Saturday, August 24, 2013

Are you being served?

The snooty sales assistant is alive and well, and ignoring you at that unfriendly neighbourhood designer store

We’ve all been there at one time or another. You walk into a designer store where every item on sale has a stratospheric price tag attached. As you browse through the shop you realize that a sales assistant is beadily tracking your every move. You ask if you could get a closer look at a certain item on display. Instead of handing it over, he snootily informs you that it costs, say, Rs 3 lakh.

Technically, of course, he has done nothing wrong. You asked to see an item in his store and he told you its price. But you know exactly what is going on. The sales assistant has weighed you up, calculated the cost of your handbag, your watch, your shoes, and whatever jewellery you are wearing, and decided that this item is definitely not within your budget. Having decided that, he sees no point in wasting time showing it to you. He’s a busy man you know; he can’t be bothered with window shoppers like you.

Now, there are three ways you can deal with this. You can act as if you didn’t get the subtext of his reply and ask to see the bag anyway. Or you can call him on his rudeness and ask why he felt obliged to tell you the price when you hadn’t asked the question. Or you could just walk out and take your custom to another store where the sales assistants are a tad less snobby and a little more helpful. (Always choose option three.)

But if you are Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest women in the world and a global media superstar, you could also mention this experience in an interview. You can recount the time you walked into a store in Switzerland – which you are careful not to name – and asked to see a handbag. You reveal your amazement when the sales assistant refused to show it to you, despite your repeated requests, and steered you towards some cheaper bags instead. “This one,” she said, “is too expensive.”

Of course, being Oprah, you lay this down to the insidious racism that prevails in much of the world; a world which sees a Black person as being too poor to afford pricey goodies like these. And because you are Oprah, all hell breaks loose after your interview.

The Swiss Tourism Board offers you an apology on behalf of the whole country and says it’s a shame you were treated that way. The media track down the store in question and the owner is forced to clarify that it was all a huge misunderstanding because the sales assistant’s English is ‘not so good’. The sales assistant herself tearily explains that she is not a racist and that she was just trying to explain to Oprah that there were cheaper versions of ‘that’ handbag on sale as well. She adds, for good measure, that she cannot understand why Oprah is making such accusations. “She is so powerful and I am just a shop girl. I don’t understand why someone as great as her would cannibalize me on TV.”

At which point, Oprah backs down, and says that she wishes she had never raised the issue, and she regrets how it has all got so out of hand.

All this kerkuffle about being snubbed (or not) in a designer store…I know, it beggars belief, doesn’t it?

But while all this sounds very silly indeed, I have to admit that there is something about these fancy-schmancy stores that brings all our insecurities to the fore. I know women – otherwise completely rational human beings – who never venture into these shops unless they have at least one designer item on their person. And when I scoff at them, they regale me with stories of their ritual humiliation in such stores when they don’t quite look the part.

This can take several forms. The sales assistants may studiously ignore you, offering no help at all even if you indicate that you are looking for it. Or they will shadow you assiduously as if they are afraid you will slip an expensive item in your capacious handbag the moment their back is turned. Or they will be unbearably patronizing when you ask questions about the merchandise. Or they will resort to that tried-and-tested insult of telling you much a thing costs even before you ask the question.

Speaking for myself, I have noticed that service in such stores dramatically improves if I am carrying an easily identifiable label handbag, or wearing what looks like a designer garment, or even better, an expensive piece of jewellery. I can feel the sales assistants clocking up the value of every item in their internal computer and placing me on that sliding scale of costumer preference. And their disappointment is almost palpable when I leave without buying anything, as if I had somehow tricked them into serving me under false pretenses.

But while this is fun on a slow afternoon, I must confess that I would never ever set foot again in a store where the shop assistants had been snooty and rude. If I’m not good enough for you, then my money most certainly isn’t either.


  1. It's a little different in the electronic stores like Vijay Sales or Reliance Digital - there the sales boys and girls are more interested in flirting with each other, the customers can...,,, wait. God can't help you if you interrupt.

  2. An incident comes to mind . Over a decade ago a friend was given a budget of Rs 1 lac for her sangeet outfit and she asked me to accompany her to Brides Galleria - Defence Colony. Being a young girl, she was dressed in casuals and as she went through the various lehengas, she fell in love with one of them. The lady who owned the shop was there and when she was asked the price she said , "Just to tell you upfront that all lehengas here start from Rs.25,000 and the one you like is Rs.32,000"! Needless to say. she lost a sale and no surprise, the shop no longer exists