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. sfosparky says:

    Re: “What Are Your Best — and Worst — Retail Experiences?”

    Is not every aspect of air travel the WORST! retail experience imaginable? The degradation begins when one is compelled to spend time trying to purchase a ticket without being the chump that overpaid. One then assents to being treated like absolute [garbage] the moment one enters the departure airport. On the plane, it is made very clear that one’s presence is a waste of precious airplane space and an inconvenience to everyone employed by the airline. At the arrival airport, it’s time to again be treated like [garbage] until one finally escapes. Want to be treated like a human being? Well, that’ll cost you and even then you’re only treated less abusively rather than well. Is there any other retail experience that is so thoroughly, inescapably unpleasant from start to finish?

    As far as best goes, nothing beats being treated like a human by a human. That goes both ways, by the way: Treating retail workers well is not only the moral thing to do, it can produce benefits in terms of goods and services delivered. Unfortunately, many retail employees are not treated humanely by their employers: Human needs cut into the bottom line. So the contempt of careerist hot-air artists is codified into 8-inch thick policy manuals. The irony is that the policies directly negate the home office’s otherwise expensive efforts to “create a relationship with the customer”. And for that bit of hierarchical top-down-manship, the executives are paid about fifty to five-hundred times more than the customer service reps they mis-manage and who in turn can’t conceal their resentments from the customers…

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  2. neral says:

    I took my mum across to NYC for a holiday and part of the experience was a visit to Saks (she loves retail and the stores of legend). We were wandering around one of the floors with the expensive fashion and suddenly a mouse shot across the floor between the clothes stands. Mum squeeled and for devillment I gave chase (of course the mouse got well away). Mum was shocked (Saks, after all, was a dream location for her) so found a couple of store assistants and just mentioned about the mouse. Well, they were ncredulous

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  3. Alex Blaze says:

    Customer service in France is usually the butt of jokes, but I’ve found it isn’t so bad right now. The worst tends to be secretaries and receptionists, who can be so mean sometimes I’ll do a few minutes of walking in the street in front of a doctor’s office or whatever before walking in.

    Worst experience would be Amazon, which made quite a few errors in my last big order. They didn’t send 2 things, sent the wrong version of 1 product so that it was completely useless to me, promised refunds but had to be prodded several times. Each problem was always met with “I see what you’re saying, I’ll take care of it” which is nice, but if they can see all these problems why did I have to prod them so many times?

    And airplanes, although most flight attendants (outside of RyanAir) are plenty nice and seem to genuinely be trying to make the best of an uncomfortable situation for everyone. RyanAir flight attendants are the worst and you can tell they don’t want to be there.

    As for best… I hate to be cliche but the best experience I had was buying headphones at a local audio shop in Indianapolis. The guy knew the product and let me try a bunch of headphones, indulging my bad taste in music and not trying to sell me the most expensive set (although he did tell me I’d be back to get more expensive ones eventually as my listening skills developed… and he was right).

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  4. Carol Doyle says:

    A couple of years ago I was in a T.J. Maxx store in Ireland, where we call it T.K. Maxx. Loaded with the maximum number of garments allowed, I went to the changing rooms and locked myself in a cubicle. This changing room had the vaguely voyeuristic feature of not-quite-to-the-floor cubicle walls. In my shopping-high haze, I didn’t take much notice of the strange smell. It wasn’t until I bent down to pick up a particularly cool pair of jeans that had fallen to the floor that I saw it:

    A turd. A turd half wrapped up in a pair of lacy blue panties, in the next cubicle, but spilling over the invisible line into mine.

    I recoiled and staggered back to the changing room attendant: a teenage boy, working his part-time evening job, more interested in chatting with his friends. I interrupted them, after several failed attempts, and overplayed my shock to make up for his complete lack of facial expression. He mumbled something about cleaners and left me free to return to the shopping rails, satisfied that I had done my part as a good citizen.

    Laden with clean clothes, I re-entered the changing room, proceeding with caution and much peering around corners. It occurred to me the lack of any kind of safety notice, safety equipment, nor cleaning personnel. I returned to the offending cubicle to find nothing had changed. It was over twenty minutes since I had reported the incident. Disgusted, I made my purchases and did the only thing any good citizen in such a situation can do: I called my girl-friend and mouthed off about it.

