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Thursday, November 24, 2005 - Page updated at 01:40 PM

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When customer service makes customer nervous, it might be time to back off

Special to The Seattle Times

"Can I help you find anything?"

It is the mantra of retail salesclerks everywhere.

It is also a phrase that if heard often enough can cause a shopper to panic and start to wonder if they really do need help. The help of a therapist.

"Sometimes customers say: 'Shut up, I'm just looking!' " says Lauren Edwards, a sales associate at the Yankee Candle Co. in Seattle, who is required to greet anyone entering the store within 30 seconds, then follow up after three minutes to see if help is needed. Overly helpful service isn't a new retail trend or an entirely unwelcome one — ask anyone trying to find a clerk in a big-box store. But shoppers agree it's taken on a new intensity in recent years as retailers seek to boost sales and reduce theft by connecting personally with their customers.

And customers are trying to cope.

While some, such as the candle shopper, lash out at the clerks, others simply fake a hearing impairment.

"Some people don't acknowledge me at all," says Hannah Ghidey, who has worked as a sales associate at the Body Shop for more than two years. "I ask how they are doing and they don't say anything. So I say it again, even louder, but then I realize they just don't want to hear me," she says with a laugh.

Shopping buzz-kills


Merchants want our business, but these five things are apt to drive us away:

1. Too many mirrors.

2. Having to ask questions of the salesclerks.

3. Merchandise that is out of stock.

4. Obscure price tags.

5. Intimidating service or pushy clerks.

Source: "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping," Paco Underhill

"If you greet someone within 30 seconds they will stay in your store six times longer," says Diana Cruz, store manager of The Limited. "It's statistically proven!"

Actually, customers greeted immediately upon entering a store are less likely to respond positively and may feel cornered, according to Paco Underhill, a retail consultant and author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."

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."

Yet the ubiquitous speedy greeting persists. So prevalent is the corporate philosophy of "the 30-second rule" that some salesclerks at The Limited have a game they play in other stores. They walk in and see if they can make it to the back of the store and touch the wall and get out again without being greeted.

I tested these sales tactics by walking into an Eddie Bauer store at Northgate Mall without a specific purchase in mind. I meandered through the store looking at the merchandise but did not try on any clothes or ask questions.

Within eight minutes it was necessary to provide the following: How I was doing, what I was shopping for, if I was doing all right, if I had any questions, and finally, if I was still doing all right.

I used the scripted response of "Just looking, thanks," which appeared to send out signals that I was in dire need of assistance.

According to Eddie Bauer, there is no set time to greet customers or a requirement to check back with them.

"Staff just have to make sure the customer is greeted sincerely and enthusiastically," says Eddie Bauer spokeswoman Lisa Erickson. My experience was that of the enthusiastic variety.

Such assertiveness is increasingly the norm these days.

"We have hit a point of retail desperation and the merchants are under tremendous pressure to produce results," says Underhill. It is about increasing sales, deterring theft and removing anonymity.

But some of us prefer to move through life, or at least a mall, with a bit of anonymity. Acknowledging the customer, or using their name at the check-out counter, can personalize transactions beyond some of our comfort zones.

This is never more apparent than at Safeway, where clerks are mandated to thank the customer by using their name.

"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."

Some customers, though, disagree.

"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."

"I hate it when I'm ignored, but I hate it when I'm pestered," said shopper Alex Huber of Bothell, echoing a common theme. "All that 'Can I help you?' irritates me enough that I don't even want to come back to the store."

Perhaps this is why Nordstrom, which has, arguably, one of the best reputations for service in the retail industry, doesn't give its employees mandates on how to approach customers.

"There is only one rule and that is, use good judgment," says spokeswoman Deniz Anders.

Good judgment means sensing whether the customer is looking for help or simply wants to browse undisturbed.

Jane Adams, a social psychologist and author of "Boundary Issues," recommends this response to pushy salespeople: "Thank you for coming over, but I will call you when I need help."

"Asking for as much distance or closeness as you want is not rude," says Adams. "We all think boundaries are a way to protect us, but really it's a way to establish a true connection with someone and it is OK to say what you want."

Diana Wurn is a freelance writer living in Seattle: dianawurn@hotmail.com.

The red-carpet treatment

On one recent shopping day, these stores stood out for friendly, but unobtrusive help:

See's Candy: "Here is a sample of our Bordeaux truffle." (Deemed best overall greeting.)

Nordstrom: After a couple of minutes, a sincere and friendly "Hello." No follow-up questions.

Ann Taylor: A warm smile and no verbal tics at all.

Whole Foods: Greeted with relaxed familiarity and suddenly there is laughter and joking and we exit the store with strange items we don't need, like a Bavarian sheep cheese.

REI: A "hello" very quickly, but then we're on our own. Sales associates in each department know their equipment, so if they do offer to help, it's worth it.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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