It sounded simple enough: Greg Scoblete, senior editor at TWICE, and I were assigned to visit a variety of local CE stores in New York, and pose as a couple in search of a flat-panel TV. The idea was that I would be the more knowledgeable and aggressive shopper of the two; I would make it clear to the salespeople that I was calling the shots in the purchase, and we would gauge their reactions. Would they pick up on who carried the wallet in the pair, or would they assume that Greg would be paying for it, and thus would be the person to talk to? Would they tailor their pitch to be more “woman friendly” and talk up aesthetics or would they drill down into the specs?
As it turned out, none of the above. We went to six CE stores in Manhattan: Circuit City, P.C. Richard & Son, Stereo Exchange, J&R Music World and two different Best Buy locations. We (or, rather, I) told all the salesmen (and they were all men) the same thing: We had a 10-foot by 12-foot room, and we wanted a 42-inch or larger flat-panel TV. I said we had no preference for display technology over another, but we wanted to hear which they thought was better. All were equally polite to both Greg and me. All generally made an equal amount of eye contact with us, and all generally spoke to both of us equally. And all were equally … ambivalent.
It was like pulling teeth to get many of the salesmen to provide any information at all; apparently few felt it necessary, or worth their time, to invest much in their pitches. Almost nothing at all was said of aesthetics.
We visited our first three stores on a Monday — maybe they were still recovering from their weekends. Pete, the salesman at Circuit City (all names have been changed), had to be sought out near a register. He was polite and friendly, but we had to pump him for information. Pete volunteered nothing and only recommended a model when asked, Panasonic's 42W-inch HD plasma. He also pointed out a second Panasonic model and a Sony.
Wayne at P.C. Richard & Son wasn't much more helpful. He, too, had to be tracked down for help, and he, too, suggested Panasonic when pushed, recommending two different units.
Chalk another one up for Panasonic at Best Buy; Jeff, who showed the most initiative so far by hovering a few feet behind us until we asked him for help, said he personally liked the Panasonic plasma the best. Jeff was a bit more chatty; he pushed the enhanced-definition models, saying that, for the price, we weren't really going to notice the difference between ED and HD.
Greg and I visited the next three stores on a Wednesday, and the salesmen were starting to look slightly more awake. Although we were again approached by no one, Eric at J&R Music World came over when eye contact was made, and — surprise, surprise — he pushed a Panasonic. When asked to suggest other brands, he showed us Pioneer and Sony models; both of which were $2,000 more.
At the second Best Buy, Bill divulged that he wasn't on commission, so, “Whatever you like, I like.” He seemed more interested in selling us the mounting options, and showed us a variety of installation plans. When asked to recommend a flat-panel model, he was the first who didn't first suggest Panasonic, showing us a Sony model instead; however, when asked to suggest a second model, he too showed us the apparently wildly popular 42W-inch Panasonic.
Rick at Stereo Exchange was the only salesman who didn't push a Panasonic at all. In plasma displays, he showed us a 42W-inch Hitachi; in LCD, he suggested a 45W-inch Sharp. Rick stood out as the most aggressive of the six salesmen we met. He ran down a variety of features of both TVs, stressing both the advantages and disadvantages of each — all without having to be asked.
Greg and I were shocked at how little interest most of the salesmen showed in us. It's encouraging to know salesmen have moved beyond thinking a man always has the final say in purchases, but the level of indifference to both of us was surprising — as was the number of people who pushed Panasonic. Manufacturers are going to great lengths to market their products on the basis of style and aethetics, as well as trying to increase their retailers' awareness of the importance of marketing to women. The retailers we visited completely missed these opportunities because they weren't marketing to anyone.