When the Customer Is Wrong: The Mall

  • Pet Peeves

    It’s one of the oldest adages of the retail world: “The customer is always right.” Of course, very often the customer is wrong. Every day customers behave in ways that make the lives of waiters, cashiers, customer service reps and other workers miserable. And in many cases, these customers don’t even realize how much trouble they’re causing. To rectify this, we’ve decided to talk to the people on the other side of the cash register, with the hope of educating consumers on what sort of behavior makes life difficult for the people serving them. In the first four parts of the series we spoke to people in the restaurant, hospitality, airline and health care industries to find out what annoys them. For the fifth and final part of the series, we’ve spoken to veterans of the retail industry to see what behaviors to avoid the next time you head over to the local mall. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Don’t Make a Mess
  • Don’t Make a Mess

    Caitlin Kelly spent two years working as a sales associate for a North Face retail location after losing her job as a journalist, and later documented her experiences in the book Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail. She says that it was an eye-opening experience that gave her a lot of perspective on the plight of retail workers – for instance, she now takes special care when rummaging through stacks of shirts at clothing stores, as she now knows how much work it takes to keep them nicely folded and stacked. Customers make messes in other ways as well. “Customers literally throw clothing on the floor, or leave the dressing room a mess,” she recounts. “This is a shared public place that people are working really hard to keep clean.” Finally, she pleads with mall shoppers not to come in with a soft drink from the food court and leave it on a shelf – if it gets knocked over, it can ruin valuable merchandise. If you’ve got trash to dispose of in the store, it’s better to ask an associate to throw it out for you. “Better you treat me like a maid than leave stuff on the shelves,” she says. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Read the Price Tag
  • Read the Price Tag

    Peter Marder, who works as a cashier at a consumer electronics retailer in Massachusetts, has a bit of advice for shoppers: If you see a sign on the shelf advertising a markdown, double check which item that markdown actually applies to. “A customer will come up with a product and they saw it first at a lower price, but I’ll see the sign and it’s actually for a different product that’s nearby,” says Marder. “They’ll say ‘that’s false advertising’ and feel that they’ve been sort of mistreated and deceived.” When you see what looks like a great discount, read the sign in full to see whether it matches the item you want. And if you get to the cash register and discover that you’ve misread the sign, don’t feel like you’re entitled to the discount. Even if the employee made a mistake and put it on the wrong shelf, that doesn’t mean the store has to sell you a laptop for the price of a laptop case. Photo Credit: danielhedrick
    Watch Your Kids
  • Watch Your Kids

    Of course, many people are considerate enough not to make a mess of the store, but their kids may be a different story. “These kids would push a whole pile of stuff on the floor,” Kelly says. “You wouldn’t do it at granny’s house, don’t do it at the store.” Dan Milham, who worked as a sales associate for Staples and Radioshack, agrees. “The kids are making a romper room out of the store and the parents are blatantly ignoring it,” he says. “You can ignore it in your living room, but not here.” Just as kids can cause holy hell in a restaurant if not properly supervised, so too can a rambunctious child create headaches for already-overworked sales associates. Keep your kids in sight, and be prepared to clean up if they make a mess. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    The Truth About the Back Room
  • The Truth About the Back Room

    Last Christmas, Macy’s put out a commercial depicting the stock room of one of its stores as a magical place full of celebrities, Rockettes and endless boxes of shoes in every size. The truth, Kelly says, is that these back rooms are usually small, cramped and disorganized. That means that if you ask a sales associate for an item in a different size, don’t get upset if they take a long time to find it – if they find it at all. “You might need to be a little more patient than you want,” she says. “I’ll be in there for five minutes, and they’re thinking, ‘is she stupid, did she forget?’” She also implores shoppers not to make associates make multiple trips to the stock room – if your shoe size tends to run from eight to 10, for instance, just ask them to retrieve all possible sizes at once rather than making them run back and forth. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Understand Corporate Pressures
  • Understand Corporate Pressures

    It’s increasingly common for cashiers and sales associates to ask you for a range of personal information at the check-out counter, including everything from your ZIP code to your email address and phone number. Kelly says it’s fine to decline to provide this information – indeed, she says that she would never share her own email or phone number with a retailer – but she encourages customers to understand that employees are required to at least ask for this information. “Corporate puts a whole bunch of demands on associates,” she explains. “You get dinged if you don’t ask [for contact information] every time you close a sale.” The same goes for store credit cards, which she likewise dubs a “disaster” that she would never get herself due to their high rates. While she wasn’t required to sell store credit cards during her brief retail career, she says she’s heard of salespeople under so much pressure to sell the cards that they wander the mall trying to sign up random shoppers. Obviously you’ve got the right to be upset if a salesperson places undue pressure on you to sign up for a store credit card or give up personal information. But understand that their jobs are at risk if they don’t at least ask, and if you have a problem with the store’s policies, take your complaints to the top. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Ask for the Manager
  • Ask for the Manager

    Along these same lines, Milham (who worked at Staples and Radioshack) gives the cardinal rule for virtually any retail situation: If you’ve got a problem with the store’s policies, ask to speak to a manager. “If you really feel you’ve got a grievance, ask for the manager – it’s as simple as that,” he says. “Most people end up yelling at the poor counter clerk. They know they don’t have a leg to stand on, so they yell at the clerk and hope they’ll break policy.” Just as some employees are forced to offer store credit cards and ask for personal information, so too are they heavily restricted in how much they can bend the rules to please an aggrieved customer. Pressuring them to break the rules puts them in a very tough spot. “When we say our hands are tied, it’s really quite heavily,” Milham says. “If a manager sees you overstep your bounds, you could get a write-up, and if the district manager saw fit, you could be suspended.” For your sake and for the sake of the underpaid employee you’re yelling at, your best option is to just politely ask for the manager and fight with them. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Turn Down the Volume
  • Turn Down the Volume

    Milham says that employees generally don’t mind if customers loiter – it’s no skin off their back if someone wants to come in and play with the computers, as long as they don’t break anything. But there is one exception: Customers who make a lot of noise. “The only reason it would become irritating is in the keyboard aisle, when you’ve got kids jamming on the keys at a loud volume,” he says. The same goes for home theater and stereo systems. “They put on whatever station they like, and god forbid the [volume] dial stays on anything other than 10.” Feel free to spend all day toying with laptops or playing video game displays. But when you start blasting music or jamming on a store’s selection of musical instruments, you’re annoying everyone. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    You Might Be Wrong
  • You Might Be Wrong

    Marder, who works in consumer electronics, says that even after customers realize they have made a mistake (whether on a price issue or another disagreement), they’re unlikely to back down. He says that this is sometimes a matter of the shopper being embarrassed by their mistake and deflecting blame on the employee to save face. But there may also be another factor at play: The customer just assumes the employee is wrong because they don’t respect their intelligence. “People think anyone who’s in retail made a mistake in life or isn’t very smart,” he says. “That might be an element of why they think they're right all the time.” Of course, these days the economy has forced a lot of educated people into low-paying retail jobs (as Kelly can certainly attest), which means the cashier or associate you’re talking to may be a lot smarter than you think. And if you haven’t worked in retail as well, there’s a good chance they’ve got a perspective on the situation that you don’t. So the next time you find yourself arguing with a cashier, consider that this might be one situation in which the customer isn’t right. Photo Credit: Getty Images
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