Tuesday 3 August 2010

What's wrong with some respect, mate?

One of the great milestones of my life was the first time a shop assistant called me “sir”, as opposed to “son” or “ye thor”.

Turners camera shop in Pink Lane was the place, the year 1968 (making me 14) and I was planning a major purchase: a new film cassette for the cheap and nasty “own label” camera someone had conned me into buying, instead of the Kodak Instamatic I really wanted.

I naturally suspected that the assistant was taking the mickey and looked over my shoulder, expecting to see the older figure he was addressing. But blow me down if he didn’t say it again a couple of times, and almost seem as though he meant it. It put me in a good mood for days, and made me a loyal customer of Turners until the business expired.

Compare and contrast my experience of last week, as a white-haired bloke, approaching the till at the PC store in Kingston Park clutching the cable I needed to connect my computer to some other electronic gizmo. The price was an amazing £23.99, for something that can’t have cost more than a quid to make, albeit encased in at least a fiver’s worth of packaging.

“All right, mate?” the youth behind the till enquired. I was sorely tempted to point out that we were neither in a sexual relationship nor friends, making the word “mate” wholly inappropriate. It’s the speech I normally deliver to white van drivers who ask me for directions, shortly before they drive off in a flurry of screeching tyres and unprintable obscenities.

But life is short, so I decided to grit my teeth and let it go. Even when he proceeded to call me “mate” at least twice more during the simple process of ringing my purchase through the till. I just made a careful mental note never to shop there ever again.

Don’t retailers cover this sort of thing during the “staff training” sessions for which they all seem to close for half an hour every week? The only possible commercial justification for addressing a middle-aged customer as “mate” would be if the store had blood pressure monitors on special offer at the point of sale, and a demanding sales target to be met.

Or axes, possibly. If they had had one of those to hand I might well have bought it and used it to underline how I felt about their approach to customer service.

Apparently this is an age thing. My wife informs me that it is completely unrealistic to expect any sort of formality or respect from the young. They’re just not taught it any more.

Well, here’s a business-winning idea for retailers everywhere. Why not follow the fine example of B&Q and recruit older workers instead of spotty youths? (Thinking about it, can it be pure coincidence that B&Q does sell axes?)

In a PC store, the OAPs may not have a clue what they are talking about but then neither do most of the customers, so at least it will be an entirely level playing field.

They probably won’t swear, they certainly won’t wear trousers with the crutch below their knees (though they may have waistbands halfway up their chests), they will have some grasp of mental arithmetic, a smattering of common sense, and they won’t address your customers as “mate”.

Surely that has got to be a win-win situation for retailer and customer alike?

Mind you, when I got home, I realised that I had bought the wrong cable, but could not face going back for a refund or replacement since this would doubtless involve being patronised as a technologically illiterate old moron. So that was £23.99 straight down the gurgler. Back of the net, mate, as a rude young retailer might well put it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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