Retailizations, Part Deux: Be Nice

A coffeehouse in France (okay, that right there may be one of the greatest four-word phrases I have ever typed; one almost does not need to continue. Please return from your daydream when you feel up to it) …

A coffeehouse in Nice, France (oh, come on, does this anecdote just keep getting sweeter? The setting may as well be, “A coffeehouse located in Sweet Kisses in Everyone Is Always Smiling Land”) … and, yes, I certainly know that the city’s name is pronounced “neese,’ and not the easy way to a punny joke, but a pun is a pun. 

Three years ago, a coffeehouse in Nice, France, posted a new price board, seen above and explained in “This Coffeehouse Will Charge You Less if You’re Nice.”

When a patron approached the counter and demanded a coffee, the coffeeshop charged 7€, which is approximately ten bucks and a typographical nightmare. If the customer said the magic word, “Please,” however, a discount was granted. If the customer requested the coffee and service in an even more formal, polite, fashion, the customer was charged less.

I worked at several retail jobs spread out over a quarter of a century. (I have also taught college composition, written for newspapers, and written and illustrated technical manuals. Either I have lived an interesting life or a shambling one; these are not mutually exclusive things.)

I worked at a bookstore, an electronics retailer, a department store. At each, I desired the power to post a similar sign: a “ten-percent politeness discount on all hardcovers; twenty percent off before 11:00 a.m.,” at the bookstore, say.

Retail clerks (sales associates, as we are more commonly titled now) occupy a couple different spaces in the average customer’s psyche, it seems. At the bookstore, there were customers who seemed to believe that one of the requirements for employment was that we had read every book in stock, and maybe every copy of each title. Some acted as if they saw it as a personal challenge to find out which books I had not read. (At least once, after I had determined that a customer was playing this game, I started to insist that I had not yet read a book—any book, at all, ever—and that I simply liked working retail jobs. “I’d like it more if we sold socks,” I told him.)

At the electronics retailer, it was assumed each of us working there was secretly a computer programmer/hacker working for or with Anonymous and/or desktop publisher and ham radio operator who had not yet been discovered and, in our pure-hearted love of working a low-paying retail job as opposed to working as a high-paid consultant, we would/could/should provide professional-level advice for however much we were getting paid. Or for the fee of free.

Both customers are the same, of course, and both have a reasonable desire. Who doesn’t want to discover one’s own personal shopper at every store one walks into? We all want to be insiders. There were many customers at the bookstore with whom I shared great literary conversations and learned to anticipate their next reading needs, and there were many many customers at the electronics retailer. Many.

But if I am your perfect personal shopper, I am probably letting someone else down. (While I was selling furniture at the department store, I had a customer ask me if I thought one couch was more comfortable than another. I did not understand, because I understand that the comfort found in a piece of furniture is surpassingly personal. The couch I find comfortable might strike you as high-backed and about as inviting as a bus-station bench. The sofa your backside enjoys might make my left leg numb.) 

Other customers see the clerks in stores as interchangeable and invisible. Those are the customers the French coffeeshop is addressing. These are the customers who are irked by the fact that a store opens at a certain time and not earlier—i.e.: the moment when they are at the door—or in fact has to close at a given hour—again, while they are there. They want to be treated as exceptional and important even as they treat the employees as the equivalent of a store fixture like a shelf or a display. This customer is the only customer who will actually declaim out loud with their outdoors voice to a clerk: “The customer is always right.” 

To handle this sort of customer, I learned the “manager trick”: I would anticipate an impending complaint, announce preemptively that I would voluntarily involve the store manager in the conversation, sally forth to the backroom, and engage in the following conversation:

“Hi. Have you heard my chat with so-and-so?”
“Yes. It sounds like you know what to do.”
“I told her (or him) that I would demonstrate sympathy with their side to management, so I am speaking with you now.”
“And you can consider any reply from me to be a positive show of solidarity with you and yet sympathy with them. So you’ll tell them I won’t budge, whatever we discuss from this moment on.”
“Yes. Who are the Yankees playing tonight?”

I would return to the front of the store and repeat what I had been telling the customer all along, but with the added rhetorical support of the manager’s “words.” It usually worked.

Usually? It always worked, except once. I stupidly confessed to a friend that I sometimes employed the “manager trick,” and explained what it is, thinking it would amuse him. A few days later, a mutual friend began to negotiate something with me at the store. When I explained that I was going to speak with my manager, he accompanied me step by step to the back of the store. My friend had betrayed my secret.

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This is a re-write of a piece from three years ago, when this website was hosted elsewhere.

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