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?