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November 15, 2005 01:02 PM

Broken: Overly aggressive sales clerks

Link: The Seattle Times: When customer service makes customers nervous, it might be time to back off.

Underhill explains that long ago Woolworths had a policy that required salesclerks to greet customers within five seconds of crossing the threshold of the store.
"It was a huge blunder. Everybody was clustered at the front of the store ready to pounce on the customer," he says. "And we know that at cosmetic counters, if a customer is greeted within the first minute it drives them away."

(Thanks, Scott Kilborn)


I have that problem with the "Disney Store" in our local shopping mall. The sales clerks have orders to greet every customer as the come in the door. I have tried to slip by on the opposite side of the entrance, but have been chased down and greeted. Why can't I just have a quiet shopping experience?

Posted by: Gary Edstrom at November 15, 2005 01:32 PM

It seems many stores don't want customers shopping for themselves or by themselves. What is it that they don't trust us to do?

A few years ago I was shopping for a washer and dryer. Armed with a short list from Consumer Reports in my pocket, I went to my local Circuit City. Within moments of reaching the appliance section, a salesman asked what I was looking for and if he could help. I told him that I was just looking, thanks. Two minutes later he came back and asked if I had any questions and what could he show me. I told him that I was doing fine without him, and if he came back, I would leave the store. Three minutes later he returned to see if I finally had some questions, and I asked him if he didn't believe me earlier. He said that he just wanted to help, and I told him he just drove away a customer. I went to Sears and bought what I needed. Maybe it was because there were no sales people around.

Posted by: dan at November 15, 2005 02:49 PM

Real familiarity isn't a problem, like when the guys at the tire shop look up my truck on their computer without asking my name. Fake familarity is ridiculous, like when the Safeway and Sam's Club people read my name off the receipt (especially when they get it wrong).

=> "By and large, customers appreciate the use of their name," says Teena Massingill, Safeway public affairs manager. "They feel respected and that it is more personal."

Teena, you are so wrong. We ONLY appreciate it in cases of ACTUAL respect. If you could keep the same people working the registers for more than a week or two, we could actually get to know them and then it would work.

=> "It seems completely insincere," says Christopher Herzog of Seattle. And when clerks get his name wrong, it is even worse. "It just underscores how inappropriate their friendly overture really is."

Chris, you are so right.

Posted by: How, hi are you? at November 15, 2005 03:05 PM

I have actually left stores when sales people have been too aggresive in approaching me to "help me". (Stalk me is more like it.)

However, spending all this effort on "welcoming" customers and then disappearing when help is actually required is even worse.

Is it that hard to train people to leave customers alone -- *maybe* smile at them when they come in *if the customer makes eye contact* -- but STAY AWARE of the customer if they do want assistance? A nice middle ground is all we're looking for.

I don't want the Google search bar to ask me if I want to search for something whenever I open up my browser, but I want it ready immediately if and when I need it.

Posted by: sween at November 15, 2005 03:31 PM

I worked at Officemax in high school. There was this rule that you had to greet anyone within 15".

Think the effects about this during busy hours. In addition, we were given tasks to restock shelves during normal business hours, and answer the phone, leadint to inevitable conflicts on what we were supposed to do. The managers told us to do everything -- and that was impossible, so we did what was easiest, namely, stock shelves. Either that, or take all the letter openers, go into the back, and use them like throwing knives as we aim at a target drawn in marker on the side of a cardboard box.

When I worked at another retail store, the training said to basically ignore that people would say "just looking" and try and sell them stuff. That pissed people off too.

Far too many of these "what salesmen should do" training classes are designed by people that apparently have never worked in the store in question. Then it rolls through the entire chain of command, and woe be to the person that doesn't follow training.

Based off my experiences in retail, I don't trust sales people anymore. Go on the internet, read review sites. or find the forum dedicated to that equipment (cell phones, TVs, etc), and read their collected wisdom. You'll learn more.

Posted by: Alex at November 15, 2005 03:59 PM

I own an independent bookshop and I know most of my customers, so this may not work everywhere:

1 - Greet the customer as they enter the shop (by name if possible);

2 - Ask if they need/want anything specific or if they prefer to browse;

3 - Specific = GET IT FOR THEM

Browse from a regular = "Let me know if I can help." And then leave them alone until they need me.

Browse from a new customer = "In this room we have (whatever)... in room 2 we feature (whatever)...etc, Let me know if I can help." And then leave them alone until they need me.

Posted by: Michelle at November 15, 2005 04:18 PM

When I worked retail, I would greet the person with something like:

"Welcome! Let me know if I can help you with anything! Check out our new markdowns!"

