Is Common Courtesy Still Common?

The other day I was at a small business, attempting to pay for my purchase. I say “attempting” because, even though I was at the front counter, items neatly stacked and checkbook to the ready, the sales associate was so deep in conversation with her granddaughter that I was an obvious nuisance.

“Oh, hello,” she managed to fling my direction midway through totting up my purchases. Then back to the slouching granddaughter and the discussion of that evening’s public school sports program — “at 5 p.m., no less, when most people should be eating supper and not sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs.”

While I agree with the woman’s assessment of the establishment’s insensitivity to people’s lives, I also take umbrage with people who are supposed to be running businesses treating their customers — me, in this case — like side dishes.

As a seamstress, quilter, and knitter, I frequent a lot of intimately cozy fabric and fiber shops, and they run the gamut on how friendly and open they are. I will never forget my experience at a shop where I went to buy fabric for a woman who had lost her entire stash (as well as everything else) in a fire. The proprietress looked me up and down and said, “I know the kind of quilts that you make, and I can assure you that (the unfortunate woman’s) taste is far beyond yours. I don’t think anything that would appeal to you would appeal to her.”

Wow. Face slap. It reminded me of the scene in Runaway Bride when the plumply sweet bridal dress shop owner tells Julia Robert’s character, “Oh, that’s not a dress for someone like you, dear.” The main difference is that the movie character was an imaginary one, while my retail associate from hell was all too real.

On the other end, our local Happy Yarn Shoppe is a paradigm for how to run a business. Every customer is greeted as an old friend; multiple customers are all interacted with and made to feel special — months later as Jacci was showing me some yarn she commented, “This is the same yarn that you used to make your granddaughter that adorable sweater with the Beatrix Potter buttons on it.” She remembers that the lady out East likes a particular sock yarn brand; another woman from Oregon swears by a certain wool blend; I go nuts over anything made out of the underbelly hair of a camel.

Is it so amazing that I practically live at the Happy Yarn Shoppe?

My teen years were spent as a retail sales associate, only back then the term was “grocery checker.” Repeatedly, my boss told me, “This is a small store, and I can’t compete with the big guys on prices. But I can pummel them in the kindness and courtesty department. When you are with a customer, you are with that customer — not the one coming up, not the one you just checked out, and most certainly not your friends who had better not drop by to ‘visit,’ but that one right-in-front-of-you customer, and he or she is presently the most important person in your existence. Make people feel that way, and they’ll keep coming back. That’s what Customer Service means.”

Wise words from a former Los Angeles policeman who worked nights and studied days so that he could achieve his dream of owning a successful grocery store in a small, rural town.

As a family, we make a point of frequenting small, individually owned businesses — as long as they reciprocate and treat us with respect and, dare I say, pleasure — because the process of buying and selling can indeed be a pleasurable, social one for both parties.

Human interaction. It’s worth the time.

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About This Woman Writes

Carolyn Henderson is the marketing manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art. In addition to her This Woman Writes blog, Carolyn writes a regular art column for FineArtNews, an online newsletter for artists and art collectors.
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