October 3, 2008

First Person

Fear and loathing behind the sales counter

By Al Carlos Hernandez

We were in Rite Aid/WalMart/Longs, whatever, the other day when this angry little guy in a mail order suit rudely cut the line, pushed up to the cashier waving the store’s advertisement and pointed to a $4.99 power strip. The customer was a foreigner because he was rattling something off a Peking menu, while wearing a 50’s tie, plaid shirt and cardboard looking shoes.

The cashier was obviously a financially strapped housewife who was trying to earn a couple of bucks while the kids were at school. Hating life, she was no doubt incredulous at this guy’s brash insistence on saving one buck.

I was going to offer this manic skin flint two bucks for his tie just to see if he would do it, but my wife was with me and discourages that type of behavior.

If my son Carlos was with me he would probably have made an offer on the shoes, forcing others to take some side action on whether His Rudeness wore socks or not.

Working retail is one of the hardest and thankless jobs you can have. Many people nowadays are self indulgent narcissistic jerks who treat clerks like servants. We like to think of the clerks as single mom’s, kids working their way through college, or famous musicians of the seventies.

Because of the recession there are a lot of folks who are taking second jobs just to make ends meet. It’s not funny and it’s not cute. Remember: folks come to here from Mexico and other places because their countries failed them and they have to eat.

My experience in retail is remarkably different than the norm. Back in the day I was a managing partner of a good size motorcycle dealership in the inner city. The rules of retail decorum were significantly different.

We had a sales guy named TW, for Tumble Weed, because of his hair. A stout, round wire rimmed guy with the vocabulary of a Rhodes Scholar, he would eye potential customers. If he knew that they were killing ti me or were motorcycle wannabe posers, he would go up to the person and say, in a measured voice, “Excuse me sir, are you lost?” The mooch would always say, “No, not really.” TW would say after a dramatic pause, sizzled by manic eye contact. “Then get lost!”

Our dealership credo was that there are two ways you can leave the dealership. You can walk out or be carried out. The motorcycle business, including Harley Davidson, is no longer like that. It has become sanctimonious and seeker friendly.

My only other short lived retail experience was managing a tire store. I would have to work behind the counter and sell people tires and, depending on their attitude, a bunch of brakes and front end parts that they didn’t need.

Since the tire store was part of a larger chain, I would get written up routinely by the district manager for talking down to the customers, which I still consider an impossibility. First there was the time when a fortune teller, Miss Dora, came in and was yelling at me because she said she didn’t know that her brake pads were down to the metal. I asked her, given her line of work, how could she not know?

Then there was the time this Middle Eastern fellow came in and tried to tell me that the tires we installed on his car were making a bippity-bump-bump noise on the freeway. I said, “Are you sure it’s not a bump-bump-bippity-thump?” He said, “No. I remember quite vividly it was a bippity-bump-bump.” I asked him what radio station he was listening to.

He said, “News Talk, always News Talk!” I said, Oh, it wasn’t the rap station then. You ain’t run over a duck or nothing?”

He started to get really mad, and told me, “So you think I am decidedly stupid with this tire noise song thing, Mr. blue smarty slacks?”

I paused for an uncomfortably long time, and then said, “No man.”

The guys checked out his car. Contrite for being a world class jerk, I might have given him a free tire or two.

You need to know that most people behind the counter don’t want to be there. They are underpaid and verbally abused by frustrated people who want somebody to pick on.

I have learned to say, “Please,” and “Thank you,” because you never know when the economy is going to turn bad for you, and you’ll end up on the wrong end of a discount coupon or a blue light special.

Al Carlos Hernandez writes from Hollywood.

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