Question of the Day: What Are Your Best — and Worst — Retail Experiences?

We’re working on a new Freakonomics Radio piece about what might best be called “retail etiquette.” It was inspired in part by this blog post, about how the quantity and quality of employees affects a company’s bottom line; and by this e-mail from a listener named Dawn Nordquist:

I’ve noticed that, at the beginning of the podcasts, a short banter between the two of you is included regarding thanking the listening audience.  Thanking the listening audience aside, what are your thoughts/observations on thanking in commercial transactions?  I have recently been struck by how often I am not thanked when purchasing something. The only recent literature that I could pull up on this was a 1999 article “Thanking Behavior in Service Provider-Customer Encounters:  The Effects of Age, Gender, and Race” (Martin and Adams, Journal of Social Psychology 5, 665-7).  Do you know of anything more recent?  Do you have any thoughts on whether thanking routines are changing in the U.S.?

We’ll do our own review of the literature (although please do suggest anything appropriate), but what we really want from you is stories. We’re looking for noteworthy stories, positive or negative, from both sides of the counter, meaning you as a customer or you as an employee. If the latter, did your company’s rules on retail etiquette seem thoughtful/ridiculous/onerous? Or maybe you’re the person who sets the rules in your firm — we want to hear from you too.

Thanks as always.


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  1. Phil says:

    Once I got service for my vehicle at a Ford dealership and was dissatisfied. Ford corporate sent me a survey, and I gave the dealership low marks. A couple days later, I get a call from the service manager telling me to go to hell and never come back.

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    • Chris V says:

      This is a big area of intended consequence, or perhaps “teaching to the test”. Customer service is considered so important at the dealership that their ratings from the customer surveys are critically important. So important they they let the customer know that 5 (of 5) rating is absolutely critical, they don’t make their goals without it, let us know if any part of your service doesn’t rate a 5, yaddah yaddah. So even if I feel the service was quite good and therefore rated a 4 of 5 which is pretty good… actually rating a dealer as 4 is absolutely slamming them. When I am asked this I tell the person doing the survey that the test is rigged and I will not provide a score.
      So the irony is that in surveying to make sure the service is as good as it possibly can be, they are irritating the customer.

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      • Greg says:

        Yep; clearly their survey is not intended to improve service, but just to provide a metric for internal resource allocation.

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      • Neil (SM) says:

        Yeah exactly. They base bonuses, etc on test scores and it has just turned into another case of gaming metrics to keep scores and numbers high at the cost of the big-picture problem. I’m sure some executive got a big fat bonus for developing this system somewhere and he even now has the numbers to show what an improvement it made in customer service!

        During college I bartended for a larger restaurant chain that contracts a company to do “secret shoppers” that tested the wait-staff and bartenders the same way. In this case it wasn’t so much about customer service as is was on making sure that every person was giving enough sales pitches. That meant every customer, every time, the waiter/bar had to suggest a specific appetizer, beverage, dessert, upsell, etc. Anything less than a perfect score was considered a failure.

        This was made even worse by the fact that it wasn’t professionals giving the ratings, normally it was just some dude who found a way to get a few discounts on the Internet. So people would often think they didn’t want to give a perfect score on every question for some reason and you’d get inconsistent scores. And management will then come down on employees because enough imperfect scores and the bonus starts drying up.

        So even though mostly I’d get perfect scores, every once in a while I’d get chewed out anyway. I’d get a manager saying “hey, we just got a survey; you didn’t ask this person to come back again and you didn’t offer a specific drink.” And of course I know I did because I know we’re getting these tests so I *always* said basically the same lines to people. But there was no way to argue, and nobody believed you anyway.

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    • Dan says:

      I had a somewhat similar experience with a customer survey when I bought a new Honda Accord about a year ago. I had a very positive experience– salesman was courteous, got me a good deal without taking forever, etc. He walked me through a checklist of things that Honda corporate mandated that he do that clearly no one wanted, for example, he was supposed to walk me through the entire owner’s manual, have me wait while he programmed all the radio favorites, etc. I played along and just signed the form that said he had done all these unnecessary things.

      His manager also explained that if I didn’t take the survey on their website and give them 5 out of 5 on everything (which I was happy to do because they did a great job), they would get into huge trouble and I think also be slapped with some financial consequences also.

