Back off and let me browse

Posted December 30, 2014

Back off and let me browse

“How are you getting on?” Note the open question requiring more than a yes or no reply. The problem is that I don’t feel like chatting. 

It’s early morning and I’m the only customer in the shop. Three sales assistants have now asked me that same question, within the space of a few minutes, when all I want is to browse in peace. In any case, I’m not sure how to respond. Am I expected to rate my shopping experience on a Craig Revel Horwood sliding scale, ranging from ‘di-SAH-ster darling’ to ‘fab-u-LOUS’? When I do finally offer some feedback, I tell them how irritating it feels to be badgered by people making the same enquiry over and over again. I’m politely informed that it’s company policy to engage with the customer.

I wonder if company policy includes invading my space. Remember the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who: predatory human-sized stone statues that moved terrifyingly fast when no-one was looking at them, closing distances of metres literally in the blink of an eye? This is the retail equivalent. As long as I keep my eye on the sales assistants, they stay put but if I so much as glance down at a garment, or (worse!) blink, one suddenly appears at my side, face frozen in a smile and asks,  “Have you found what you’re looking for?” I’m not looking for anything in particular but their unnerving proximity makes me feel I should be.

The worst thing is I used to run corporate sales training programmes when I worked in retail. And yes - CRINGE - I made it compulsory to welcome each customer within a minute of entering a department. In my defence, I left it to the staff to come up with an introduction that felt most natural to them. They weren’t restricted to one line that they had to repeat verbatim. An appropriate welcome could be anything from a subtle incline of the head, a smile or a simple hello. Preferably not all at the same time or they’d end up looking like a nodding dog in the back of a car. And no hearty slap on the back or “Hail good fellow, well met!” (although some of the theatre students recruited as sale temps probably did get away with this).

The best sales people were those that could ‘read’ a customer. In other words, they knew instinctively when to approach a customer and when to back off. I was in total awe of their skills. Unfortunately this level of empathy is impossible to teach: you either have it or you don’t.

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