give moral support to shoppers, cheerfully hold bags, stare into space, concentrate on where they parked and keep their eyes on the time so that dinner doesn't slip by unnoticed, desperately need some support of their own. America's 1 million-plus stores--which constitute the nation's biggest industry-are just over their exhausting, frustrating, agonizing Christmas season. Now they are balefully looking ahead to the new year, hoping that it may bring an improvement. Anything positive they do will surely help to stem the downsizings, closings and mergers that have dogged American retailing in the last few years. Any new wrinkle that retailers can offer to create more good will and turn a discomfited grouser into a gratified shopper's companion makes good sense.

Let's examine why, in addition to business reasons, it's important morally and socially to please those who accompany their partners when they buy that merchandise. We are forbearing. We provide moral support just in case our companion wants some advice (even flit is usually ignored). We are security symbols when the two of us go into the parking lot. If need be, we stand as a credit confirmation. If the salesclerk has some doubts, they vanish as she or he sees us standing stolidly beside the shopper. And we are a sort of sober authority figure, flashing indignant, even threatening expressions to a clerk giving our companion a hard time. We're a great backup.

So what should the merchants do for us? They should provide some physical comforts. Some chairs or benches, preferably inside the store and preferably in the most popular departments, would be useful, so that our backs and feet do not protest so badly that our patience just oozes away, leading to a potential argument with our spouses when they come up for air. It wouldn't take much room, but it would be so welcomed. The bigger the stores, the more flexibility they offer for such amenities. Actually, one reason that they range to as much as two or three football fields is that it allows them the capability of easily moving things around, like a giant stage. Aisles, nooks and crannies, corners, and dead ends flourish in the big stores.

Going a bit further, it would be very pleasant to find a large store setting aside a small area as a lounge for men (and women) as in airports. A TV, the latest newspapers, perhaps some magazines could be placed there, along with a few upholstered chairs and perhaps a couple of vending machines. One per floor-OK, one per store--would be appreciated. Is it really too much to ask? I'm not asking for a Dow-Jones stock ticker or a Bloomberg news wire. But ff the store wants to provide them, who would say no?

As a couple, my wife and I have traveled a bit and seen chairs and benches made available to shoppers at the Mitsukoshi stores in the Ginza in Tokyo and at Stockmann's, the big department store in Helsinki. If they can do it, why can't we?

To be fair, when my wife and I were recently in a Macy's, I began wandering around while waiting and experienced a pleasant shock. The store actually has two upholstered chairs and two wooden chairs on the main selling floor. Sitting there were' four men with soulful looks as if savoring a celestial pleasure. Would that one would have given a seat to a well-dressed soul nearby whom I observed leaning up against a post, his face pressed against it as if in terminal despair. Anecdote's moral: great, but give us more chairs!

Not so long ago, in another department store, I was waiting as usual when a woman wandered by. She glanced at me and announced, "I've lost my husband." I answered, innocuously enough, "And I am waiting for my wife." But she didn't hear me because she was wandering around, shouting, "Maurice, Maurice!" What an argument they are going to have when they finally meet, I thought.

Why is it, I wondered, that the sexes have such a hard time with each other in the nation's stores? Women buy about three times as much merchandise as men, but it is not a problem of socio-demographics. What it is, I concluded, is just a matter of (1) comfort and (2) communications. Marital relations would certainly blossom if the man were happily ensconced in a leisure area while his wife shopped. At least she would know where he was.

But better yet, what the retailers might well consider are walkie-talkies so that shopping companions can keep in touch with each other. It's manageable- show credit cards, get a pair of walkie-talkies, return them when leaving. Ridiculous? Maybe, but think how many arguments it would avoid. After all, when you have these multi-football-field-size sites, communications are vital, aren't they?

Stores lately seem to love initials in their display signs. In the women's department, they have LIZ, DKNY and I.N.C, and others in the men's wear department. So how about SCSC, for Shoppers' Companion Support Center? It may not directly beef up a store's business, but can it hurt? What it will do is improve good will, something that retailers pay a lot for when they swallow up one another, as they have been doing a lot lately. Yet it is something that can't be truly measured in dollars but in the intangibles that really count. What is certain is that it would relieve those tired, aimless souls who just wait around but would like nothing better than to fade into the woodwork.

And consider how it would motivate shoppers knowing their companions were relaxing in comfort, not brooding or nursing anger. They might even buy more.