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 don’t know if this counts as customer service, but one of my pet peeves are the retail locations which play obnoxiously loud popular music. The worst I remember was Best Buy: the one time I went into one of their stores, it was loud enough to be painful. I did a 180, haven’t been in one since, and gave a silent cheer on reading the news of their financial difficulties.

    On line, I think the worst are the sites which assume that you use the latest & “greatest” browser add-ons, and want your shopping to be a multimedia experience. This even extends to my local utility & mortgage service companies. Wouldn’t you think it’d be obvious? I need to give them some money, so make it as easy as possible for me to do so.

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  2. Becca says:

    Once, while I was working at an arts and crafts store, a woman came in and bought several very large sketchpads – while my coworker was struggling to fit them into bags and I was ringing up another customer, my coworker asked the woman for help holding a particularly large sketchpad and the woman replied that it was my coworker’s job and not hers. Then, as I was ringing the woman up she paid with several hundred dollar bills and since I was standing right next to the sign at the register about checking the watermarks on large bills, I started holding them up to the light. The woman asked me if I thought she was the type of person who would use counterfeit money and I told her that most people end up with counterfeit bills from the bank. She then proceeded to call me a little monster (I was 19) and demanded that my coworker (who was with another customer) immediately come and finish her transaction because she refused to have anything to do with me. That’s the first and only time that a customer actually made me cry in the store – I have had drug dealers come in to buy baggies that had more common courtesy.

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  3. Jennifer says:

    When I was in the UK last year just after Christmas, I was very surprised that Marks & Spencer had closed ALL of their dressing rooms, so that it was not possible to try on any cloths. I inquired about it and they answered that during the sale season, they routinely closed the changing rooms down, because otherwise long cues would form. They encourage people to buy things they are not sure will fit and just return them if they end up not fitting. As a customer, that certainly discouraged me to buy. I do not see of the point of choosing a lot of items I could potentially like, paying for them and being pretty sure that I will need return all but a few. Also, at least at the time I was there, the store was not busy at all. Left me very curious and I naturally did not purchase anything.

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  4. Michelle says:

    I worked in a yarn store, first as an employee, and then as the manager, for a little bit over a year. It was an amazing job, so cool for a knitter, but it had a small particular weirdness to it.

    The way that local yarn stores compete with the internet is by building a strong community. They encourage people to come in, knit, hang out, get help from the staff with their knitting problems, take classes, and so on. And that’s cool if you’re a customer, but as staff, I was being paid to be friends with these people. It felt a little weird, sometimes. Some people made it easy, but a lot of them made it very hard. Some of them treated me as a kind of ad hoc therapist, since I was a captive, sympathetic audience. I was in my early twenties at this point, and some of the things these women brought to me were way, way out of my depth. There was a woman who would come in to our weekly knit night and re-tell the story of her husband’s death, in detail. Every week. It’s been years, and I still know that story by heart. (‘I rolled over in bed, and there he was, and he was blue…’)

    But one pair of customers took it to a new level.

    I was working alone. It was summer, and summer in a yarn store is very, very slow. So there was no one else in the store when a pair of women came in. There was a very old lady, and a middle aged woman, mother and daughter.

    From the beginning, their relationship seemed strange. The daughter was pushing a lot of yarn and crochet hooks on the mother, insisting that she used to like this, that she should do it again, etc. The mother was obviously severely depressed and didn’t want to be there, and as this went on, the daughter got more and more exasperated and mean. Flat out mean to this sweet old lady who was obviously terribly unhappy and was her mother. First it was dramatic rolling of eyes like a goddamned teenager, and then sighs and other noises of contempt, and then it was outright insults. Finally, she went off to pick out some things for her mother on her own, and while she was on the other side of the store, the old lady sat down across from me, and started talking.

    She started slowly, but I think once she realized that I was listening to her and I wasn’t dismissing her feelings, it all just came pouring out of her, like she hadn’t had anyone to talk to in a long, long time. She told me about her husband, who she had married right out of high school, and how in love they had been. She told me about how he died, and how she hadn’t known what to do with herself, and how much she missed him. And then her daughter had insisted that she move away from all of her friends and support network to join her in California, where she didn’t know anyone. So now here she was, and her eyesight was going, so she couldn’t drive anymore, knowing nobody but her daughter, missing her husband, so terribly lonely.

