Imagine trying a new restaurant and your server spills your drink and your chicken arrives pink in the middle. You probably won't go back.
Same goes for grocery stores. Have a bad experience and you'll quickly move on to the store down the street.
Walmart was smart to start matching competitors' buy-one-get-one free offers in Florida. But, a month after rolling out the new policy, it hasn't been so smart on the execution. Stores still aren't sure how to handle manufacturers' coupons on BOGO items — the ultimate prize for bargain shoppers Walmart so dearly wants.
The store's policy, straight from corporate mouths, is that people can use two manufacturer coupons — one on the item you paid for and one for the item you got for free, which is the same as at Publix and other stores. Have a problem and you can call Walmart's customer service toll-free at 1-800-WALMART (925-6278) for clarification.
After receiving several calls and emails about discrepancies at stores, I decided to call the hotline six days in a row to ask about using two manufacturer coupons. Here's what I was told.
Day 1. "The way I'm reading it is you can only use one coupon per item," said Pamela, noting that it would be difficult for stores to apply a coupon on something you get for free.
Day 2. No answer at all on the customer service line because of technical difficulties. "Please try again."
Day 3. John said corporate gave each store the authority to set its own policy. I would have to contact the manager at a particular store to find out what that store allows.
Day 4. "Ask a salaried manager," said Jonathan. Store managers set the parameters for each store, although he said the guidelines call for one coupon per BOGO deal. He also said the company was looking into making changes that would work in the customer's favor, but he didn't know the details.
Day 5. Kanesha said she didn't think I could use two coupons, but I should ask for a store manager at the checkout to confirm.
Day 6. After holding for 10 minutes and 12 seconds, Debbie said she didn't even know Florida was honoring BOGO matching deals and referred me to the nationwide policy that allows BOGO matching only on items with a specified price.
So six days, six answers and a lot of confusion, although it's worth noting that all of the customer service reps were friendly and courteous. Did Walmart think no one was going to ask?
It seems crazy that a retailer with 4,740 stores nationwide would launch a big pricing strategy in a battleground state without executing it consistently. Maybe I'm wrong, but I would think district managers could easily relay the new policy to store managers, who could inform their employees. Customer service reps could get up to speed in a simple memo.
I'd also think Walmart would want to publicize the policy better. Post signs advertising it in every store, not just a few of them, as is the case now. Run fliers that spell out the rules — like Publix did with its coupon policy in Sunday's newspaper, alongside a $5 off coupon on a $40 purchase. Don't leave customers — and employees — guessing.
As savvy as it might be, Walmart hasn't learned you get only one chance, sometimes two if you're lucky. Infuriate a customer over a 75-cent coupon and they won't return, plus they'll tell all their friends. And this business of calling a manager to argue a policy? Does Walmart really want customers waiting longer in checkout lines? That's already a chief complaint.
Inconsistency will never win over customers, especially ones leery about shopping at Walmart in the first place. It just gives them another reason not to like Walmart and spend their money somewhere else.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.