If you’ve ever worked in hospitality, retail or other customer-centred industry, chances are you have one or two war stories from dealing with the general public on a daily basis.
Gabe Trew certainly does. In fact, the day of POP Canberra’s owner often goes exactly as you’d expect a day in the life of an inner-city gift shop owner to go – if it were a Hollywood satire.
Fortunately, Gabe has discovered that with a healthy dose of perspective and humour and an uncommon level of transparency, a humble retailer can turn an unpleasant interaction to their advantage.
If you head to the POP Canberra Instagram account, among the highlights is a story titled “Milk Menace”. The tale unfolds that a customer (whose handle is kindly concealed) demands a refund for a ceramic milk jug purchased five years prior, which broke after being dropped.
When politely refused and offered (some would say generously) a staff discount on a new jug, abuse ensues. When Gabe shares the bizarre interaction with his Instagram followers, the Milk Menace threatens to rally friends to give the store one-star Google reviews.
“I like using Instagram as a platform to have a laugh and connect with our customers, but I also like putting these things on display, if for no other reason than an act of solidarity with other small business owners,” Gabe says. “There are all sorts of people in the world and it could get you down if you let it.”
What happened next proved what Gabe always knew – there are a lot of decent humans out there, and the good far outweigh the bad.
He was flooded with five-star Google reviews from stockists, customers and, perhaps karmically, people who had never visited the store before but promised to become patrons.
“I buy 100 per cent of my gifts and cards (and durable ceramics) here. Shop local, get great stuff at surprisingly awesome value. I heart Pop – Christmas sorted in one stop,” reads one.
“The sturdy ceramic milk jug I bought in 2003 saved the lives of all of my 24 puppies, as I used it to fight a grizzly bear for 3 hours straight and won…” reads another.
“In 2018 I bought a ceramic milk jug from Pop Canberra. Last night, they travelled back from the future to warn me to not drop my ceramic milk jug due to the fact that ceramics and hard surfaces do not work well together. I thanked them for travelling through space and time to share this info with me as it turns out most people (including myself) are completely unaware of this fact. I stopped juggling my ceramic milk jugs…”
Other customer interactions, while less angry, are no less perplexing. Like the time when, on two separate occasions in as many days, customers came in and examined the wares and, not finding what they were after, asked Gabe – for fresh fish!
“We never got to the bottom of that one,” he laughs. “It still haunts me.”
While economic conditions aren’t great for retailers right now, POP Canberra has had its biggest year yet. Gabe says it’s because at times like these, customers want a meaningful experience from local retailers.
“People are really mindful about where they spend their money at the moment, they want to know it’s having an impact,” he says.
“We champion local and really small, even micro businesses. So you come in and the music is on and it feels like a party. We ensure there’s really cool stuff at every price point. So we’ve created this fun shopping experience but also, importantly, we’re telling stories about real people on our shelves. And when you spend money at POP, you’re supporting local and helping dreams come true.”
Even when his days start to feel like an endless parade of bizarre customer encounters, Gabe says being a bridge between awesome people (suppliers and customers) has him skipping off to work most days.
And hey, sometimes good ideas come from unexpected places – like the businessman who chastised Gabe for not being open at 7 am.
“He said he was a busy working man and wanted to get his shopping done outside of work hours, and thought it was ridiculous that we open at 10 am on weekdays – even if we do close at 10 pm, and are open seven days,” Gabe says.
“I shared it with everyone of course – you have to be able to laugh about these things. But then I thought, hang on a second – maybe that’s ironically a genius idea.”
Pop Canberra will be open from 7 am to 10 pm seven days a week from 1 to 24 December, with many sturdy milk jugs for sale (but probably no fresh fish).