Question of the Day: What Are Your Best — and Worst — Retail Experiences?

We’re working on a new Freakonomics Radio piece about what might best be called “retail etiquette.” It was inspired in part by this blog post, about how the quantity and quality of employees affects a company’s bottom line; and by this e-mail from a listener named Dawn Nordquist:

I’ve noticed that, at the beginning of the podcasts, a short banter between the two of you is included regarding thanking the listening audience.  Thanking the listening audience aside, what are your thoughts/observations on thanking in commercial transactions?  I have recently been struck by how often I am not thanked when purchasing something. The only recent literature that I could pull up on this was a 1999 article “Thanking Behavior in Service Provider-Customer Encounters:  The Effects of Age, Gender, and Race” (Martin and Adams, Journal of Social Psychology 5, 665-7).  Do you know of anything more recent?  Do you have any thoughts on whether thanking routines are changing in the U.S.?

We’ll do our own review of the literature (although please do suggest anything appropriate), but what we really want from you is stories. We’re looking for noteworthy stories, positive or negative, from both sides of the counter, meaning you as a customer or you as an employee. If the latter, did your company’s rules on retail etiquette seem thoughtful/ridiculous/onerous? Or maybe you’re the person who sets the rules in your firm — we want to hear from you too.

Thanks as always.


Once I got service for my vehicle at a Ford dealership and was dissatisfied. Ford corporate sent me a survey, and I gave the dealership low marks. A couple days later, I get a call from the service manager telling me to go to hell and never come back.

Chris V

This is a big area of intended consequence, or perhaps "teaching to the test". Customer service is considered so important at the dealership that their ratings from the customer surveys are critically important. So important they they let the customer know that 5 (of 5) rating is absolutely critical, they don't make their goals without it, let us know if any part of your service doesn't rate a 5, yaddah yaddah. So even if I feel the service was quite good and therefore rated a 4 of 5 which is pretty good... actually rating a dealer as 4 is absolutely slamming them. When I am asked this I tell the person doing the survey that the test is rigged and I will not provide a score.
So the irony is that in surveying to make sure the service is as good as it possibly can be, they are irritating the customer.

David P

In probably 2003 or so I tried to switch my cell phone carrier to AT&T. When I got my new phone I turned it on and it broke so I called up their customer service. After going through a half dozen menu choices I was put on hold and forced to listen to their wait music and recording telling me that my patience is valued. After 2 hours I gave up and decided I would call back again later.
In my next attempt it took me an hour to talk to a real person who decided that I had chosen the wrong menu options and that they would transfer me to the correct department. I then spent about 30 minutes being transferred around in a circle (seriously, I talked to the same person twice!) and eventually transferred into a dial tone.
My third attempt I again waited on hold for 2 hours before finally talking to a human being. Once I got to them I told them that my brand new phone broke and that because I had been on hold for a total of 5 hours I simply wanted to return the phone and cancel the account. I have never been tempted to switch over to AT&T since that experience.


Ry Jones

You should check into LaRue Tactical's forum on ar15 dot com, where tales of insanely good customer service abound. Furthermore, ADCO (same forum) is well known for stepping in and fixing other shop's mistakes - very expensive ones - for free.

Eric M. Jones.

It's hard to judge the best and worst, but here's a real stinker:

I used to drive a Mercedes 190 2.3 which I was getting a little tired of, and had a leak in the rear window, so I went down to Culver City to Bill Murphy Buick to see about buying a Buick (I had grown up on father’s car....)

With the help of a young and eager salesman I finally found a car to fall in love with--an almost new white Riviera with a blonde leather interior and every accessory you could get, which I think had been repossessed, so it was a deal. It carried a price of $18,000 which I could well have afforded if I were to get a fair trade-in on my Mercedes which was worth about $9,000.

The young salesman asked me to bring the Mercedes around to the lot and then reluctantly turned me over to his boss, who appeared from a back room and glared at me. I said, “If you can give me a fair trade-in on my Mercedes, I would like to buy that white Riviera over there.” He took the cold stump of a cigar out from between his teeth, stared through me and snarled, “Get out of’re wasting my time!”

