Lessons In Retail EtiquetteTales From The Shop Floor

Get Good Customer Service By Not Being a Bad Customer

Lessons in Retail Etiquette Episode 2:

Customer Expectations vs Customer Behaviour

As Customers, we’d all love to be treated like royalty. But can we really expect to be, if we act like royal pains in the ass?

I’ve written and re-written this post on Customer Behaviour affecting Customer Service. In fact I’ve been working on this since September 19, with over 90 revisions looking back at my revisions log, trying to make the tone the least ‘rant-y’ I can, but some ‘rantiness’ remains. (Sorry) It’s a topic that gets to me, because it shouldn’t even be a ‘thing.’ We are about to tackle in very broad terms the #1 source of angst among retail workers. Namely, Customers. Or more specifically the contradiction between a customer’s  behaviour and their expectations around customer service customer.

Whilst writing one of those revisions I was inspired to do a little creative writing to illustrate my point which became so involved, it became a separate entity, and a whole new post series. But I can’t think of a better way to start than give you The Refund as a case study. Go on, go have a read if you haven’t already, its like the Retail version of Aesop’s Fables. I’ll be waiting here patiently for your return…

…and you’re back. Welcome back!

While the events and characters in The Refund are fictitious I have seen the exact same behaviour from customers more times than I care to remember. Talk to anyone in retail and they will tell you their frustrations in no uncertain terms regarding customers who have high customer service expectations, but actively make it impossible to meet those expectations by being badly behaved. You bet those customer’s get talked about in the break room. In minute detail. And you can also bet, even if it is on a subconscious level (I’m giving sales assistants the benefit of the doubt here) that those customers get a black mark against their name and no longer have a hope in hell of getting proper customer service. Retail workers never forget. Here’s an example:

Mrs S ©The Compulsive ConsumerBack in 2004 when I first started working for a particular Department Store I ran against a certain Mrs S. I remember her vividly. Short. At the upper end of middle aged. A permanent sour expression on her face reminiscent of the Emperor from Star Wars. Bobbed hair like Anna Wintour that literally did not move and which I am now sure was a wig. Topped off with Jackie-O style sunglasses with gradient tan lenses that she never took off. Ever. I secretly hoped one day I would spot her in the sunglasses department contemplating the conundrum of trying on sunglasses without having to take hers off.

Here she is – the composite of Anna W and the Emperor bares a striking resemblance!

Now, Mrs S would have every sales assistant fetching and carrying for her and cowing in her wake. When she entered the department no other customers received help. The effect of her presence was like stomping near an ants nest. Mayhem ensued with a half dozen sales assistants scurrying in confusion and misery. She was demanding and rude. She would make returns, often. Usually outside the terms and conditions of sale, and outside our level of authorisation. And she expected The Company I worked for to roll out the red carpet for her as she frequently declared that she was a shareholder and spends literally thousands THOUSANDS. Like we were the beneficiaries of her coin!

Her worst trait was distinguishing herself as ‘important’ by reminding the staff they were useless. For instance dismissing a staff member who approached her with “No – I don’t want you! (To the unwashed masses, loudly:)What’s the point of having sales assistants that can’t help you! (To me, her tan goggles looking at my name badge:) CC? Is it?? Get me your manager. At least they should be able to help me.”

If we were lucky enough to spot Mrs S coming we’d go on break, volunteer to pick up the alterations from the tailor (which involved getting into an elevator that may never let you out), disappear into a stock room or fitting room and otherwise make ourselves scarce. She never got the attention she felt she deserved, because she actively went about convincing us she most certainly didn’t deserve it

Years later, after living and working overseas, returning home and working my way up through the same Department Store, I had the pleasure of running into Mrs S again. I knew her instantly. The shop girl she dismissed as useless was now the manager she had requested to see. I stood there smiling as I weathered an awe-inspiring, foot stamping tantrum from this 60+ year old woman that no pallet jackswould put a 3 year old to shame. Her hair still did not move. Unbeknownst to me, she was our landlady. We had done something along the lines of storing a piece of equipment somewhere she hadn’t authorised. Way out of proportion to the tirade that accompanied her complaint.

