business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Stew Leonard’s unique supermarkets offer up an obvious statement of customer service right at the front door. Each Stew’s features a large rock inscribed with the company’s policy:

Rule #1: The customer is always right. Rule #2: If the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule #1.

Chip Wilson, a businessman from Vancouver, BC, needs to visit that rock. In the meantime, all of us need to learn his story as a painful reminder of how easy it is to blame, antagonize and possibly lose the customer.

Wilson is the co-founder of Lululemon, a stunningly successful retailer of high-end workout clothing. Lululemon’s stores are nicely merchandised and the products, such as $100 yoga pants, are apparently the favorites of the rich and famous and more.

At my gym it’s fairly commonplace to see women wearing tops and shorts with the distinctive Lululemon logo. A few women I talked to say the fit is simply the best, making each of them willing to pay the high prices.

Sadly, Lululemon actually has had a difficult year with product quality, a painful stumble for a company whose reputation rested on the durability and fit of its products. In late 2012 there was a problem with the dyes used on some products, which raised concerns that the company was having trouble managing its growth.

The second problem was even worse: women noticed that certain yoga pants became too sheer when stretched in common yoga positions. That problem led to a spate of bad publicity, a product recall, slumping sales and stock price. The company’s CEO resigned in June, largely because of the problem.

Those were the days.

This past week, after reports that the yoga pants were pilling, Wilson, as we reported yesterday at MNB, sat down for an ill-fated interview on Bloomberg TV’s Street Smart

Asked about the problem, Wilson said, “There’s always been pilling. Women will wear a seat belt that doesn’t work. Or a purse that doesn’t work and quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for (our pants)."

You can see this wasn’t going well.

Pressed on that point, he continued: “They don’t work for some women’s bodies. It’s really about the rubbing of the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”

As one reader commented on one of the countless websites worldwide that are featuring this interview, “Why don’t you just say it: Our pants aren’t made for fat people.”

I think I am supposed to write: Oh snap!

Wilson is obviously having a tough year. Quality, his company’s calling card, has been questioned three times and he’s probably unsure that Lululemon can weather another storm. But blaming the customers’ thighs? Surely there was a better way.

The truth is we know the customer is frequently wrong. There are countless times poor cooking causes food to taste less than perfect, yet retailers find a way to cheerfully refund money to keep a customer. Worse yet, we know that many (if not most) food safety problems are caused after the product leaves the store. Leaving perishables in hot cars, cross-contamination, under-cooking or poor refrigeration happen far too often.

But we can’t blame the shoppers. We have to try to educate them to make it better the next time.

Some of these are extremely complex issues, which makes the discussions even harder. And we know harder ones—think of nutrition or GMOs—are yet to come. These discussions will be difficult, frustrating and more, but good merchants find a way to educate and illuminate and possibly build customer loyalty in the process.

Now there’s no telling what will happen to Chip Wilson’s company because of his comments. One of the Lululemon fans at my gym said the comments wouldn’t stop her from buying Wilson’s products. Yet even this very slender woman told me, insulting women’s thighs is never a winning strategy.

And I should add that Lululemon has a special emotional tie to the area in Maryland where I live. A few years back, the company’s store in Bethesda was the scene of a brutal murder and the company showed incredible sensitivity in the aftermath and reopening of the unit.

This much we do know—and we can thank Wilson for the reminder: If the customer is wrong, re-read rule #1 again. And don’t ever blame their thighs.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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