Dying to be Seen

I’m told by a friend’s adult son that I (a lot like my current computer) am now a veritable dinosaur, since I embarrassingly expect store clerks or salespeople to be knowledgeable about the products they sell and to attend me when I come to shop in their stores. He patiently explained that “good customers” are expected to do their research on-line first  and then come in knowing exactly what model and brand of merchandise they need, from computers to cars, as well as the price they should expect to pay.  The salespeople, he said, are only there to direct customers and ring up purchases; they aren’t required to have any knowledge of the merchandise.

I found his remarks both dismaying and shocking, yet I couldn’t quite argue. The dictum “the customer is always right” has swung like a pendulum to the far side of the metronome of commerce. And in recent years I’ve experienced exactly the scenario the young man so patiently explained.

Perhaps six years ago, I ventured into one of the big electronics stores to buy a new computer—the very laptop, in fact, on which I am typing this post. And, yes, I had done my research beforehand, and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. Speed was not really a consideration for me, as I do not game.  I wanted a full-size keyboard.  My vision is poor, so I preferred a large screen.  But, as I use a computer only for word processing, spreadsheets, reading the news and watching an occasional fluffy-kitten-or-cute-dog video, I really didn’t need anything fancy. Still, I came to the world of computers via typewriters both manual and electric; my understanding of technology is limited. I preferred not to buy a laptop on-line, without first seeing the darned thing and then talking to a living, breathing, knowledgeable human being.

And so, the big box computer store. It was a Friday night, and extremely busy, but eventually I snagged an unoccupied clerk, a young man probably in his 20s, and explained the features I wanted in a new laptop.  He listened impatiently, and then, walking away from me, said, “We don’t have anything like that.”

I probably stood with my jaw hanging open for a full 30 seconds before intentionally closing my mouth and storming out of the store.

In essence, I understood what had just happened. I was obviously not a person highly knowledgeable about technology—not a nerd, a geek—and the young clerk would have been forced to take the time to provide explanations on the features of any computer he recommended.  I was a middle-aged woman, not a hot young chick, so there was no visual compensation for the time he would have to take with me.  I had not mentioned how much money I was prepared to spend, so if he was working on commission, that factor was uncertain.

I was simply not worth the young clerk’s time.

And yet…eventually that evening I landed at another store, where another clerk, just as young but far better trained (or perhaps just in need of that commission), took a great deal of time with me as together we chose just the right laptop for my needs—along with a lot of minor paraphernalia, including case, mouse, surge protector, and software. With an additional fee added for sparing me the trouble of loading programs onto the computer, I went far over my budget, but the young man even downloaded a free antivirus program and presented me with a fully-working, excellent computer.  And though it is now as venerable a dinosaur as myself, I continue to use it.

But I’ve encountered this same experience more times than I care to count in recent years, especially in one large chain hardware store–one which I now refuse to enter, even though it’s conveniently located to my home. As I complained to the manager there after an especially egregious event, I felt that I could have died in the aisle and not even been noticed until the janitors came in that night to sweep my cold, dead body out of the store. (Happily, I will note that I’ve become a customer of a different hardware chain, one where customers are still noticed as well as valued and appreciated.)

Attitudes change. Despite the once-popular slogan, the customer was not always right, not by a longshot.  But it is also true that the customer deserves to be treated with at least a modicum of attention, courtesy, and respect, and to be tended to by salespeople who are at least minimally knowledgeable about the products they are expected to vend.

And no one, middle-aged or otherwise, should have to die merely to be seen.

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