My favourite part was where I asked Mrs S for her business contact details so I could put the leasing manager in touch with her. Her grim, Star Wars Emperor face replied by shouting at me “YOU HAVE THEM, DON’T TELL ME YOU DON’T, BECAUSE I KNOW OTHERWISE” (*foot stamp! foot stamp!*). No matter how calmly I explained “I assure you Mrs S, that I would not ask you for them if I did and we can sort this out if you would only write them down for me…” it only provoked her more. I think I broke her brain. It was immensely satisfying.

I realised two things that day. Some people are indiscriminate assholes. And you only get the service you deserve. That is to say, the service you earn. There is a little thing called Retail Karma. And its a bitch. In reality, moving the offending piece of equipment, a pallet jack, was within my capabilities as a person with arms and legs, let alone manager of that store. But rewarding her appalling behaviour by complying immediately with the request that was screamed in my face was never going to happen. If she wanted it done, she could go through official channels.

So how do we make sure we earn our retail wings and get the service we want instead of being relegated to the retail sin-bin where we are ignored and avoided? This may be a novel concept, but:

Give the sales assistant good customer service.

Everybody is selling something. They’re selling you product. You’re selling them the idea you’re a Model Consumer. And it doesn’t take much effort to make a positive impression on workers who see the worst examples of human behaviour on a daily basis (just google retail memes!). In future posts in the series Lessons in Retail Etiquette we will tackle specific areas of customer behaviour that create angst in store. But for now, here are some universal rules of conduct, to ensure you are a Model Consumer rather than a Drama Queen:

Be present when you enter the store.On the phone? You don't exist.

Customers have a tendency to zone-out or retreat within themselves when they shop. It can make them completely oblivious to what is going on outside their self-absorbed bubble. It is the source of limitless frustration for store staff and consequently is not going to get you the best service from them. So, don’t check your intelligence at the door when you walk in. Be an equal participant in finding the products you are looking for. Don’t have your mobile phone stuck to your head, especially if you are standing at the point of sale, its dismissive and rude and you will be treated in kind.

Be mindful. Obliviously swiping shelves of glassware to the floor with your handbag or carelessly leaving every garment you tried on in a heap on the fitting room floor make their job harder, and their job is to help you. Don’t stand staring into space, or engrossed on your phone, while at the front of the queue with the cashier calling repeatedly for your attention. You get the idea. You are better than all these things. Bring your A game.

tumblr_nwfpukGh9W1udkegqo1_400Remember what the words ‘Sales Assistant’ mean… and what they don’t mean.

As in ‘someone who will assist you to make a purchase’. This unfortunately needs to be said: Sales Assistant does not mean Maid, or Servant, definitely does not mean Childcare Worker or Cleaner. If the staff have to clean up after you, or save their store from your marauding children, you will have used up any goodwill they felt towards you and you might as well move on. ‘The Lady’ or ‘The Man’ will not tell your children off if they are misbehaving. It’s not their job, its your’s, so please don’t make idle threats to your children and make out the staff are the boogie man. Especially within earshot of said ‘Lady’ or ‘Man.’ Also, they may call it retail therapy, but retail workers are not psychologists (see next point).

Smiling and greeting.

Retail staff should be smiling and greeting you when you enter the store. M3udXcNDon’t be rude. Smile genuinely and greet them back. Walking past without acknowledging them is a surefire way to communicate you don’t care about their existence and they won’t care about yours either. They’ll have made themselves scarce if you decide you need to ask for help later. If you want to earn brownie points, ask them how their day is going and mean it. Side note to this. The only acceptable answer to the question: “How are you today?” is “I’m fine thank you.” Its a polite but empty question. They might seem genuinely friendly, and probably are, but they don’t actually want to know. No one does. Please don’t load all your troubles onto someone who isn’t a professional psychologist and isn’t paid enough to care. *Adds psychologist to the list of things Sales Assistants are not* Side-side note: if a sales assistant of the opposite sex is friendly to you, they’re doing their job. They are not interested in you. They are not flirting with you. Act in a way you’d be proud of your grandmother seeing.

images-4Don’t waste the sales staff’s time.

The amount of time you take up with needing their assistance has to be in direct proportion with the amount of money you are prepared to spend or the quantity of product you are about to buy. Any retail worker will be measured on their productivity somehow. It might be units per hour or sales per hour. Be mindful of this if you’re indecisive and the interaction starts to drag out. DO NOT under ANY circumstance pump the sales assistant for information/advice and then go purchase the item in question online. Shame on you.