I was so taken aback by this that I thought he hadn’t heard me. I looked around to see if he might have been talking to someone else, then repeated more-or-less what I had said, “Ah sir, if you can give me a decent trade-in on my little Mercedes, I would like to buy that white Riviera over there.”

He again glared at me in a threatening way spat out a piece of cigar and snarled, “ You wanna deal...or don’t you?” I softly said the same general thing about a trade-in and wanting the white Riviera, and he growled back, “get off my’re just wasting my time....”, And turned around and left.

I would have thought that this was a unique experience but a couple of months later my boss told be that the same general thing happened to his sister and brother-in-law. Somebody at Bill Murphy Buick threw them out of the showroom when they wanted to buy a red Skylark. Some kind of unique salesmanship I guess.



In 2008 I bought a surprisingly cute silk dress at Bebe for $150. After three wearings, the silk came completely apart at the seams. It was a very free-flowing dress, so it wasn't tight and certainly hadn't been worn enough to cause such an issue, so I took it back to the store to ask them for an exchange. The lady at the counter refused an exchange, saying if it was worn it couldn't be returned or exchanged. I explained I thought the silk or design was faulty and I wouldn't expect that out of a $150 dress. She promptly told me that if that was the case and if I paid $150 for a dress, I "should inspect the dress before I bought it to make sure there were no problems." When I asked for the manager she told me she was the manager, and when I called the regional manager, I never received a return phone call. I still boycott the store.


Working in clothing retail for the past ten years, I've found the hardest part is "reading" the customer. Some want superior service (assistance and encouragement from start to finish). Some don't even want to be greeted (A co-worker has had a customer yell to leave them alone just because she said hello to the customer). Then there's everything in-between. It's my job to figure out what the customer wants and how to approach the situation. It's a lopsided relationship. We are expected to be perfect and give the customer whatever they want. Meanwhile, we are generally not treated as kindly in return. From getting yelled at to watching their screaming children. From picking up mountains of unwanted clothes off the floor to discovering someone deciding to the fitting room as a toilet. No matter the situation, it is expected you keep a smile on your face and act like you are happy to help (even if it's an hour past closing time). I'm currently seeking other employment because I can no longer spend my days being treated with the amount disrespect that has become normal here.

I always say thank you to the customer upon checkout. I also tell them to have a great day (as sincerely as possible). It's interesting how many don't say anything back. A simple "you too" would make me feel a lot less useless than someone who refuses to communicate or make eye contact with me.

Yes, there are plenty of situations where the employee is in the wrong. As a customer, I've dealt with unhappy, angry, or rude employees. Usually I try to just have sympathy for them, because I understand any job in retail is eventually tiresome.



I used to work in retail and I agree with you. It's a matter of reading the customer, and it's also a matter of having a customer understand what kind of service each store provides. You can't expect an employee at Kmart to play personal shopper for the day if they're the only ones on the floor at the time (and yet some customers expect you to) and there are clothes on the floor and off the hangers, and complaints like that don't tend to get much sympathy. But you should expect willingness to help and to do it as quickly as possible, to a reasonable extent. Know where you are and what you can ask for.

Retail can be dehumanizing. Like you said, kindness doesn't go both ways in retail. People will feel entitled to yell and humiliate you for a problem under the umbrella of "the customer is always right", which is why the turnover is so high. Not to mention, people can switch jobs and make the same minimum wage-salary elsewhere, so there is little incentive to do more.

Now, back to the original question, what I appreciate the most is efficiency. I don't care to be followed around the store, I don't care for sales pitches unless I inquire about them. I also expect basic manners, but I don't need overly-sweet and cheery employees (ever tried to be fake-cheery 8 hours a day? Exhausting.) But the times I've been most satisfied is when employees are quick and honest about their services/products and when complaints are resolved quickly. I especially appreciate companies who DON'T have automated phone systems. There is nothing worse than having to tell your information to a machine letter by letter only to have the customer rep ask you to repeat it AGAIN when they answer. What's the point then?