    And listening to this, it struck me that she had been so deprived of anyone who would listen to or empathize with her that she was reduced to telling her troubles to the girl at the yarn store whose name she didn’t even know.

    About now, her daughter comes back, sees her mother talking to me with tears welling in her eyes, and actually apologizes to me for her mother’s behavior. We walked over to the register and I started ringing her up, and all the while, she’s keeping up this steady monologue of contempt for her mother, saying just horrible things that her mother is enduring with those tears still in her eyes, culminating in the daughter trying to bring ME in on it. That was the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore, and I stopped what I was doing and told her that I wasn’t going to talk to her mother that way, even if she was.

    She grabbed her bags and dragged her poor mother out, swearing they would never return again. Once she was gone, I locked the front door, walked into the office, closed the door, and just broke down and cried.

    So that I don’t end this post on that note, I’ll add one more thing: Nobody should have a license to complain about customer service from minimum wage or low wage retail and food service workers until they’ve done the job for a year. I know it’s cliche, but it’s true. The level of service that some people expect from people who are probably making minimum wage and putting up with an enormous amount of BS for the money is absurd. You’re not going to be treated like royalty at the local Wal-Mart, end of story.

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  5. James says:

    My first thought was of Chick-Fil-A. At this southern fast food restaurant, they don’t have a rule about saying thank you, but whenever the customer thanks an employee, the employee is instructed to always respond with “my pleasure”.

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    • Jessica says:

      Chick-fil-A is THE BEST. On the occasions I dine in there, I get better service than at some real “sit-down” restaurants.

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      • Dan says:

        Chick-Fil-A is somehow always amazing at customer service. Once my order took SLIGHTLY longer than expected, maybe 5 minutes to come out. The guy at the register apologized profusely and gave me a coupon for a free sandwich. Awesome!

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      • econobiker says:

        That is because Chik-Fil-A is still run by human beings with moral fiber versus corporate ladder climbers seeking to harvest the least possible profit in order to “make the numbers” and qualify for a quarterly bonus…

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  6. Kevin says:

    I was flying into Newark on business in Morristown, NJ. I knew I would need a rental car so I reserved one in advance to be picked up at the airport. When I got to the counter I told the agent Hello, my name, and that I had a reservation.

    His reply was: “So?”

    Completely taken aback I reply: ” With your company”

    He said: “What do you want me to do about it?”

    Total shocked I said: “Give me a CAR!”

    Growing up in the mid-west I assumed that late night comedy shows exaggerated the NJ stereotype for comedic effect, however my very first interaction, on my very first trip to NJ reaffirmed all of those stereotypes of the hostile and miserable people of NJ and left me shaking my head. “Welcome to the Garden State!”

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  7. rodney green says:

    I just recently went new boat shopping. I went to a local dealership first, they barely gave me the time of day and seemed uninterested as to whether I would buy from them or not. I then went to one of the big boys, the one with the big bass on the logo, and couldn’t even get a salesman to acknowledge me. I even went as far as standing up in the boat in the showroom and borrowing a tape measure from one of the salesman to measure the width of the boat. Needless to say, neither of those two establishments got my money. I went with another local dealer who was very responsive to questions, email, and phone messages. Good customer service = good business.

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  8. Lassie says:

    Best Buy. My mother and her disabled on (who live with a black cloud floating over them, to be fair) bought him a VCR some years ago at Best Buy. It didn’t work, or it chewed up tapes, I forget. They took it back to Best Buy, who said they would ‘send it out to be repaired’. Weeks went by, and finally the repaired VCR was sent to Best Buy. They went and picked it up. It was STILL defective. Took it back, and Best Buy said again they would ‘send it out to be repaired’. Would NOT replace the VCR for some unknown reason. Again, the VCR disappeared for some time, and I forget what transpired, but my mother was on the phone to some old man in Florida – Florida! (she lived in New York) who told her yes, he had the VCR and was working on it, and was going to send it back to Best Buy to be picked up by her in a few days….Best Buy sent that piece of cap out to be repaired by somebody in Florida – twice – other than simply giving mom another one. I don’t recall whatever happened with the defective VCR, it was quite some time ago, but I can assure you we all complained loud and long about Best Buy to anyone who would listen and never set foot in that store ever again,

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