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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Customers as Members: Retail Fakeness Infecting Society

“Are you a member of the store?”  A salesperson at a Barnes & Nobles’ café department asked me the question as I was preparing to pay for the coffee drink I had just ordered. Apparently, customers who have registered for a discount card are “members of the store.” The same thing happened to me at a Borders store. There, the salesperson refused to take my “No” for an answer—as per company policy—continuing to ask me if I wanted to sign up for a card.

Let's get this straight: Stores have customers, not members.  Shopping in Target is not like belonging to a country club. Furthermore, store policies should not involve ignoring customer answers. A company policy directed to ignoring a customer’s “no” on the chance that the “no” turns into a “yes” by repeating the question in spite of the customer's repeated "no thanks" while holding the transaction hostage lets the customers without a “loyalty” card know that they are by no means members, let alone customers. In fact, such a policy belies even “customer service.”

Moreover, it is presumptuous for a retail company’s employees (including managers, who are also employees) to act as if stores naturally have members. It is also presumptuous not to take “no” for an answer because it is so utterly disrespectful and dismissive. Lastly, a rather slick elitism is implicit in explicitly distinguishing members from non-members, as in “are you a member?” Is it really in a store's financial interest to make some of its customers feel second class? Such a class would at least be above the low class demeanor of a sales clerk's "Are you a member?" Imagine a Walmart cashier asking you that question! You might break out in uncontrollable laughter. A member of what, Walmart?  Are you kidding? Well, I suppose there is Sam's Club for those of you who enjoy shopping in a warehouse.

It is as if employees (including managers) of the modern retail store are pretending that their store is somehow more than a store—a club whose members are somehow a notch up from mere customers. It is as though with the passing of the twentieth century retail stores got an “upgrade” to being entitled to view themselves as clubs—as more exclusive than they are entitled to be. Of course, such clubs also take money from non-members. Exclusivity cannot be allowed to get in the way of making money.

I would not be at all surprised that the employees, including managers, salespersons, and cashiers view themselves as professionals—as equivalent to physicians and lawyers without the hassle of medical or law school. Whereas a physician and lawyer sell their judgments, however, retail clerks sell products. The two are not equivalent. Even so, the mentality of deciding for oneself what applies would certainly not be bothered by such fine distinctions.

Generations to come may look back on the bizarre retail culture manifesting in the early decades of the twenty-first century as having evincec a fakeness and assumed entitlement not based on any foundation. The demise of Borders can perhaps be interpreted as an indication of just how vacuous such a culture inherently is. In other words, Borders may be viewed as having imbibed that culture to such an extent that the management's arrogance overcame any substance.

Moreover, the culture highlighted by “members” and “upgrades” may point to a more general problematic societal trend that is not transparent. Too often, moderns pretend that vacuous retail phrases have substance--treating emptiness as though it were substance.

As one small example, in phoning  a company’s customer service call-bank, we allow ourselves to be spoon-fed empty phrases such as, “I’m sorry for your inconvenience.” Even the authors of customer service books admit that such apologies are so ubiquitous in business that they mean next to nothing. Even so, they can give the impression of sympathizing with a customer in order to (i.e., manipulative) assuage his or her complaining. Meanwhile, the herd animals on the other end of the phone take the "apology" at face value, rather than as a talking point.

In other words, customer service has become as much (or more) about public relations and selling as service. Were the latter foremost, real expressions would replace the form-sayings, and the authentic replies would be backed up by some economic sacrifice (rather than enticement to buy again with a coupon) by the company to compensate the customer for the invoncenience. Rarely does a customer demand such compensation, and make it a prerequisite for any further business. A business is an economic entity; one must treat it as such and transact in economic terms. By a business's own reckoning, "sorry for any inconvenience" without any economic cost is meaningless, or extrinsic.

In short, customers take the vacuous retail phraseology as substance far too often. Too few of us are willing to say, let alone admit, that the manniquin is not wearing any clothes. In fact, we are buying the clothes. We accept the status difference between a retail member and customer; we accept "sorry for any inconvenience" as compensation. We allow "upgrade" to be applied even to a larger cup of coffee.

Societally, people might be too susceptible to enabling the vested interests who have been spinning their webs as substance rather than snares. Society itself may be incorporating the proclivity to take vaccuous expressions as somehow involving substance. In other words, increasingly we may be going around mutually agreeing that empty form is something more. If this bubble ever bursts, I suspect that modern retail be left with its pants down. The question is perhaps: to what cost to society in terms of the decadence incurred from the self-serving sales pitches? To assess the cost, the decadence itself must first be made transparent.

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