Keep it short, simple and unobtrusive. Let them know you see them (for purposes of preventing shoplifting) and that you won't intrude on them if they don't want help.

I always had great numbers.

Posted by: erratapage at November 15, 2005 05:21 PM

Sween, you are invariably probably the person who walks into my store, gets angry that I had the GALL to ask if you needed help, then gets uncontrollably irritated 5 minutes later when 3 other customers are all waiting on me, and there is no way you're getting any assistance from me in the next few minutes. All WE are asking for is for you to get over yourselves. If you tell me you don't need help, don't need help! Getting mad at ME because you changed your mind... now THAT's broken!

Posted by: Gar at November 15, 2005 06:02 PM

Billy Connolly (a Scottish commedian) had a good line about over-attentive staff:

As soon as you walk in the door: "(WHOOSH) Can I help you, sir?"

"Yeah, YOU look 'round, I'LL f*ckin' wait here."

Posted by: interlard at November 15, 2005 06:14 PM

At the Pavillions I shop at, everyone in the store has to ask how I am doing and if I am finding everything OK. It's incessant. I've even been asked multiple times by the same person on the same shopping trip. I'd shop elsewhere if the selection at Pavillions didn't completely pwn the riff raff stores.

One day I shall say I am NOT finding everything, and lead the whole store on an epic quest for some impossible grocery object. That'll learn 'em.

Posted by: Citizen Of Trantor at November 15, 2005 06:57 PM

I ran into something like this at Suncoast (the video / dvd place) here in Manhattan. I got pounced on when I walked in the door, then after I picked out what I wanted I was bombarded with pressure to pre-order something else, to get another dvd for $14.99 so I would qualify for what they called a 'free' gift card of $3, and finally the pressure to sign up for their club card. After telling the salesman that I didn't want to pre-order or sign up for anything else, he began debating me on my reasons for not wanting to. This got more and more aggressive to the point where saying NO over and over again would not work. I left everything at the counter and walked out. I realize the clerks in these types of situations are compensated based on how many people they're able to sign up for these clubs, but this was so far beyond the acceptable level of trying to make a sale that I didnt even want the movies anymore.


ps- Their website also has no link or phone number for customer service complaints.

Posted by: Patrick Cahalan at November 15, 2005 07:17 PM

Car salesmen are infamous for not wanting to leave you alone. Years ago, my father was shopping around for another car. He was browsing one particular lot where the salesman just would not leave him alone. So finally, when the salesman asked if he could help him find something, my father said: "Yes, can you help me find a dealer where they let you browse in peace?"

Posted by: Gary Edstrom at November 15, 2005 07:18 PM

_@_dvb~[0 O] - that's why the great-snail-in-the-sky gave us headphones and ipods loaded with really LOUD speed metal...

Posted by: she-snailie_@_v at November 15, 2005 10:43 PM

What a contrast to the UK; in most shops you're lucky if your presence is even acknowledged by sales-staff. Good luck if you actually need assistance.

Posted by: PhastPhrog at November 16, 2005 04:41 AM

I have cerebral palsy and have to use crutches to walk. When in certain stores, the clerks are helpful to the point that it embarasses me.

1) If I want someone to carry items for me I will either:

a)Bring a friend, or

b)Ask for help...

(Once at Sam Goody's, a clerk actually grabbed a CD from my hand and proceeded to take it up to the counter for me. That was a major foul.)

(This doesn't apply to large/heavy items such as TVs, ovens, futons, etc. that your average person would want help with.)

2) If I wanted to use one of the store's power carts or wheelchairs, I would have asked. I don't need every other employee asking me if I know they're available.

3) I'm not stupid. If I'm in a store with a friend, and I ask a question. TALK TO ME...not my friend.

3.1) Same with eating out. I've actually had waitresses point at me in restaurants and ask the person next to me, "What will he be having?"

Posted by: Phill at November 16, 2005 08:00 AM

I'm a little surprised that no-one has mentioned Radio Shack. Their associates always greet you in a most annoying fashion and try to sell you stuff because *tada* they're paid on commission. The more money you spend, the more money they get.

As a employee of a small local hardware store, we're committed to good customer service, so it's mainly through the population of store employees (on any given day, there are about four to six employees in a store smaller than most large gas stations' mini marts). There is no store policy on greeting: it happens anyway, especially because many people that come in are friends and neighbors. If people look puzzled, then they will be asked for help (and of course there is always someone around). If you say just browsing, we won't bother you; it's pretty easy to pick up cues that the customer is a)self-assured and confident of their purchases or b)just looking and not seriously looking to buy something. As far as helpfulness, we only recently put up signs that say "Helping you is the most important thing we have to do today," but we've meant it for years. After all, the franchise motto is: The Helpful Place.

