Love in the Time of Covid #8 – The Customer is Always Right

covid 19

So given a choice, would we rather have the pubs or the shops back open? Most people would probably say pubs in fairness, but tuff, because what I actually know is retail, so that’s where I’m going with this. Shops, in all likelihood, are set to start a phased re-opening from June 1st. As with the rest of this pandemic, we are waiting very much day to day for any decisions to be made on whether any shops will open on this date, if so which ones, and what will the guidelines be?

Many shops are operating perfectly well, and have been since the rest of us were closed. The big supermarkets have Perspex shields and arrows on the floor, with social distancing reminders marked out by tape on the floor. Smaller health food shops / newsagents / kiosks etc are one in, one out, maybe offering a delivery service, and most places are saying they’d prefer to take card payments to avoid shared handling of cash.

I’ve worked in many retail establishments from downright cool, to being self employed, to department stores, to the health and beauty industry and thriving family businesses The one thing they all have in common is the customer.

And the customer, as we know, is always right.

Aaaah, the customer. But the thing is, I am also a customer, and there are instances in life when I think I’m right. I’ve stood behind various counters, being told what a customer has seen in the window three weeks ago, despite the fact that I know what was in the window three weeks ago because I bought the stock in the first place, chose it and put it in the goddam window! Also, I know that what they’re describing was actually in the window about eighteen weeks ago. Or being told that on our website at their house, there’s definitely a picture of a blue top with black skulls on it, but it’s strangely missing from our actual stock. Or how as a woman up a ladder with a drill I’d better ‘be careful luv’, presumably because my dick safety harness isn’t holding me securely to the ladder, or at least giving me a proper centre of gravity so that my boobs won’t just wobble me off.

In all these situations, the customer thinks they are right. I once witnessed an accident with two of my good friends. Another guy we didn’t know, had been run over. He survived with a punctured lung, but the three of us were police witnesses. I was completely blown away by the fact that all our statements were very different, despite the fact that we’d all witnessed the same accident. And these were people whose opinions I trusted. None of us were lying, purely recounting the events as we’d understood them.

And so it is for the customer. From the centre of their world they are right. They have seen our window for a snippet of the time we have, and have remembered a picture or item that would look stunning in their new kitchenette, now all that loo roll has gone. But in the last eighteen weeks their mind has morphed that item into something that they want, rather than something that we have to sell. They’ve fallen for the Bill Bailey’s infamous glossy book of Argos dreams.

Any excuse to feature a pic of the fabulous Bill Bailey
Sonisphere 2011

And I’ve fallen for this myself. Thought about something I’ve seen in a shop which is the most magnificent artefact in the world and I must, must, must have it and I can’t afford it but on my one precious day off I’ll go out of my way to get it and – it’s just a vase. I can understand why I remembered it as the top trump I did: larger than life; cool factor 8 million; guilt rating after purchase; affordability; availability; instagramability etc. But I draw the line at arguing with the shop keeper about the difference between what I’ve come into their shop to buy, and what they actually have on the shelf to sell me. Because I know at this point that I’m wrong, and have retail amnesia brought on by product lust.

I don’t berate myself for this. I try try try to live my life in a compassionate way and understand that I share planet earth with 8 billion people and billions more animals and life forms, but I don’t live off grid. I am constantly advertised to everyday telling me that particular objects and ways of life will help me to be a fabulous me. These feelings of need and lust are strong and subversive forces, and difficult to resist. Studies with MRI scanners have found that patterns of brain activity in people experiencing lust are very similar to those taking cocaine. Lust can easily overcome reason. It’s one of the seven deadly sins for a start, and as such, a driving force of human behaviour. The fact that it’s called a sin means we can feel shame in lust exactly as we may feel guilt of shopping. Of course advertisers and retailers play to this feeling. No one ever made a fortune by appealing to restraint or wisdom – lust is why shops work in the first place. We buy into a way of life that is far more than the single item itself.

And I love shopping! It’s a part of our human soul. Ok, I could become a Buddhist and try and rise above those feelings. But I choose more to go with the ‘and it harm none’, embracing my human wants and desires, but with a conscience. No man is an island, and my actions (including my shopping habits), are a result of, and affecting many more people than myself and I don’t want my actions to ever hurt another human being.

Buddha and Bruce

We will all be venturing back into shops soon. And to go by the government’s recent track record, there won’t be any specific guidelines about how shops are to operate, and everyone will have very specific ideas about what they expect in the retail environment, from both sides of the counter. Talking to my friends and colleagues about Covid 19 has shown me just how different people’s understanding of the virus actually is. Some people don’t believe there’s a virus at all and others literally are so freaked that they only go out once a week for an essential shop. Everyone is going to have different opinions about what is and isn’t safe based on their fears and understanding of an unprecedented situation which no-one ultimately knows the answer to. So more than ever, we need to have each other’s backs, and appreciate that business owners will be trying their best to make things safe and get their businesses running again.

So I will patiently listen to the customer who impatiently tells me what was in my window three weeks ago, or that this is the way I should be conducting my business, and know that the force driving them isn’t necessarily common sense. It’s pure unadulterated beautiful humanity with all its joy and flaws. But enough now – if there’s one thing I do know – it’s my windows.

Now let’s go shopping!

Promo shot taken by The News for the opening of Gunwharf Quays

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