Looks can certainly be deceiving…I have had the occasion of walking through several Canadian Tire stores in the past month or so. Several visits were with clients showing them this unique retail concept with its eclectic assortment, large network of dealers and blanket coverage of the Canadian geographic landscape from coast to coast to coast. The rest of the visits I have been merely a customer looking to purchase a driveway basketball net for my 3 boys.

Most of the locations we walked into were enormous and quite impressive in terms of signage, lighting, stock levels and assortment. It really seemed they had everything (taking the notorious slogan “More Than Just Tires” to the extreme). It was a very interesting demographic as this is one of the few stores with a preponderance of the male gender roaming the aisles searching for the next great car accessory, garden tool, small appliance or lighting part.

As a customer, there was hardly a staff member to be found – not even at the supposedly staffed information kiosks. It would have been easy to staff those and create rules and processes in place for handling customer requests that couldn’t be answered standing in one spot. My guess is that 90 percent of the questions could be answered with the right technology and information at someone’s finger tips. 2 people would have sufficed and diffused many a situation we witnessed (including our own).

You would think in this day and age of advanced technology, management information systems, e-commerce and mobile networking, that a multi-billion dollar retailer would embrace some of these principles. Guess again.

Here is the process we went through for our beloved basketball net…

Like any shopping endeavour these days, it starts on the internet. I look up the choices and pricing online and the only store that has any selection of these is Canadian Tire. Of course, Canadian Tire decided in 2009 to shut down its online business, so the website acts as a glorified catalogue and displays the in stock levels at any store you choose.

Ok. I can live with that. So, I head down to the 1st store. The specific model is nowhere to be found. After several minutes of searching for a staff member, he takes us to a computer screen straight out of “The War Games” movie set (circa 1983) with its strange green type face and dirty, yellowed monitor. This is the inventory system and it provides all the information we require. Apparently, it does say they are supposed to have 1 of these nets in stock. He looks everywhere in store and in the back and cannot find it. He displays a list of stores in the area that greenly indicates current in-stock levels of the item in question. Mildly puzzled, I thank him and we travel to the next store.

By the 3rd store, we decided to hit a store that only greenly indicates more than 1 in stock since stores 2 and 3 cannot find the item either even though the inventory system (which I am assured updates itself every 24 hours – even though the last delivery of these specific models was April, 2010) says they should have 1.

The 4th store is supposed to have 3. We think we are golden this time. It has now been 3.5 hours and we are on a mission. Guess what? The store cannot find a single one anywhere. Do you think there is something wrong with the inventory system? I gathered that this is the same place from which the information for in-stock levels is pulled for the website. The store has a different but similar model on display and it touts “Home Delivery” on a sign affixed to the service kiosk labelled “Customer Services Offered”.

Unfortunately that sign is incorrect. There is no home delivery and we would have to get our own truck to take the already assembled sample home. We left after over 4 hours empty handed and frustrated.

How is this possible these days? Imagine the opportunity Canadian Tire has to improve profitability and customer relations just by becoming current in their information systems. It is time to get rid of the green screens and enter the brave new world of customer satisfaction in the age of technology. They better hurry as customers are starting to expect a lot more out of their merchants…