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. James says:

    I was a cashier in a town outside of Baltimore for a year and a half, and we got some of the pickiest, most hawk-eyed customers. There were a few legendary customers who kept track of the price listed at the shelf for every last item they bought, and would walk you through it. “This should be 3.99,” they’d say, pulling a can of coffee grounds from the cart, and waiting until you had scanned the item and the proper price had come up to hand you the next one.

    If you were unlucky enough to have an item where the price on the shelf and the price in the system were different—if that $3.99 can of coffee turned out to be $4.24 instead—they’d pounce, and demand that you undo the item and ring it up at their price. Of course, as a cashier with a line, you can’t just run out into the store and double-check their price, but you’re not allowed to take their word for it either: official store policy was that the system price WAS the price.

    We’d be more than happy to bend that rule, if it was a gratuitous inconsistency, or if I liked the person I was ringing up, or if they were polite about it. But with the hawks, it was like war: you didn’t want to give an inch, or a quarter, if you didn’t have to, and you never quite believed that they weren’t just trying to shave you down by nickels and dimes.

    From my perspective, and in my continuing perspective now that I’m no longer in retail but still shop there, is that the rule is fair. The price is whatever the computer system claims it is: the system can be updated far more quickly than the stickers on the shelf, and it often IS. But when you find out your can of coffee was slightly more expensive, we’re not going to force you to buy it: you can decide you don’t want an item at any time during the transaction.

    Long story short: sometimes I got into heated debates over whether I was going to shave a dime off the price of something. I wasn’t allowed to, but that didn’t stop people from claiming that half their items were overpriced, so that they could get angry and embarrass you, the company’s last line of defense, into bringing your price down.

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  2. Jean-Marc says:

    I appreciate when, while looking at various options, a service representative is honest in finding something that legitimately suits the customer’s needs, rather than trying to up-sell to the top dollar.

    For example, when a customer is looking for a television, a customer feels more valued if the TV they leave with has only the features that they actually want and needed, rather than being enticed towards the latest and greatest.

    Also, it helps if the sales rep tells the customer that the cable they need to connect their TV to their Blu-ray player really actually costs $3 at a computer store, rather than trying to sell them “gold-plated high-quality digital video cables” for $100, which are basically the same thing.

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  3. Adam M says:

    I have worked in retail a long time and there is an unwritten rule that people who are pushy and rude and yell will never get what they want from retail staff as a matter of policy but for people that are polite we will do something extra and maybe even bend a rule or two to help them out.

    Is this a measurable phenomenon?

    Can you tell statistically whether pushy and loud customers get more out of salespeople than polite people do?

    In retail we think it’s the polite ones who get what they want and we send the rude ones packing. Are we right?

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  4. Abigail says:

    Not sure if it’s too late to comment, but here goes. I have 2 comments, one from the customer side and one from the employee side.
    1) My absolute favorite store to shop at is a health food store called The Merc, in Lawrence, KS. I like it over other health food stores mainly because of the fantastic environment and friendly customer service. They hire quality, caring people there, who do a great job. It is always a pleasure to shop there.
    2) While in college one of my jobs was working at a copy center (that shall remain nameless). I always felt we were under-staffed, since the store was very very busy, and we only had a few people working in the copy center at a time. It was not uncommon to have a line of people about 20 yards long, from the counter to the entrance door, and only 2 people at the cash registers. (Plus the cashiers were also responsible for answering phones and faxes, and keeping the copy machines stocked, in addition to cashiering for a steady flow of people.) I’m pretty good at multi-tasking, and I always did my best, but one day I made some kind of mistake while ringing someone up (I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it wasn’t a big deal, and I corrected it). The customer, probably already very irate from having to stand in line so long, exploded at me, calling me names and yelling. I tried to keep calm, but when he stormed away I burst into tears, much to my embarrassment and the apparent embarrassment of the next person in line, a woman who tried to comfort me. My manager had to take my place for a few minutes while I went to blow my nose. About 20 minutes later, the woman who had tried to comfort me came back into the store–with a big box of doughnuts for the staff! It was the worst and the best of humanity all in one day. :) Aside from that touching experience, I eventually quit that job because they did not treat their employees or their customers well. I was paid barely over minimum wage, and expected to keep up with such high demands. Even though I and several other employees mentioned our concerns to the manager, she said she didn’t have the ability to hire more people to help relieve the stress. Our stress brought stress to our customers, who sometimes yelled it back to us… and it was just a big, nasty feedback loop of stress. A lot of companies pay only lip service to customer service, but part of that equation is treating employees well… and having enough of them.

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  5. Brett says:

    I started renting a house my last year of college and decided to get comcast internet. It worked great when it worked but in a 6 month period of time, 3 routers just stopped working and it stopped working for a few hours about once every 2 weeks. The router things was just plain odd and there was no explanation for why the routers stopped working. I never received any sort of discount on my bill even though I actually received about 5 months of service but paid for six. When I called to cancel my account, I waited about 45 minutes, answered some questions just to find out I had to be transferred to another department (not due to me clicking the wrong numbers on the phone, but due to an error in their customer service). I waited about an extra 10 minutes and hung up after receiving no service.
    That same day I ordered DSL.
    About 3 months later my Comcast internet was finally shut off due to me not paying the bills. They said I owed about $200 for bills and late fees. I went in to their local office and told them I called and cancelled my service 3 months ago and even ordered new DSL. I brought bills from the DSL to prove it. They looked at my call record and saw I cancelled 3 months ago and dropped my balance to “0.”
    Thank you Comcast for being terribly annoying but giving me 3 months of extra internet for free!

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