By now, everyone’s seen the famous “French model commercial” in which an attractive woman tells a friend, “They can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.” She then introduces her friend to her date, whom she met on the Internet: a French model…who is clearly anything but. Everyone loves this commercial. It’s hilarious because we all agree that the Internet is full of misleading information. So why do consumers continually access user reviews as a strong source of confirmation for the products and services they select? How did we get to the point that doing so became necessary?

I recently trudged to my local Best Buy, seeking to purchase a new printer. I’m a Mac person, and I found most of the boxes didn’t specifically mention being Mac-compatible. I picked a printer I believed would work, but decided I’d ask for some assistance just to confirm my selection would be OK. After some difficulty finding a staff member, I asked one of the Geeks if the printer I had selected would indeed work. The Geek, marketed as a “trained expert,” spent two minutes examining the box, shrugged and said, “Well, it doesn’t say it works with Macs….” And then it struck me: customers have gotten so used to this low standard of product knowledge and service that they expect staff members at our store to be wrong, thus elevating the Internet to the consumer gold standard as the source for information. The rise of big-box retail and the proliferation of under-trained, low-wage employees have left consumers unable to trust retail workers to be well informed. People have become distrustful of all traditional sources of information, and rightly so given how much credibility those traditional sources have lost.

Five years ago, Fox News mistakenly posted a story originating from the satire news site The Onion as actual news, bothering neither to fact check the story nor to find secondary sources to back it up. Fox didn’t ‘retract’ the satirical story posted as real news but, rather, simply removed it from its website, leaving a large number of egregiously misinformed people who read it, believed it and shared it with family and friends as though it were fact. People now trust what they read on Facebook and the Internet more than the news. Consumers are hungry for quality information. In the absence of reliable sources, people will take whatever information is provided to them: and they’ll take it from any source that seems legitimate…especially other end users. Internet user reviews have become, in the minds of consumers, the de facto judge for the quality of all products. But there is no system in place to qualify the expertise of the people writing the reviews. In fact, those who write user reviews often have no more expertise in judging products than the people reading them have, but people nevertheless make their judgments based on those opinions, however unqualified.

After watching this trend grow over the years, I began to examine reviews of products on various forums, online retail websites and social media. In plenty of cases, people try to qualify what they’re saying and provide a fair assessment based on their experience and opinion. But, as far too often is the case on the Internet, many are just there to complain because they purchased the wrong product or simply don’t know how to work the thing. For example, I just saw a comparison video of a Fender American Standard Stratocaster and a Reverend Kingbolt. Those guitars are at opposite ends of the spectrum and serve different customers. Nevertheless, people shared the video on Facebook and there were plenty of comments to read through. There’s a perceived air of truth because it’s on the Internet.

People love an opportunity to “dog pile” online, so bad information and Internet myths propagate themselves. With the preponderance of bad information out there and the trust people automatically place in anything on the Internet—coupled with the bad customer-service experiences people have grown used to getting at big-box stores—it’s often difficult to convince consumers that you know what you’re talking about.

Recently, I met a customer in our acoustic guitar room who was searching for “a good guitar,” though he was “just a beginner.” Those helpful key phrases gave me enough information to point him in the direction of several models. One model I handed him to play he declined even to try. Why? Because of user reviews he had read on the Internet. The perceived value of the information he had gotten from an anonymous writer on an Internet retailer’s website held more weight for him than playing a guitar and deciding for himself.

So, how do we tactfully negotiate a sale despite the wit and wisdom of the legions of people writing user reviews of products they once played at a GC location? Well, for starters, we have to remember that consumers have become increasingly distrustful in recent years. And whether it takes the form of shared Facebook posts or cable news, there’s a constant deluge of information that, frankly, scares the hell out of people. Consumers have been trained to believe that qualified sales no longer exist, and they are more likely to find good information themselves. Some brands, such as Fender, have grown so ubiquitous in the zeitgeist that consumers believe the information on their website is all they need to make an informed decision.

In an era in which people are becoming less connected to each other personally, and are relying more heavily on the Internet, independent retailers must strive to connect with our customers. There’s never been a more important time for sales staff members to have a strong and thorough knowledge of every product they sell. They must be trained and encouraged first to listen to the needs of the customer in front of them, and then to look for opportunities to put products in the hands of customers so they can experience them firsthand. The best way we can advocate for locally owned independent music stores is to develop personal relationships with our customers, while providing prices competitive with those found online. Only then will they consider us an entity worth their time and loyalty.

What are some ways you educate your customers? How are you keeping your staff up to date with knowledge about products? How do user reviews help or hurt your credibility with customers?

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