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      • 164 says:

        Same thing with the Volvo dealership, they go out of their way to do everything possible for you between the time that you take delivery of your new car and the time that coorperate mail the customer satisfaction survey. After that, let’s just say they are less accomodating.

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  2. David P says:

    In probably 2003 or so I tried to switch my cell phone carrier to AT&T. When I got my new phone I turned it on and it broke so I called up their customer service. After going through a half dozen menu choices I was put on hold and forced to listen to their wait music and recording telling me that my patience is valued. After 2 hours I gave up and decided I would call back again later.
    In my next attempt it took me an hour to talk to a real person who decided that I had chosen the wrong menu options and that they would transfer me to the correct department. I then spent about 30 minutes being transferred around in a circle (seriously, I talked to the same person twice!) and eventually transferred into a dial tone.
    My third attempt I again waited on hold for 2 hours before finally talking to a human being. Once I got to them I told them that my brand new phone broke and that because I had been on hold for a total of 5 hours I simply wanted to return the phone and cancel the account. I have never been tempted to switch over to AT&T since that experience.

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    • MIkeM says:

      I thought this was a post about thanking in transactions.

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    • Mary R. says:

      Many years ago when I was young and didn’t have great credit I called AT&T and asked to have my cell phone plan changed to roaming because I was going on a long trip and would be in a different region. The great employees at AT&T not only changed my plan for me, they used the information about lengthy trip and opened 15 cell phone accounts in my name. I returned to 16 AT&T bills, 15 of which were fraudulent.

      I called the company to try to get the situation resolved. And, like David P was put through many hours and of being transferred to many people, over many days. One day, after being on the phone for hours and being on hold for over 15 minutes, the customer service representative came on the line and was breathing very hard. While panting he said, ”Sorry about that madam, I had to run to the building next door to talk to my manager.” My very frustrated response was “You are trying to tell me this is AT& “F****ing T and you don’t have a phone you can call your manager on?” His reply was, “I’m sorry if you swear at us I will have to hang up on you.” And he did. Months later the situation was finally resolved, without an apology or admission of guilt.

      I don’t know if customer service is getting better, but I do know now that I am older have a good income and good credit I am treated very different by customer service everywhere.

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  3. Ry Jones says:

    You should check into LaRue Tactical’s forum on ar15 dot com, where tales of insanely good customer service abound. Furthermore, ADCO (same forum) is well known for stepping in and fixing other shop’s mistakes – very expensive ones – for free.

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  4. Eric M. Jones. says:

    It’s hard to judge the best and worst, but here’s a real stinker:

    I used to drive a Mercedes 190 2.3 which I was getting a little tired of, and had a leak in the rear window, so I went down to Culver City to Bill Murphy Buick to see about buying a Buick (I had grown up on Buicks…my father’s car….)

    With the help of a young and eager salesman I finally found a car to fall in love with–an almost new white Riviera with a blonde leather interior and every accessory you could get, which I think had been repossessed, so it was a deal. It carried a price of $18,000 which I could well have afforded if I were to get a fair trade-in on my Mercedes which was worth about $9,000.

    The young salesman asked me to bring the Mercedes around to the lot and then reluctantly turned me over to his boss, who appeared from a back room and glared at me. I said, “If you can give me a fair trade-in on my Mercedes, I would like to buy that white Riviera over there.” He took the cold stump of a cigar out from between his teeth, stared through me and snarled, “Get out of here…you’re wasting my time!”

    I was so taken aback by this that I thought he hadn’t heard me. I looked around to see if he might have been talking to someone else, then repeated more-or-less what I had said, “Ah sir, if you can give me a decent trade-in on my little Mercedes, I would like to buy that white Riviera over there.”

    He again glared at me in a threatening way spat out a piece of cigar and snarled, “ You wanna deal…or don’t you?” I softly said the same general thing about a trade-in and wanting the white Riviera, and he growled back, “get off my lot….you’re just wasting my time….”, And turned around and left.

    I would have thought that this was a unique experience but a couple of months later my boss told be that the same general thing happened to his sister and brother-in-law. Somebody at Bill Murphy Buick threw them out of the showroom when they wanted to buy a red Skylark. Some kind of unique salesmanship I guess.

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    • Neil (SM) says:

      That’s got to be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Somebody comes in to buy a car, and their move is to throw them out!? LOL. I can’t imagine how that’s supposed to work.