Y'all probably can figure out where I work now.

Posted by: Jesse at November 16, 2005 08:33 AM

We have a retail store here in Buffalo NY that tries to thank you for your purchase by reading your name off your store credit card. My last name ends in "te" and the clerks invariably do not pronounce the "e." However, since I am French Canadian that "e" is pronounced like a long "a" and is an important part of my name. I know they are trying and I compliment them when they get it right and correct them when they get it wrong. But a simple "ma'am" would suit me fine. If stores paid a decent wage instead of paying on commission, a lot of this would be resolved.

Also, my mother is blind and when I take her out, many people talk to me instead of her. I always say "talk to my mother, please." It's straightforward and effective.

Posted by: Lady Jane at November 16, 2005 09:59 AM


Personally I can’t stand ANY sales person. Especially the sales people that work on commission. I know what I want, and I don’t need somebody annoying me while I am getting it. I do most of my shopping online. When I HAVE to buy something in town, I know the places where they have bad sales people that ignore me and I shop there.

I was in Best Buy last month trying to find a SCSI cable for a scanner (for work) I was looking at the cable section, and wasn’t seeing any. A sales person came up and asked what I was looking for. I told him a SCSI cable, and his reply was “I haven’t heard them called that for a long time, this right here is what you need” He hands me an IDE cable. Then insists it is what I need after I told him they are different. I started walking out, and he ran after me with the IDE cable telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about. IDE and SCSI are exactly the same thing SCSI is just the old name for it.

Stupid sales people are defiantly broken.

Posted by: TimK at November 16, 2005 10:13 AM

I agree that sales staff should back off a little. But it is more than slightly annoying when I've shopped and located all I want, but can't reach it because it is on the top shelf (which could not have been reached by anyone without a ladder). This happened to me once at a Best Buy. I asked several sales people for help, all of whom assured me they would be with me shortly and none of whom were. My son also requested assistance and was given the same response. We were purchasing a computer that evening (not a small ticket item). Finally after at least 45 minutes and probably longer, we decided to spend our money at Circuit City. Before we left Best Buy, we stopped at the customer service desk to let them know we were leaving and why. The clerk there simply said, "I don't blame you." After that, the immediate greeting and helpful staff at Circuit City were very refreshing.

Posted by: Arlene at November 16, 2005 10:39 AM

lady jane:

Also, my mother is blind and when I take her out, many people talk to me instead of her. I always say "talk to my mother, please." It's straightforward and effective.


I used to have a shirt that said:

Talk to ME, not my companion

Posted by: Phill at November 16, 2005 11:20 AM


The problem is- you ask for help before we have a chance to figure out if we need help. Most questions I would ever have come after I've already surveyed what's available, and examined the products. Small questions arise. If you are going to approach me at all, wait until I've already "settled down" a bit- that's what I'm calling the time after I've walked in, picked up one or two products and stood there thinking for a few minutes.

That said- I personally will not approach a salesman with a question when I previously told him/her that I didn't need help for the reason you expressed.

Posted by: Eddie at November 16, 2005 11:42 AM

Jesse - don't get me started on Radio Shack. As if the peskiness wasn't bad enough, they insist they "have to" have your name and address to put any transaction through. (This has been going on for so long that Kramer even made fun of it on Seinfeld). Then you get Radio Shack ads mailed to you until (and probably after) you die. I started telling them my name was "John Smith." They look up the first John Smith in their system and give his address and I say "Suuure, that's me." (Sorry, "John.")

Posted by: Pat at November 16, 2005 03:20 PM

TimK - "Stupid sales people are defiantly broken."

You may have meant "definitely broken" - but it sounds like the jerk you got was "defiantly broken" also!

Posted by: Pat at November 16, 2005 03:22 PM

"TimK - "Stupid sales people are defiantly broken."

You may have meant "definitely broken" - but it sounds like the jerk you got was "defiantly broken" also!"

Yes. You are correct. You also pointed out that the combination of me and my spell check is also broken =P

Posted by: TimK at November 16, 2005 03:46 PM

When I was a little younger, everyone in my area would play "The Buckle Game." We'd go to the "Buckle" store at the local mall (similar to Abercrombie, etc.) and the challenge was to see if you could touch the wall at the back of the store (which wasn't that big) without being attacked by sales people. It was a true rarity to actually win.

