Under the Sun
Courtesies in retailing sometimes comical, always changing
No more than 30 seconds after entering the bookstore, an enthusiastic clerk, smile fixed wide on his tanned face, accosted me.
"Are you finding what you're looking for?" he bellowed.
Peevish at being startled with a nonsensical question, I resisted sarcasm and edged away from him, muttering a series of remarks to myself: "No, I can't find the free books," and "Where's the pile of money?" and "I'd like to sign the impeachment petition you're circulating."
But you can't say stuff like that to store clerks, I mean, to sales associates, as they are now labeled. The guy was just doing what he was told to do by the boss, who, no doubt, was instructed by a bigger boss, and, in turn, by the biggest bosses up the chain to the corporate HQ.
Be friendly! Be helpful! Be available and smile, smile, smile! These seem to be the new attitudes in the retail domain, especially with the advent of the spending season.
Predictions of dilatory holiday sales, with consumers feeling the jolt of fuel and energy prices and having less discretionary cash on hand, have evidently pushed service to a pitch. Where before store employees were yoked to the register, they now roam the floors, if not approaching customers aggressively, then swathing them with courtesy.
In the 45 minutes or so that I browsed through the bookstore, three sales people offered help. When associate No. 2 returned the second time, I told him to leave me be, that I had been finding books I want to read for far longer than he'd been alive and that if I really, really needed his assistance, I'd seek him out, pinky promise.
Enthusiasm intact, he nodded and bopped off to bother someone else. Another book browser who'd overhead the exchange rolled his eyes in sympathy.
At a department store, I discovered there are degrees of verbal service. After I'd used my store credit card to make a buy -- you get a 10 percent discount if you do -- the associate sent me off with an exhortation.
"Have an outstanding day!" she said, handing me my purchase.
Later, when I paid cash for a smaller item in the same store, the associate gave me a muted "thank you."
I said, "What happened to the 'outstanding day?'"
She just shrugged, but I pressed. Is the trigger the amount spent? The kind of product bought?
Finally she explained that "outstanding day" is used only for store credit card purchases. Cash doesn't cut it. And, she added, a tad resentfully, associates at cosmetics are exempt from "outstanding day," but have to come around the counter to present purchases to customers.
Really? What's the theory? I asked. She laughed. The rules change often and aren't explained, she said, and she'd long stopped wondering.
We chatted for a few more minutes about jobs, her classes at the community college, her uncertainty about a career -- definitely not retail sales, maybe nursing or social work.
We broke off when another customer came along. I said, "Nice talking with you." She said, "You, too." Then, after a pause, added, "Have an outstanding day."
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org