CUSTOMER SERVICEPublished 8:26pm Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Downtown merchant reveals key to success
When the front door of his store opens, more often than not Russell Smith greets his customer by name. Before major holidays, his sales associates often make discreet phone calls, dropping gift ideas into willing ears. There are those who have breezed through town, and his shop, on vacation, or have moved away, but still continue to order their menswear from the small shop on West Main Street in Washington.
It’s the kind of customer service that in chain retail stores has all but disappeared. Not so here — it’s the key to the success of Russell’s Gentlemen’s Clothing.
While posted hours say the store opens at 9 a.m., Smith has been there long enough that people know better.
“I do business before 9 a.m. every morning because they know I’m here,” Smith said.
“I work six days a week. When people come in, they expect you to be here. It’s just what you do in a business like this: being here and listening to what your clients want.”
Smith knows retail — at age 14 he started working at a family shoe store in downtown Washington. From there, he moved to menswear at Hilton’s in 1974.
“That’s where I really learned the menswear business,” Smith said.
In January of 1983, Smith opened Russell’s. By that time, downtown Washington was feeling the pinch of customers heading out to the newly built Washington Square Mall to do their shopping. Downtown stores were closing, but Smith said he never felt the pull to move.
“This is where I was comfortable. I never wanted to leave downtown,” he explained.
Though Smith’s business has remained steady over three decades, downtown business in general has had its ups and downs over the years, but by his observations the most recent revival is a bit different.
“You didn’t see young people opening stores until recently,” Smith said. “I’m starting to see that.”
For 31 years, his store has been a mainstay of Main Street but on weekends here lately, Smith said he constantly receives visitors on daytrips from Rocky Mount, Kinston and Raleigh in town to while away a few hours — and do some shopping. For Smith serving these customers means returning to the precepts of customer service: making his store accessible to all (including opening lines of women’s wear and baby goods); having special events (including renowned silhouette artist Tim Arnold for a three-day event); and keeping his merchandise fresh, with trunk shows and new lines.
Smith’s brand of customer service has paid off: “In 30 years, it’s amazing how many friends you make.”