I’m a cheesemonger. That means I am a retail worker with a pretentious title. I have to deal with the things that all retail workers need to deal with, the most annoying being the occasional customer with entitlement issues.
Things are actually better now. During the dot com boom, some customers would literally time discussions and then tell you how much money you cost them by answering their questions and addressing their concerns. San Francisco retail is much better than Marin retail because you actually mostly have reasonable people who have occasionally in their lives heard the word “no”.
The thing that causes the most problems is our return policy. We have tried to have a reasonable return policy for reasonable adults. To be totally honest with you, Dear Reader, I argued 15 years ago that we just needed to give up, that we should just take all returns because you never win arguments with customers, indeed, you never want to have arguments with customers. It stresses the workers and makes customers not want to return. I get the concept, I really do. Even it really is a triumph of capital over society.
I’ll give you an example from a few weeks ago. A customer came in and started fiddling with a certain product. I don’t want to name it, but let’s just say it’s cheddar. After a while he came up to the counter and said, “I bought some of this and it was bad. Can I exchange it?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I actually bought quite a few. I didn’t open them but they all look bad.”
“You bought a few? Was it when they were on sale?”
“Well, we’ll give you credit for what you paid. Obviously they cost more at regular price.”
The wrong answer. This unleashed a stream of Whole Foods this and Trader Joes that. Anywhere else he could just give people his word and they would give him product in exchange, no questions asked, no matter what it now cost. During this onslaught, I started to think about timing.
“Wait,” I said. “These haven’t been on sale for months. When did you buy these?”
Another onslaught was released. “Why does it matter?” “Don’t you stand behind your product?” and, my favorite, the telling me how to do my job one, “Other stores return these to their distributors and get credit from them.”
The thing is, while our store is not always the best about customer service, it comes from a place of treating people as equals all the way down the line. Ethically, I am not going to go to a distributor and say, “I need full price credit for this perishable product that I bought on sale which a customer says went bad sometime in the two months since he purchased it. No I can’t really say for certain it was kept refrigerated.” I may authorize the return, but I’m not going to ask someone else to pay for it. I don’t work for a national chain bully.
But beyond that, why is this acceptable anywhere? God help us when the pinko commie worker-owned co-op is the only place left arguing for personal responsibility. Seriously, it’s a societal problem when this is condoned as normal behavior. If I was in this situation I would think, “I bought too much of that perishable product. That was dumb,” and throw it away.
I wouldn’t think, “Someone else must pay for my error in judgment!”
It goes without saying that most people aren’t like this type of customer. I will state here, for the record, that I actually like and feel kinship with most of the customers I talk to on a daily basis. People with this attitude of entitlement, however, are a real problem, yet they take up so much time and energy, and cause such annoyance, that it’s easier to give in and just give them credit rather than treat them as human beings with functional brains who made specific – and in these cases, poor — choices. What does it cost us, as a community, when many retailers treat community members, as if they are spoiled children.
The customer is not always right, sometimes demonstrably so. Saying this is retail suicide, but continuing to pretend that they are – privileging the consumer over other parts of the food system – may, on some small but insistent level, be societal suicide.