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    • Jason says:

      A few months after finishing my degree which included a decent amount of negotiation training, I went to buy a car. I concluded that most car salespeople had the same negotiation training, but they stopped after the first hour. All of the cheap tricks with none of the depth, e.g., making me wait in the showroom for an hour so that I would be invested in the process and not want to leave. Refusing to cut a deal on one car because they are trying to switch me to a different one. I don’t know why car sales are so much more this way than other items, but I think some salespeople just like the game.

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  5. Jen says:

    In 2008 I bought a surprisingly cute silk dress at Bebe for $150. After three wearings, the silk came completely apart at the seams. It was a very free-flowing dress, so it wasn’t tight and certainly hadn’t been worn enough to cause such an issue, so I took it back to the store to ask them for an exchange. The lady at the counter refused an exchange, saying if it was worn it couldn’t be returned or exchanged. I explained I thought the silk or design was faulty and I wouldn’t expect that out of a $150 dress. She promptly told me that if that was the case and if I paid $150 for a dress, I “should inspect the dress before I bought it to make sure there were no problems.” When I asked for the manager she told me she was the manager, and when I called the regional manager, I never received a return phone call. I still boycott the store.

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    • Dan says:

      Having worked at a retail clothing store, I feel that if you yell and complain for long enough, you can eventually get whatever you want, regardless of how unreasonable it is.

      One time a customer came in and claimed that we owed him money because the cashier at a DIFFERENT location of the store chain forgot to put one of the items he was purchasing into the bag; therefore, we now owed him $15. He had no proof of the transaction, not even a receipt. After an hour of the condescending, “I work for a living and don’t have time for this; We made a special trip here and I’m not leaving til I get what I want; I’m going to call your boss and get you in trouble” etc. the manager just gave him $15 out of the register and sent him on his way.

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  6. K says:

    Working in clothing retail for the past ten years, I’ve found the hardest part is “reading” the customer. Some want superior service (assistance and encouragement from start to finish). Some don’t even want to be greeted (A co-worker has had a customer yell to leave them alone just because she said hello to the customer). Then there’s everything in-between. It’s my job to figure out what the customer wants and how to approach the situation. It’s a lopsided relationship. We are expected to be perfect and give the customer whatever they want. Meanwhile, we are generally not treated as kindly in return. From getting yelled at to watching their screaming children. From picking up mountains of unwanted clothes off the floor to discovering someone deciding to the fitting room as a toilet. No matter the situation, it is expected you keep a smile on your face and act like you are happy to help (even if it’s an hour past closing time). I’m currently seeking other employment because I can no longer spend my days being treated with the amount disrespect that has become normal here.

    I always say thank you to the customer upon checkout. I also tell them to have a great day (as sincerely as possible). It’s interesting how many don’t say anything back. A simple “you too” would make me feel a lot less useless than someone who refuses to communicate or make eye contact with me.

    Yes, there are plenty of situations where the employee is in the wrong. As a customer, I’ve dealt with unhappy, angry, or rude employees. Usually I try to just have sympathy for them, because I understand any job in retail is eventually tiresome.

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    • CC says:

      I used to work in retail and I agree with you. It’s a matter of reading the customer, and it’s also a matter of having a customer understand what kind of service each store provides. You can’t expect an employee at Kmart to play personal shopper for the day if they’re the only ones on the floor at the time (and yet some customers expect you to) and there are clothes on the floor and off the hangers, and complaints like that don’t tend to get much sympathy. But you should expect willingness to help and to do it as quickly as possible, to a reasonable extent. Know where you are and what you can ask for.

      Retail can be dehumanizing. Like you said, kindness doesn’t go both ways in retail. People will feel entitled to yell and humiliate you for a problem under the umbrella of “the customer is always right”, which is why the turnover is so high. Not to mention, people can switch jobs and make the same minimum wage-salary elsewhere, so there is little incentive to do more.

      Now, back to the original question, what I appreciate the most is efficiency. I don’t care to be followed around the store, I don’t care for sales pitches unless I inquire about them. I also expect basic manners, but I don’t need overly-sweet and cheery employees (ever tried to be fake-cheery 8 hours a day? Exhausting.) But the times I’ve been most satisfied is when employees are quick and honest about their services/products and when complaints are resolved quickly. I especially appreciate companies who DON’T have automated phone systems. There is nothing worse than having to tell your information to a machine letter by letter only to have the customer rep ask you to repeat it AGAIN when they answer. What’s the point then?

