Monday, September 5, 2011

Customer or consumer -- Which Would You Rather Be?

Today, we have a Special Guest Blogger: Becky Barnes, who many of you reading this know and love from her wonderful blog about movies and books, ClassicBecky's Brain Food! Take it away, Becky!

           Customer or consumer  Which Would You Rather Be?

(Notice the pretty blue color and capitalized "C" for Customer, and the less pleasant baby poop brown with small "c" for consumer?  That is my oh-so-subtle way of showing my personal preference!)  

Maybe you have to be in the 50-and-older age range to remember what it was like to be a Customer.  You were treated like an important person.  Department store clerks went out of their way to keep you from waiting.  Items were brought to you and placed on the counter for your perusal.  If you didn't like them, the clerk would continue the hunt until you found what you wanted.  The same system was used in the dressing room.  If something didn't fit, you didn't wander around in your underwear with your coat thrown around you to find other colors or sizes. The saleslady took the discarded garments and brought new ones to you.  Stores hired plenty of clerks, so patience with the Customer was considered a necessary virtue by the managers.  

At shoe stores, you were seated and actually served by someone who knew what they were doing.  The shoe salesman measured your foot efficiently, asked what you were looking for, and brought several boxes to you to try on.  He waited patiently (well, at least he acted patient), helped you to decide whether a particular shoe was attractive for you, and just plain took care of you until you had made your final selection.  Gas station attendants wore spiffy uniforms, cleaned your windows, checked your oil and tire pressure, and did all this even if you were only buying 2 gallons of gas!  That is what was like to be a Customer!

Compare this treatment to our situation now.  We go to Wal-Mart or Meier and are treated as consumers.  To these giant stores, which have taken over the American universe, we are no longer important, individual Customers; we are just a mass, a big, gaping maw ready to consume, to be filled with whatever merchandise can be stuffed down our collective throat.  We are not helped...we are barely tolerated.  If you need a "sales associate" (a nicer name for the clerks of the past who actually earned such a title), you cannot find one.  Sometimes you will catch a glimpse of the blue-shirted or red or whatever color-shirted employee, disappearing around the corner of an aisle, never to be seen again.  Even if you request help, eventually a loudspeaker voice will shriek, "Assistance needed at housewares", and the wait is interminable.  When the sales associate finally comes, he or she is often appropriated by other consumers who latch on like leeches, and you, the original needy shopper, get lost in the shuffle.  Now don't think for a moment that I believe all sales associates are uncaring, slacker types!  Most are decent people who are worked like slaves because the stores are too cheap to hire enough of them, and they are paid crappy wages.  This is another way that corporate sales management shows us we are no longer respected Customers, but just a mob of consumers, and now we are expected to serve ourselves and be the patient ones.

Why can't more businesses treat their customers like Stew Leonard's?
There is a third point to make about this pitiful, low-life cultural shift.  Haven't we ourselves fed into it, moving from the respect that fostered "the Customer is always right" to the indifferent "the consumer is on their own" treatment?  And why?  Because haven't we Americans become greedy people who no longer shop for necessity or luxury, but just plain shop all the time?  The energy we once used to burn up doing the now unnecessary physical work of taking care of our households and each other seems to have been diverted to buying, buying, buying -- it has become a national obsession.  We spend our cash, we rack up huge amounts of debt on credit cards, and for what?  So we can have "more stuff", as George Carlin said in one of his unique monologues about life.  Are we earning the right to once again be treated as Customers, or have we really become just the big open mouth of the consumer, fighting over electronic crap and stampeding over each other to get the best price on a pair of jeans? 

We need a revolution a revolution of people who earn and demand respect from corporate sales hounds by once again becoming Customers.  Let's put the word consume back into its original place, when it just meant eating.  Let's not be a mob willing to chow down on any new thing that comes along, but return to being individuals who spend what is needed to be spent on things we need to have, or sometimes luxuries we would like to have if we can pay for it on our own.  That is the only way to get out from under the crushing boot of corporate control -- by getting rid of our own gluttony for "stuff."  I'll carry a sign and march, and sing "We Will Buy Less Stuff" -- how about it?


  1. Becky, I couldn't agree more with what you had to say about the shabby state of consumerism and giving the customer what they want, with dignity and respect! The store I've seen in recent years that truly treats customers like gold in terms of respect and good-natured assistance is Stew Leonard, a small grocery store chain in Connecticut and Yonkers, NY. When we of Team Bartilucci lived in the Bronx, we were only about 20 minutes' drive from the Yonkers Stew Leonard, and the quality of both the service and the products kept us coming back for more! It was also a fun place to take kids, as they had lots of cute animatronic animals and such. Everybody left happy!

  2. What a great store Stew has! Sounds like his store is for anyone! I know you can get that kind of treatment even now in high-price department stores and specialty food stores in well-to-do areas. But it used to be that way for most everybody, and it's a shame most of us don't have that available to us anymore.

  3. Becky, you are so right in your assessment - it's a sad state of our culture. I think one reason for the customer-turned-into-consumer is the idea of automation. You used to be able to go to the counter to buy, for example, tickets; but now the expectation is that you can do it on your own, either through the Internet or various kinds of machines. So the consumer is new viewed as an extension of a mechanical device! (And speaking of consumer=eating, I've noticed that even fast-food joints are much slower now in serving!)