    On returning home, I immediately put the clothes I had been wearing and my purchases into the washing machine and had a shower. Then I thought a more productive person to phone might be the store manager. I called the store and spoke to a male manager, who had not heard of the incident – more than 1 hour after I had reported it. He promised me it would be dealt with, and hung up. I called again after 30 minutes and this time spoke to a very informed female manager, who assured me that the offending cubicle had been closed off and that the cleaning crew were on their way.

    On their way? This is a public health hazard! My consternation grew, and I decided to write an angry, but reserved, letter to the company and emailed it to the highest levels. I even sent copies by snail mail, to show that I really meant it. In the letter, I highlighted the apathy and slow responsiveness of the staff from part-time to management level. Given the danger to public health of such an incident, I would be forced – nay, it was my duty – to take the matter higher if suitable steps were not taken to address this culture within the company.

    Their swift response was an assurance that those involved were being investigated and that steps would be taken to prevent such instances reccurring in the future, but I would understand that they cannot share details of internal company workings with me. Attached was a EUR 30 gift voucher. I returned to the store, voucher in hand. But my real reason was to check out the progress, I’m sure.

    Several months later, my sister phoned to tell me that she had just been to the changing room in question, and that there was a cleaning lady posted who regularly ensured both the mens and womens changing rooms were clean, wiping mirrors, vacuuming, picking up litter and, well, whatever else might be left behind.

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  6. Susan says:

    When I was 18, my parents took 6 of us to Fuddruckers. After paying over $50 for hamburgers and fries, (super-expensive in 1992) I picked up the order at the counter. I checked the order and informed the cashier that they had forgotten the cheese on three of the burgers. She told me I would have to give her 45 cents to fix the order. I explained that they had made the mistake, but she would not give it to me without me paying. I declined and was annoyed at the error. The next day, I called the manager and said that I was frustrated that after paying $50 for fast food they would not cough up the 45 cents of cheese due to their error. I said it was poor customer service. He apologized and said he would send me a $10 gift card, which made me feel better….until it never arrived! I know it was just a silly event, but that was over 20 years ago and I have never been back to a Fuddruckers since (plus, I have shared my annoyance with a few people over the years…)

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  7. Axel Kassel says:

    Some years ago, I bought my son a Sony portable cassette player (remember those?) at a Best Buy. The unit was DOA: on battery or AC, dead as Prohibition. I took it back to Best Buy. The clerk said I would have to pay a restocking fee ($15, I think, or maybe 15%) because I hadn’t returned it in the original package. I retrieved a fresh unit from the display and asked to see the manager. I pointed out that the instructions on the clear-plastic clamshell package said to cut it open. I had done so and naturally discarded the mutilated and now-useless package. The manager went through several snooty rounds of quoting policy until I threatened to write the state AG’s consumer-fraud division and the FTC. Then he offered to waive the fee so long as I was taking a replacement unit rather than a refund. Convinced that Best Buy not only had poor sales help but was governed by hidebound idiots, I never set foot in another of their stores. May they follow Circuit City into ignominious extinction.

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  8. Trevor says:

    My very first job was selling Pronto-Pups (basically corn dogs) at the Minnesota State Fair. My first day on the job, my boss, who happened to also be my dad’s friend, pulled me aside and told me the following (quoted only to the best of my memory, minus the expletives): “We don’t get repeat business. People come here for one day every year, they buy one Pronto, and we don’t see ‘em again. Next year they’re gonna be by some other stand when they want one. Maybe we’ll see ‘em again 5, maybe 6 years from now. Besides, it’s the Fair, they expect bad service. So, if one of them gives you any attitude, let ‘em have it. If you’re stressed out and you want to vent, go ahead. If you just want to be a smart-ass for a minute, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t change my business.”

    Of course, being 15, I found a lot of reasons to say a lot of really terrible things to the customers. And the idea that there wouldn’t be any consequences was just too much for me to resist. Now, I wish I could go back and apologize to those people for the things I said. But my boss was right. He made more money every year, no matter how badly he and his staff treated the customers.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that when you remove the possibility of repeat business, you also remove most of the incentive for any kind of positive retail etiquette policy.

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