Twenty-six years ago this week I was living in California working for the Orange County Public Schools teaching Outdoor Education at Camp Edwards in the mountains above San Bernardino. It was the last week of the school year, our last group of fifth and sixth graders up at camp.
You know what that last week of school is like. There is a giddy anticipation of summer break from both the students and the teachers. The whole week feels different than any other week of the school year.
We felt it up at Camp Edwards, too. That’s why our director sat us down a couple hours before the buses arrived and made it crystal clear that we would make NO reference to this being the last week. We would do NOTHING different to celebrate the end of the school year. We would act as though this was as normal as a week in March.
Her reasoning for this was the kids that week deserved to have the same kind of experience every other student had throughout the year. Equally important was the kids from previous weeks not missing out because we made the last week special.
She wanted consistency, whether you were the first group at camp, the last group at camp, or the middle group during the January snowstorm. She wanted the highest level of standards for every single group of students under her care.
It was tough, but we got through the week without a single reference to the end of the school year.
It’s kinda like closing time at your store. If there is one thing I did completely wrong at Toy House for many years, it was closing time. When the last customer exited, we went home. We didn’t hang around to clean or stock shelves. We left. Out the door. See ya, bye bye.
That in and of itself wasn’t a problem. A lot of businesses leave right after closing and do all the other stuff the following morning before opening. The problem was how this get-out-the-door-quick mentality affected closing time and the experiences we gave our customers.
In our minds we treated last-minute customers the same as everyone else, offering to help them find what they needed, gift wrap all their packages, carry everything out to their car for them, etc. It was the subtle clues, however, that sent the strongest messages.
For many years we closed at 6pm, but we started closing around 5:30pm. At that time the staff began emptying wastebaskets, using glass cleaner to wash fingerprints off the front doors, cleaning off the counters, and even shutting down one of the three cash registers.
At 5:55pm we would turn off half the lights in the store to warn people that we were getting ready to close. (I debated the whole lights vs. PA announcement several times and never came up with a good answer for one over the other.)
We also put our “Sorry, We’re Closed” sign on the door. By that time the staff was shutting down the second of three cash registers. They were all huddled up front, waiting to checkout the last customer and get out the door.
If you were a customer and saw the lights go out before closing time, or saw the staff doing cleaning and end-of-day prep, or noticed how all the staff had left the selling area, or felt the staring eyes wondering when you were going to leave, no amount of friendliness from the staff was going to remove that initial feeling.
First and last impressions are the most powerful and most remembered. We were leaving our customers with a less-than-pleasant last impression.
It was only in the last couple years that it dawned on me what we were doing. I needed to adopt the lesson I learned from Camp Edwards and make sure we were “open” the hours we said we were open. No more pre-cleanup. No more lights out or hanging the sign before closing time. No more huddling up front, waiting to get out the door. The last customer of the day deserved the same experience as the first customer of the day and the customer who came in during the middle of the day.
We immediately switched to not starting our closing routine until the actual closing time and not a second before. (I say immediately but in reality old habits were hard to break. It took us months to get into the new routine.)
If your sign says you are open 9am to 7pm, your first customer at 9am and your last customer at 7pm deserve the exact same treatment as the customer who came in at 2:23pm. Anything less and you are hurting the relationship-building you’re trying to do.
PS Yes, there are those customers who walk in at 6:55pm to start leisurely browsing the aisles, in no hurry to make a decision, expecting you to stay open thirty, forty, even sixty minutes past your closing time. Those people are rude. There are also people who rush in at 6:55pm because they got out of work late and need one quick item. Those people are worth their weight in gold. It is worth putting up with one or two rude people every now and then to make sure you are leaving a strong lasting impression on everyone else.
PPS If you aren’t open until at least 7:00pm or later, you’re likely going to have a lot of last-second customers (and equally a lot of missed customers). Retailers that close at 5pm are catering to the ever-shrinking stay-at-home crowd and the unemployed. (But I’ll leave that rant for another day.)