Customer Service

One thing that even the shortest period of working in retail gives you is a very high regard for customer service. Thanks to my days of toil in various bookshops I know what the rights of the consumer are; I have enough respect for cashiers to not talk on my mobile whilst paying for goods; I will stand my ground when returning faulty goods; and, most of all, I expect shop assistants in certain shops to know their onions…
Yesterday I had some time to kill in Birmingham, so I decided to tick a few things off my to-do list by heading over to the glorious (but architecturally controversial) Bullring for some retail therapy. Top of my list were some DVDs for my father’s imminent birthday, so I headed to HMV.
HMV is one of those ‘certain shops’ whose employees I believe should know their stuff – it’s the same case for bookstores and little specialist ones. Sometimes I like to give such assistants challenges, just for my amusement. Other times I just end up revealing what an utter idiot I am, unable to perform even the simplest shopping tasks.
I had chosen in advance two films that I’d seen in recent months which I knew my Dad would enjoy. Problem was, I couldn’t remember the exact title for either. I knew roughly what one was, but couldn’t find it. The other was French and I had no idea of either it’s French or English title.
There was no other option but to ask for help and the ensuing conversation went something like this:
ME: “Excuse me, I’m looking for a couple of DVDs but I can’t remember their titles – could you help me?”
ASSISTANT: [Gives me a withering look and sighs] “Yes, possibly, how much do you know about them?”
ME: “Erm, the first one is French. It’s got Kristen Scott-Thomas in it – but it’s not the one she got an Oscar nomination for last year. It’s a detective type film.”
ASSISTANT: “Right…I think I’ll just have to read out the list of films she’s been in. Will you recognise it if you hear it?”
ME: “Errr, possibly.” [Really not sure that I will.]
ASSISTANT reads out long list of films including ones that quite obviously are not French (like The Horse Whisperer) and eventually gets to Tell No One.
ME: “That’s the one! Great.”
ASSISTANT: [Stating the bleeding obvious] “It’ll be in our World Cinema section.”
ME: “Ok, one other film. I thought it was called ‘In the Wild’, but I couldn’t find it. It’s set in Alaska and there’s a campervan…”
ASSISTANT: [Cutting me off mid-sentence] “You mean Into the Wild. It’s under ‘I’ in the Feature Films section.”
ME: [Feeling rather sheepish] “Thank you so much, you’ve been very helpful.”
I returned 3 minutes later with both films, hoping to prove that I wasn’t such an idiot after all. I was somewhat relieved to be served by a different assistant.
The moral of this story is two-fold.
(i) Do your research before shopping.
(ii) Don’t treat shop assistants like idiots – they often know much more than they’re given credit for and will one day come to your rescue when you’re looking for ‘that book that was Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime three and a half weeks ago’. (Trust me, that was a genuine customer enquiry once upon a time!)
The Bullring’s Selfridges. Honestly, what’s there not to like?


  1. Ah, you too have toiled in bookshops for years and know my pain. But I would also have given you a withering glance if you’d come and said “I want these films, but I don’t know the titles..” đŸ™‚ I don’t mind if people say, “I’ve just forgotten the name, but…” and they can describe it properly, but in most cases it’s the “3 and a half weeks ago on the radio” scenario.

    My favourite was this guy who said, “I want that book that everyone’s reading right now.” After a bit more prompting, I got “It’s really thick and it’s yellow.” He had nooo idea what it was about or even if it was a novel. After he’d phoned someone and asked them if they remembered, he decided it was called “Santarama”. I said “Shantaram?” “No, no, Santarama!”

    It WAS Shantaram. The irony is that the cover is blue and red.

    Oh wait, there was another one. This little old lady asked my colleague for a biography on Sharon. “Sharon who?” asks my colleage. “Just Sharon, I don’t know,” says the lady. We ask her if Sharon is a singer, actress, anything, but she doesn’t seem to know. We asked her if it was Sharon Osborne. “Maybe, bring it here,” the lady says. We do, and she pages slowly through it, and then eventually goes, “No…I don’t think this is it.”

    I don’t even remember how we found out in the end, but what she wanted was a biography of Ariel Sharon. Which, by the way, is NOT pronounced like Sharon. And she was Jewish, and I feel she should have known that! And that it was his SURNAME. And that he doesn’t look like Sharon Osborne.

  2. Oh yeah – no end of comedy customer stories from my years of bookselling! I never cease to be amazed at how dense customers could be…

    Had one guy come in asking for ‘that blue book’, wanting to know where we kept our blue books (he didn’t even mean porn!).

    Ages ago I told the worst story I’ve heard from a bookshop on my blog – you might like it, although it’s a little bit gross!

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