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      • Steve S. says:

        The two best customer service phone conversations came from organizations that explicitly pride themselves on their treatment of customers: ING Direct and Zappos. Funny how both are able to siphon from marketplaces that were seemingly the vanguard of brick and mortar enterprises.

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      • J1 says:

        “I don’t care to be followed around the store, I don’t care for sales pitches unless I inquire about them”

        It never ceases to amaze me that more stores seem unable to grasp this. It’s particularly bizarre in places that cater primarily to male customers and seem oblivious to basic truths about human behavior like…that unsolicited “assistance” is one of the most annoying things a man can experience. Constantly pestering your customers with offers of assistance they don’t want is NOT good customer service,

        I’m convinced Circuit City’s demise was due in large part to their relentless harrassment of male customers. For those of you in retail, is there a polite, succinct way to tell store employees to shut up and leave you alone? I don’t like to be rude to employees, because this behavior is so consistent in stores where it’s a problem that it’s obviously orders from the boss. Some of us don’t consider shopping a social activity, and resent stores that seem bent on imposing a social component. Amazon doesn’t do that, and neither should you.

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    • twobeef says:

      Case in point, the entire archives at , a collection of off-the-wall retail encounters with customers.

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  7. Mike McKenzie says:

    Was waiting in a line in Starbucks in Hinsdale, IL. The line was building, with only one Barrista taking orders and five Barristas standing in the back chatting. Clearly, this is not the Starbucks way and CEO Howard Schultz would want to know – nicely.

    I emailed, guessing at, quickly drafting a well-balanced complaint. With no expectation of a response ever, 10 minutes later I get a telephone call from Starbucks US President. Thoughtful, caring, immediate response. No big bids on “hey we treat customers right”, “we care” “we’re no 1 in customer service” None of those typical Marketing Communication/PR claims. Just straight up “Doing” the customer right.

    Can I pick at Starbucks, can I say they’re paying more attention to China. Do I know I pay $2.95 for $0.07 of brown water. Sure. Who cares. It’s theater and as carefully orchestrated as anything on Broadway. And the show goes on just about perfect 98% of the time. and they pretty much always have clean, safe bathrooms.

    Pretty good retail experience among the all to common disasters.

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    • D says:

      I used to work for a major financial services company in service and I can tell you unequivocally that upper management wants the customer to have the highest quality experience possible. They just budget about a third of the money necessary to actually provide it. So most of the financial companies have service departments that are far overworked, and constantly being micromanaged to reduce their AHT. That’s why you rarely talk to the same person more than a few times. The people good at the work realize its a dead end quickly and get poached into a more realistic position, and the people who can’t handle it usually wash out in a few weeks if they even make it through their training.

      There was a time when customer service meant having enough employees to help all the customers. Now, it’s solely a numbers game to make sure all the calls get answered. Programs like Six Sigma and Lean Enterprise work great with manufacturing and production numbers. But when it comes to service, the people with “black belts” simply have no concept of how many variables they’re actually trying to control.

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  8. BV says:

    Generally British service is average. However, my mum saw these neck and feet warmers sold by a company called Cherry Pit Pac – in the USA. I ordered about $80 worth, but missed the sign on the website that said to call for overseas delivery. As this was to be delivered to my mother’s house, I forgot about it for a while.

    The package never arrived, and so about a month later, I emailed and then called them about it. The woman I spoke to was incredible, said they could add a small delivery cost (under $10) and get it shipped to my mother’s place. However, the next day she emailed to say that actually shipping was $66! Even though she acknowledged that this was, in essense, my fault for not seeing the delivery sign online, she said they would pay half the delivery cost! Most impressive thing ever. Americans, generally, really know how to do service properly.

    Sidenote – British people find it weird asking for the name of the person serving you, whilst Amerians think it’s impolite if you don’t ask!

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I don’t think it’s impolite if you don’t ask the server for his or her name in a restaurant. (Most volunteer the information, because it increases their tips.) If I ask for your name in a customer-service transaction, it usually means that there is a Big Problem and I’m documenting who said what.

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