Retail entitlement culture

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.

10 responses to “Retail entitlement culture

  1. Thank you for saying everything that people who work in our line of business think on a daily basis. I had a customer return a local camembert 5 months after the expiration date… 5. And they still returned their money. We have people that eat things for their lunch and then return them, saying it was too this or too that. It blows my mind.

    • Awww, thanks. I debated whether or not to post this for awhile. Not because I don’t believe it, but because it is so easily read the wrong way.

      With cheese, we take it back (within a certain time frame) no questions asked but we try to talk to people about what they didn’t like. Mistaking crystallization in aged cheeses for mold and mistaking washed rind cheeses for rot (“My Red Hawk is red! Take it back!”) are the classic customer errors. We make a show of throwing the cheese in the trash in front of the customer to dramatize the fact that we cannot re-sell it and they are wasting otherwise good food.

      Of course, every store sells a bit of bad cheese now and then. In that case they get a full return and sincere apologies. Of course.

  2. Returns work for Costco, banning jerk nutjobs works for Southwest Airlines. 🙂

  3. Reading this I am reminded of the apocryphal story from the 80s of the customer taking their tires back to Nordstrom’s. Why was taking your tires back to Nordstrom’s ever considered a good idea? This sick protocol, in which the customer is supposedly always right, is definitely part of the problem. As “consumers,” we have little or no real say about the forces that directly effect our lives, but we do have this one little privilege: we can be a complete dick to the person behind the counter. I’m so glad you don’t put up with this crap. Just another reason I’m glad to shop at Rainbow!

    • Nordstrom can do this because they sell with >100% markup.

      Costco can do this because they know what every person has bought and returned, and can easily track down and ban people who they’re losing money on.

      Grocery stores can’t.

  4. I am reassured by your observation that most people aren’t like this customer. Sometimes I wonder.

    Personally, I seem plagued by ammonia-like odors in the soft cheeses I buy but maybe I’m just super-sensitive. It never occurred to me to bring a cheese back.

  5. It completely threw me for a loop the first time I had someone return cheese. In my opinion it is a perishable product and you have to use it before it goes bad – whenever that may be. And there really is no excuse especially when the store in question cuts to order. I’ve had lemons go moldy seemingly overnight or are dry … it never occurred to me to ask for a refund…. customers are weird.

  6. I’m so glad you posted this blog entry. It is truly amazing what people will do and the sense of entitlement that they can have when it is more about poor judgment and error on their part. If a food goes bad that I’ve bought, my thought is “crap, I should’ve eaten that sooner!” rather than I should return it for money back. Craziness. The customer ISN’T always right.

  7. It’s like you took the words right out of my mouth!!! now I feel better about going back to work after someone literally called saying that the Robiola cheese they bought went bad ( Well No DUH! it’s a perishable item). Mind you after they ate half of it already for a dinner party. We do our best to ask what the cheese is for and how many people they are serving, is it a main feature or being served before or after dinner. I believe in selling and cutting the amount you need (give or take), buy fresh and often. Rather than buy more and less often. It baffles me when they call wanting to return something they ate half of and then went bad. Chalk it up to experience and next time buy less. It’s exhausting and disheartening dealing with these customers but I try to focus on all the other great customers who shop with us that make work fun.

  8. I work in a different industry and am on my lunch break right now reading this. It made me feel better aobut my day. Thank you and I agree 100%.

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