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Snippet on Adjusting to Life in the UK

I realize that I haven’t posted in a while; and I am a little half-hearted about jump-starting it with a grumble.  In particular, it will be about (the virtually non-existent) customer service in the UK…. again.  It’s the one thing about  UK life I can’t quite get my head around, just because it’s a puzzle that in a country where everything is about civility, politeness and niceties, very few stores (or “shops”) seem to be able to get it right.

Today I headed into town to run a few errands at the bank and the post office.  Too early for the return train — and yes, I DO have to rush back home as I have a conference call to Chicago by 9:30 Central Time — I decided to go to Debenhams to use up an expiring gift card.  The gift card had a 24-month lifetime, and we got it as a wedding gift 2 years ago.  Hence the urgency to use it before its expiration.  I got a few small things at the home section, and headed up to pay.   Here goes the convo at the till:

Cashier :  Hi, you alright?

Me :  Hi, yes, I’m good how are you (waited for her to scan the 2 items, tell me the total, and then I handed over the gift card)

Cashier :  (peering from the top of her bifocals for some time and swiping it) — Do you know how much money you have on the card?

Me : (slightly surprised why it was up to me to tell her how much was left on the card — she could swipe to find out couldn’t she? — and trying to remember how much I had left on the card).  Hmmmmm…. I’m not too sure.   I think I might have around £120-something on it….

Cashier : (looking back at me)  So, in other words, — you do not know…..

Yup, those were her words  — “so in other words, you do not know….”

I am only slightly amused, but  mostly annoyed at myself, for being thrown off by comments like these, especially when they come with an accent and a nose in the air (literally, as it tried to hold up her bifocals).  I am not too sure whether to react the “American way” of always being right as customer; or to tread the polite line of putting sales staff softly in their place by a slight change in my intonation, the right choice of words, or the just-enough raise of my right eyebrow.  It really is tricky to make that split-second decision to either dare to be yourself and risk awkward attention; or to live as the Romans when in Rome and tone everything way way down.  I just know that each time I come over to the UK, I do not stay long enough to get out of the mode of being the visitor or the outsider, and to know how to deal with situations the way locals do.  But because that is my choice and this is my life, for now all I can do is sigh.  Until I get it right, if they don’t.


Customer Service is an oxymoron in the UK

Customer service leaves much to be desired here in the UK.  No offense meant.  Just stating a fact.  Let’s begin with basics like customer convenience and the “enjoyment” one normally likes to associate with a shopping experience. These do not seem to be high on the retailers’ priority list here.  Big department stores tend to tuck their restrooms at the remotest corners, without adequate signs to show where they are located.  You just have to ask, or guess, or both.  I can almost swear this is part of a deliberate design to just have restrooms used less — less maintenance, less cost, less headache for them.  Perhaps a conspiracy among the retail giants?  Ok, I’ll try not to be too cynical.  I can tell you they have signages that guide you towards everything else but the loos though.

Today I took the train from our hotel in Falkirk into Glasgow, and did the rounds of the shops.  Mostly window-shopping.  It’s hard to really shop here knowing how much cheaper prices are back in the US.  But hey, every girl needs her retail therapy now and then; — or sometimes we shop with a purpose, as was the case for me this time.  The objective:  find shoes for a formal dinner event this Saturday evening.  It’s the hubby’s motorsports club’s annual gig (where he gets a few awards too), and although things have toned down a bit now, it used to be a “penguin suit” sort of affair, I heard.  Since I’m newly wed, and newly-moved, this is going to be my first time to attend.   I’ve decided to wear one of my Vivienne Tams.  I just need new shoes to update the look, since most of my dressier shoes are in Chicago.  I started the search in a few smaller shops and later turned into Debenhams, a large UK department store.  If I had to make an analogy it would probably be like the US’s “Macy’s” chain.  The store occupies an entire building on Argyle Street, if not a significant part of that building.  Inside it has 5 huge floors full merchandise — and guess what?  Only one floor with toilets.  Yup, only on the second floor, the women’s floor, tucked in one of those obscure corners.   But as if this disproportionate lack of facilities wasn’t bad enough, —  the restrooms were actually boarded up, blocked with cones and crates, and with yellow tape marking the area off much like a crime scene.  Then the almost “apology sign” (a common sight here), “we apologize that the toilets are under repair….”  With the amount of debris blocking that area, I get the feeling that this “repair” has been going on for some time, and no, no other restrooms available in the whole building.  You would think with the price ranges in such a store they loved their customers.  And if this is the condition in a big store in the largest city in Scotland, I can only guess how much worse it would be in smaller places.  But this is how it is, and what can customers do but get used to it, right?

I’ve often wonder how this country is going to be ready for the 2012 Olympics in London because the concept of good customer relations/service is simply not in the retail service providers’ psyche.  I don’t think they mean to be this way.  They’re just not conscious of what needs to be done and how they have to be done.  You walk into a store, and the sales people look away when their eyes meet yours.   Very rarely do they bother to say greet you.  You can be queueing up to pay and see cashiers talking to each other over their tills and delaying the lines.  You see lazy unattentive sales attendants who do not know their products.  You get very fast “no” and “I’m sorry, we don’t have that here” answers, instead of — “let me check if we have that somewhere in the backroom” or “let me check in our other stores if I can get that for you.”  You will also see the sales staff blocking the very cramped merchandise aisles chatting away while the customer pretends not to be annoyed.  Worse, some stores seem to have staff who “size-you-up” on entry and if they think you cannot afford, they just turn away.  I know I’m sweeping with my statements, but seriously these are not uncommon.  So for now I am keeping to mostly window-shopping (except maybe bookstores and Boots), and there are days when I miss the American “can-do” spirit and positive go-get-’em attitude.

P.s., I did achieve what I set out to do and got shoes from another store.