Steve S.

The two best customer service phone conversations came from organizations that explicitly pride themselves on their treatment of customers: ING Direct and Zappos. Funny how both are able to siphon from marketplaces that were seemingly the vanguard of brick and mortar enterprises.

Mike McKenzie

Was waiting in a line in Starbucks in Hinsdale, IL. The line was building, with only one Barrista taking orders and five Barristas standing in the back chatting. Clearly, this is not the Starbucks way and CEO Howard Schultz would want to know - nicely.

I emailed, guessing at, quickly drafting a well-balanced complaint. With no expectation of a response ever, 10 minutes later I get a telephone call from Starbucks US President. Thoughtful, caring, immediate response. No big bids on "hey we treat customers right", "we care" "we're no 1 in customer service" None of those typical Marketing Communication/PR claims. Just straight up "Doing" the customer right.

Can I pick at Starbucks, can I say they're paying more attention to China. Do I know I pay $2.95 for $0.07 of brown water. Sure. Who cares. It's theater and as carefully orchestrated as anything on Broadway. And the show goes on just about perfect 98% of the time. and they pretty much always have clean, safe bathrooms.

Pretty good retail experience among the all to common disasters.



I used to work for a major financial services company in service and I can tell you unequivocally that upper management wants the customer to have the highest quality experience possible. They just budget about a third of the money necessary to actually provide it. So most of the financial companies have service departments that are far overworked, and constantly being micromanaged to reduce their AHT. That's why you rarely talk to the same person more than a few times. The people good at the work realize its a dead end quickly and get poached into a more realistic position, and the people who can't handle it usually wash out in a few weeks if they even make it through their training.

There was a time when customer service meant having enough employees to help all the customers. Now, it's solely a numbers game to make sure all the calls get answered. Programs like Six Sigma and Lean Enterprise work great with manufacturing and production numbers. But when it comes to service, the people with "black belts" simply have no concept of how many variables they're actually trying to control.



Generally British service is average. However, my mum saw these neck and feet warmers sold by a company called Cherry Pit Pac - in the USA. I ordered about $80 worth, but missed the sign on the website that said to call for overseas delivery. As this was to be delivered to my mother's house, I forgot about it for a while.

The package never arrived, and so about a month later, I emailed and then called them about it. The woman I spoke to was incredible, said they could add a small delivery cost (under $10) and get it shipped to my mother's place. However, the next day she emailed to say that actually shipping was $66! Even though she acknowledged that this was, in essense, my fault for not seeing the delivery sign online, she said they would pay half the delivery cost! Most impressive thing ever. Americans, generally, really know how to do service properly.

Sidenote - British people find it weird asking for the name of the person serving you, whilst Amerians think it's impolite if you don't ask!



Re: "What Are Your Best — and Worst — Retail Experiences?"

Is not every aspect of air travel the WORST! retail experience imaginable? The degradation begins when one is compelled to spend time trying to purchase a ticket without being the chump that overpaid. One then assents to being treated like absolute [garbage] the moment one enters the departure airport. On the plane, it is made very clear that one's presence is a waste of precious airplane space and an inconvenience to everyone employed by the airline. At the arrival airport, it's time to again be treated like [garbage] until one finally escapes. Want to be treated like a human being? Well, that'll cost you and even then you're only treated less abusively rather than well. Is there any other retail experience that is so thoroughly, inescapably unpleasant from start to finish?