692bf02fed68d5da8c1b8c9a36a44415Perhaps an obvious one, but be polite.

Say please. Say thank you. Say, “Thank you so much!” Say, ‘Excuse me, but do you mind…helping me?/if I ask a question?/if I try this on?/finding me another size?’ If you think they were helpful, then tell them. If you think they were rude, do not say anything! Pointing out someone’s rudeness is impolite. We will cover how to deal with this situation in another post. Help the sales assistant help you by being pleasant to be around. And remember, you teach people how they should treat you, so lead by example.


3opf7fGive credit where its due.

This is the ol’ Charm Offensive. Too often stores only hear about customer complaints. If you want to get into a store/manager/staffmember’s good graces and get personalised customer service every time you shop, take the time to let them know about the genuine positive experience you had. Lay it on thick. Tell the staff member to their face and then make sure to tell their line manager. Do it in person. Trust me when I say you will make a huge impression and they will remember your name for the right reasons. Just like I remember Mrs S vividly for being a shining example of what customers shouldn’t do, I also remember a Mrs James who was a high maintenance customer, but was pleasant, loyal, spent big, told me when I’d done a great job and made sure she brought chocolates in for all the staff at Christmas time. I greeted her by name, I knew her kids names, I’d call her if something new and amazing and just her taste came in and put it aside for her. She helped me make my budget, but I also really enjoyed helping her.

So tell me, if you work in retail, what are your pet peeves and customer faux pas? What is the best way your customers can earn the extra mile from you? And customers, fess up, have you been guilty of committing any of these crimes against good customer service?

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6 Amazing Comments

  • Reply Liz November 22, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    Name dropping! I used to have a customer come in all the time and say they knew the store manager – or worse produce a letter from them – saying they could get XYZ. The letter was 10 years old and the store manager hadn’t worked there for at least 5 years! You look like an idiot! Just because you complained enough to get free gift wrapping a decade ago does not mean you get it now, especially if you want to get it by acting like an entitled douche!

    Alternatively- remember MY name, especially if you’re returning for a second etc visit. I’ll feel special and you’ll get better service!

    • Reply CC November 22, 2015 at 9:21 pm

      Hey Liz, welcome to The Compulsive Consumer!

      The ole Name Drop… YESSS. I used to hate that! And senior managers not used to dealing with customers because they’re holed up in an office somewhere rewarding customer bad behaviour because they really can’t be bothered having the fight. That just reinforces the idea that acting like a douche will get you what you want. How easier is it to just be nice?

      • Reply Liz November 23, 2015 at 8:56 am


        I’m similar to you now. Used to be on the shop floor and now a manager. In a situation where something has gone wrong or a customer is complaining I’m way more likely to quickly reward a customers good behaviour (discount/free goods or service) than placate them for their bad behaviour. Looking forward to your post about how to complain!

  • Reply Kat November 23, 2015 at 8:50 am

    “I’m taking this to ‘Today Tonight/A Current Affair'” there are bigger problems in the world that the fact I won’t return your bed sheets which you have clearly bleached.

    When there is an issue all you want from customers is a conversation. We’re here to help but we can’t talk to you if you are yelling/not listening/being completely unreasonable.

    • Reply CC November 23, 2015 at 7:17 pm

      From my 5 year stint in Homewares (followed up by my time in Cosmetics) I can almost 100% guarantee your Bleached Bedsheets Customer was using something like Proactive with Benzyl Peroxide in it. Because its in a cream, customers don’t equate it with bleach, but it absolutely IS bleach and is definitely NOT covered by any kind of bed sheet warranty! In all likelihood there was a disclaimer on the skincare box which no one reads before its thrown away. I’m sure customers get shouty because they are upset with their own silly mistakes, but still, I’m not sure the local news station cares about their Proactive Bed Sheet woes either.

  • Reply Emma November 24, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    Pet Peeve, definitely leaving clothes all over the fitting room floor! Then expecting gold star service (while being rude) from the sales assistant who has just humphed it all off the floor and is stood at the counter re hanging it all.

  • Leave a Reply to Kat Cancel Reply