Posted by: ambrocked at November 16, 2005 06:06 PM

TimK's experience reminds me of a time I overheard a hardware store clerk explaining to a customer that he should simply swap the breaker for a bigger one since the existing one kept tripping. (For those of you who don't know, this is about as good a way to burn down your house as replacing a fuse with a penny.)

Posted by: Sean P at November 17, 2005 11:02 AM

At Radio Shack, salespeople generally swoop in, but are fairly easy to blow off. What makes me think twice about ever going in there, though, is their requests for name and address at the cash register. Sorry, but I am not giving that info out for the privilege of buying a roll of speaker wire. They ask every time, though, and I tell them to forget it.

Posted by: blake at November 17, 2005 01:07 PM

While I'm not myself subject to this problem, here in New York City, some high-end clothing stores have made a bad name for themselves with racist behavior, such as "guarding" or actively harassing black customers.

Personally, I've had little trouble "waving away" salespeople, but I've sometimes had trouble getting their attention -- or even *finding* them.

Posted by: David Harmon at November 17, 2005 04:44 PM

At 7-11 and Blockbuster stores it's almost as if they're ordered to say hi to all customers as they walk in so that they're aware of everyone who comes into the store (for security purposes?).

It gets a bit ridiculous sometimes, though. I've walked into Blockbuster quickly when the store clerk is busy with something else, and then they spot me when I'm already about 25 feet away and practically yell out "Hi!", to which I either ignore them or wave my hand at them without even looking back.

Someone should tell them that if the customer is already halfway across the store it's no use trying to follow their stupid greeting policy.

Posted by: G-force at November 17, 2005 04:51 PM

Jesse wrote:

>I'm a little surprised that no-one has mentioned Radio Shack. Their associates always greet you in a most annoying fashion and try to sell you stuff because *tada* they're paid on commission.

Oh, I'll go off about Radio Shack, because their customer experience SUCKS.

Used to be they not only had what you needed, they had a genuine geek there who knew what it was, how it worked, how to use it, where to find it and what it cost. Need to know which voltage controlled amplifier IC to use with that quad binary flip-flop NAND gate IC to get your timing circuit to stop burning your toast in the automatic toaster you invented? The RS geek would know, as well as suggest appropriate diodes and resistors to complete the project and have some nifty ideas on interfacing to a PC to control it from your desktop.

Now Radio Shack not only doesn't have the geek any more, they don't have 99% of what folks went to Radio Shack for in the first place. They're just an undifferentiated consumer electronics store with undifferentiated useless salespeople. They not only have no idea what a zener diode is, they don't have one in stock anyway. They've got a dustcover for your Palm Pilot and a cell phone holster, though, as if every other store on the planet didn't carry the same things.

The last 18 times I've been in a RS store, I've had to explain what it is I need to a clueless salesperson who couldn't find it in the store and suggested I try online. Now I don't go to RS, I just go online--but not to I've found better suppliers that still have their geeks.

Radio Shack should be sued for deceptive advertising: "You've got questions, we've got answers" is complete and utter bull#@&%, unless the answer is a dull "Uhhhhhh...."

Posted by: Erich at November 17, 2005 07:10 PM

I remember I needed a 1 mu capacitor. All I got were dumb looks. I had to dig in thier little drawer and find it myself.

Posted by: Phill at November 18, 2005 04:03 AM

Someone mentioned Seinfeld's neighbor Kramer and his comments about Radio Shack. If you want to see a compendium of all the crappy service offered by retail clerks, health care workers, restaurant employees, and anyone else who purports to "serve" you, then I recommend viewing the Seinfeld shows and the much more acid "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (now running on HBO). In the latter Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld and the model for that show's George character) goes to war with the forces of customer service darkness in every episode. Sometimes he wins and sometimes his efforts end in tragedy, as Mel Brooks might define the word.

If David ever tires of the $450million he got for his share of Seinfeld and of producing his current show, he could have a thriving career in Customer Service industrial training media presentations and engagements, similar to those which John Cleese is now doing.

A note to Mark: Maybe Larry could be enticed back to New York at GEL to discuss customer service problems. Another good commentator on these themes is Jackie Mason and he is in NY. The makings of a panel perhaps?

Posted by: Thomas J Muscarello at November 18, 2005 04:29 AM

This is an interesting thread. Usually when I go in a store, I can't GET a clerk's attention! This applies to the "big box" hardware and electronic stores, as well as boutiques and such in the mall. The salesclerks these days seem much too young, and spend most of their time talking amongst themselves rather than focusing on customers. I don't know if it's because the clerks perceive that I'm not a serious shopper (wrong impression!!) or what, but I'm seriously annoyed with their attitude that I'm invisible.

Posted by: Detroiter at November 22, 2005 04:10 PM

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