As far as best goes, nothing beats being treated like a human by a human. That goes both ways, by the way: Treating retail workers well is not only the moral thing to do, it can produce benefits in terms of goods and services delivered. Unfortunately, many retail employees are not treated humanely by their employers: Human needs cut into the bottom line. So the contempt of careerist hot-air artists is codified into 8-inch thick policy manuals. The irony is that the policies directly negate the home office's otherwise expensive efforts to "create a relationship with the customer". And for that bit of hierarchical top-down-manship, the executives are paid about fifty to five-hundred times more than the customer service reps they mis-manage and who in turn can't conceal their resentments from the customers…



I took my mum across to NYC for a holiday and part of the experience was a visit to Saks (she loves retail and the stores of legend). We were wandering around one of the floors with the expensive fashion and suddenly a mouse shot across the floor between the clothes stands. Mum squeeled and for devillment I gave chase (of course the mouse got well away). Mum was shocked (Saks, after all, was a dream location for her) so found a couple of store assistants and just mentioned about the mouse. Well, they were ncredulous

Alex Blaze

Customer service in France is usually the butt of jokes, but I've found it isn't so bad right now. The worst tends to be secretaries and receptionists, who can be so mean sometimes I'll do a few minutes of walking in the street in front of a doctor's office or whatever before walking in.

Worst experience would be Amazon, which made quite a few errors in my last big order. They didn't send 2 things, sent the wrong version of 1 product so that it was completely useless to me, promised refunds but had to be prodded several times. Each problem was always met with "I see what you're saying, I'll take care of it" which is nice, but if they can see all these problems why did I have to prod them so many times?

And airplanes, although most flight attendants (outside of RyanAir) are plenty nice and seem to genuinely be trying to make the best of an uncomfortable situation for everyone. RyanAir flight attendants are the worst and you can tell they don't want to be there.

As for best... I hate to be cliche but the best experience I had was buying headphones at a local audio shop in Indianapolis. The guy knew the product and let me try a bunch of headphones, indulging my bad taste in music and not trying to sell me the most expensive set (although he did tell me I'd be back to get more expensive ones eventually as my listening skills developed... and he was right).


Carol Doyle

A couple of years ago I was in a T.J. Maxx store in Ireland, where we call it T.K. Maxx. Loaded with the maximum number of garments allowed, I went to the changing rooms and locked myself in a cubicle. This changing room had the vaguely voyeuristic feature of not-quite-to-the-floor cubicle walls. In my shopping-high haze, I didn't take much notice of the strange smell. It wasn't until I bent down to pick up a particularly cool pair of jeans that had fallen to the floor that I saw it:

A turd. A turd half wrapped up in a pair of lacy blue panties, in the next cubicle, but spilling over the invisible line into mine.

I recoiled and staggered back to the changing room attendant: a teenage boy, working his part-time evening job, more interested in chatting with his friends. I interrupted them, after several failed attempts, and overplayed my shock to make up for his complete lack of facial expression. He mumbled something about cleaners and left me free to return to the shopping rails, satisfied that I had done my part as a good citizen.

Laden with clean clothes, I re-entered the changing room, proceeding with caution and much peering around corners. It occurred to me the lack of any kind of safety notice, safety equipment, nor cleaning personnel. I returned to the offending cubicle to find nothing had changed. It was over twenty minutes since I had reported the incident. Disgusted, I made my purchases and did the only thing any good citizen in such a situation can do: I called my girl-friend and mouthed off about it.

On returning home, I immediately put the clothes I had been wearing and my purchases into the washing machine and had a shower. Then I thought a more productive person to phone might be the store manager. I called the store and spoke to a male manager, who had not heard of the incident - more than 1 hour after I had reported it. He promised me it would be dealt with, and hung up. I called again after 30 minutes and this time spoke to a very informed female manager, who assured me that the offending cubicle had been closed off and that the cleaning crew were on their way.

On their way? This is a public health hazard! My consternation grew, and I decided to write an angry, but reserved, letter to the company and emailed it to the highest levels. I even sent copies by snail mail, to show that I really meant it. In the letter, I highlighted the apathy and slow responsiveness of the staff from part-time to management level. Given the danger to public health of such an incident, I would be forced - nay, it was my duty - to take the matter higher if suitable steps were not taken to address this culture within the company.

Their swift response was an assurance that those involved were being investigated and that steps would be taken to prevent such instances reccurring in the future, but I would understand that they cannot share details of internal company workings with me. Attached was a EUR 30 gift voucher. I returned to the store, voucher in hand. But my real reason was to check out the progress, I'm sure.