  4. GOM, how nice to see you here! Your point about automation is right on the money...for myself, I refuse to use the do-it-yourself check-outs at the store, at the library, anywhere! I like people! I want people to check me out and talk and care. I will not be a cog in a wheel! Had to laugh at your remark about fast food joints! So true!

  5. Becky, GOM, your comments remind me of one of Peter Lind Hayes' lines from THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T.: "I am not a cog! I am an independent contractor." :-)

  6. Oh wow, I haven't seen taht in years! I've GOT to remember that!

  7. Oh I much prefer being a customer, no question. I'm of an age Becky when I do remember what it was like being treated like a good customer. I remember the days when I used to shop at Lord and Taylor and being treated like someone the store was happy to see and serve. I remember the store's beautiful hard edged boxes all in gorgeous red. No cheesey collapsing boxes. REAL boxes. Real ribbon tied around them. Free. With whatever you bought.

    Sometimes you entered a store and were immediately asked by someone up front how they might best serve you. No pushy nonsense. Just the store's way of letting you know they were happy you'd chosen to be their customer.

    Remember gorgeous paper shopping bags? Designed and illustrated by the era's top illustrators?

  8. Yvette, once again you've proven yourself to be a class act! Lord & Taylor has been one of our family's favorite department stores since I was just a little tyke being whisked to Manhattan for a day of shopping and having fun with my mom. Happily, Lord & Taylor is still in NYC and Yonkers as of this writing, and they did indeed know how to keep customers happy and eager to come back for more!

  9. Yvette, sometimes it downright hurts to remember. Shoot, I remember being treated that well when I went into Woolworth's to get caramel corn. CVS and Walgreen just don't compare...

  10. I don't know how many of you have ever worked in customer service, but I'm going to tell you right now: Stew Leonard and his sign are both full of crap. To paraphrase a line from Bad Day at Black Rock: "Customers are not only wrong, they're wrong at the top of their voice." The rule of thumb in any business should be "Customers are never right but let's pretend they are to avoid an argument."

    If it sounds like I'm playing Devil's advocate here, it's because I am. Yes, the quaint old-fashioned ways when stores, etc. waited on you and hugged and squeezed and petted you and called you George were wonderful, and it would be loverly to return to them. But the fast food culture has replaced all that -- the consumer (and by the way, the only color of baby poop I've ever witnessed was toxic green) wants it done quickly and wants it yesterday...that (in addition to crappy wages and even crappier hours) is one of the main reasons clerks no longer serve you with a smile. I am always extraordinarily courteous with CSRs because I remember what it was like to be one and I also know that people, not to put too fine a point on it, are cattle. (I'm pleasant to all except for folks who work in the cable industry...they are weasels, and are to be treated as such.)

  11. Ivan, glad to have you joining in this conversation! I'm wondering, however, if your understandably negative response is addressed to clerks and salespeople in general, rather than specifically targeted at Stew Leonard -- you see, I know from personal experience that Stew Leonard is on of the very few stores I've patronized that has really meant business about making customers happy and fixing problems that arise. Also, like you, I've often worked in a customer service capacity, and having been on both sides of that situation, I too became more compassionate and forgiving and therefore earned the customer's sincere gratitude when we we were able to help.

    LOL over your clever use of one of my favorite Looney Tunes lines: "...hugged and squeezed and petted you and called you George..."! :-)

  12. Ivan, how much caffeine have you had this morning? You make an excellent devil's advocate at a dead run -- I sure hope my attempts at humor and seriousness combined didn't insult every CSR that works like a dog. What I did really say was that they are overworked, in a bad system of business, and don't have much reason to be happy considering the minimum income they make. That said, as in any profession, some people are just plain rude.

    My desire to be a customer rather than baby poop toxic green consumer is definitely tinged heavily with nostalgia. Our modern way of doing business is reflected in the shoppers and workers, as I hoped to bring across. Always in a hurry, thinking about #1 and forgetting about other people's needs seem to be the standard of the day. I think the customer/consumer thing feeds from the trough from both sides. I wonder if we will ever be able to return to courtesy and patience.

    I worked in such a job for a time when I was trying to make extra income as a single mother, and it can be pure hell. I just laid down my stupid apron and quit one day. I wanted to be the patient clerk and serve the grateful customer, but boy that sure wasn't any part of that job!

    Well, anyway, maybe I'm a dreamer and wish for things long past, but I do think we could all try to be at least more patient with each other, and merit a smile between worker and shopper again. If I made anyone feel badly, I sure didn't intend that. I don't mind if nasty rude people didn't like it, though, I have to say. Like Dorian, I like your use of Looney Tunes -- and boy, I'm glad I don't work in the cable industry!

  13. Well, I wrote that comment before I had my coffee this morning so while I didn't mean to malign Stew (who I'm sure is a lovely person, and good to his mom) I still think the maxim of "The customer is always right" is a load of old cobblers.

    I'm very proud of the fact that in my high school days, a casual remark by one of my chums ("Gosh, it's hot!") during a sweltering day outside attending an assembly prompted us to do the entire dialogue track from that Bugs Bunny cartoon. ("You was very naughty to pretend you was a bunny rabbit, George...") Just another quick glance into the twisted history that was my youth.