Several months later, my sister phoned to tell me that she had just been to the changing room in question, and that there was a cleaning lady posted who regularly ensured both the mens and womens changing rooms were clean, wiping mirrors, vacuuming, picking up litter and, well, whatever else might be left behind.



I've never been more poorly treated by a place of business, ever, than at a laundromat near my condo.

I needed some quarters to do some laundry, since my apartment complex has machines but no coin machines. I walk into this place, hoping to get some quarters. There's a huge sign posted, "COIN MACHINE ONLY FOR CUSTOMER USE."

I get it, no problem. I'll just exchange my bills so the whole trip over wasn't for naught-- plus that way I'll have extra quarters in the future-- go back to my place, grab my laundry, and drive back.

The manager/owner/bitch walks over, and SCREAMS at me to get out, that those machines are only for customers. I try to explain that I don't live very far away, that I'll come right back and do my laundry... BE a customer. She yells at me, NO! NO NO NO! and tells me that if I come back with laundry, she'll exchange the EXACT amount of quarters that I need, up at the desk.

See, that's just not gonna work for me. Mostly because I don't like being called a liar.

So I turn away from her, she goes behind the counter, and TURNS OFF the coin machine. Are you joking me?



When I was 18, my parents took 6 of us to Fuddruckers. After paying over $50 for hamburgers and fries, (super-expensive in 1992) I picked up the order at the counter. I checked the order and informed the cashier that they had forgotten the cheese on three of the burgers. She told me I would have to give her 45 cents to fix the order. I explained that they had made the mistake, but she would not give it to me without me paying. I declined and was annoyed at the error. The next day, I called the manager and said that I was frustrated that after paying $50 for fast food they would not cough up the 45 cents of cheese due to their error. I said it was poor customer service. He apologized and said he would send me a $10 gift card, which made me feel better....until it never arrived! I know it was just a silly event, but that was over 20 years ago and I have never been back to a Fuddruckers since (plus, I have shared my annoyance with a few people over the years...)


Axel Kassel

Some years ago, I bought my son a Sony portable cassette player (remember those?) at a Best Buy. The unit was DOA: on battery or AC, dead as Prohibition. I took it back to Best Buy. The clerk said I would have to pay a restocking fee ($15, I think, or maybe 15%) because I hadn't returned it in the original package. I retrieved a fresh unit from the display and asked to see the manager. I pointed out that the instructions on the clear-plastic clamshell package said to cut it open. I had done so and naturally discarded the mutilated and now-useless package. The manager went through several snooty rounds of quoting policy until I threatened to write the state AG's consumer-fraud division and the FTC. Then he offered to waive the fee so long as I was taking a replacement unit rather than a refund. Convinced that Best Buy not only had poor sales help but was governed by hidebound idiots, I never set foot in another of their stores. May they follow Circuit City into ignominious extinction.



My very first job was selling Pronto-Pups (basically corn dogs) at the Minnesota State Fair. My first day on the job, my boss, who happened to also be my dad's friend, pulled me aside and told me the following (quoted only to the best of my memory, minus the expletives): "We don't get repeat business. People come here for one day every year, they buy one Pronto, and we don't see 'em again. Next year they're gonna be by some other stand when they want one. Maybe we'll see 'em again 5, maybe 6 years from now. Besides, it's the Fair, they expect bad service. So, if one of them gives you any attitude, let 'em have it. If you're stressed out and you want to vent, go ahead. If you just want to be a smart-ass for a minute, don't worry about it. It doesn't change my business."

Of course, being 15, I found a lot of reasons to say a lot of really terrible things to the customers. And the idea that there wouldn't be any consequences was just too much for me to resist. Now, I wish I could go back and apologize to those people for the things I said. But my boss was right. He made more money every year, no matter how badly he and his staff treated the customers.

Anyway, I guess my point is that when you remove the possibility of repeat business, you also remove most of the incentive for any kind of positive retail etiquette policy.