I went shopping for clothes today. It should have been fun, but it wasn’t. It was lonely and frustrating. It left me asking the same question thousands of shoppers ask every day: “Where have all the sales clerks gone?”
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there lived a breed of sales clerks so exuberant and so eager for a commission check they would do anything – including bug the living daylights out of their customers – just to make a sale. But those sales clerks died out because customers didn’t like their pushiness and the way they followed us around insisting that bright orange, floral print pants would look great on us and we should definitely buy them. Managers and shop owners had a long talk with their clerks and told them that “no means no.” That was a good thing because it let us browse with no pressure.
Somewhere along the way, however, the pendulum swung too far. What used to be a pleasant “no pressure” shopping atmosphere has given way to “We don’t care.” And the new breed of apathetic, mostly absent sales clerk has sucked the fun and success right out of shopping.
Today I spent two hours in a department store, wandering to and fro trying to find a new outfit for a business meeting. I wanted to buy. I needed to buy. But not once in two hours time did anyone approach me with those four little words: “May I help you?” Because if they’d asked, I would’ve been tempted to throw my arms around them and say, “Oh, thank you! And yes, yes, yes, you can help me. Please help me find something to wear and shoes to go with it because I don’t know where anything is and I need some new ideas.”
I don’t know where all the sales clerks were. I didn’t see many, and the ones I did see were busy folding clothes, avoiding eye contact and rearranging inventory. I always thought folding clothes was something they did when the store wasn’t busy. But it seems they’re always folding clothes these days or huddled in a group talking with other clerks. If you approach one of them and directly ask for help, they’ll usually perk right up and lend a hand. I’m willing to ask, if I’m desperate and that’s what it takes, but by that point I’m already a little miffed. It’s bad manners to have customers come to your “house” and not greet them or offer to show them around. Didn’t their mothers teach them that stuff? Did basic store courtesy die out with parachute pants of the eighties?
Back to my lonely shopping trip. After two hours in the store, I assembled an acceptable outfit, paid for my items and began to leave the store. Just as I pushed the door to leave, a loud, electronic beeping alarm blasted me from all sides. Suddenly every sales clerk’s eyes were focused on me as I trotted back to the check-out desk with my bags. One of the elusive sales clerks showed up to inspect my bags and look for a forgotten theft tag which wasn’t removed during check-out.
After she determined I wasn’t a thief, she let me go, saying my cell phone probably tripped the sensitive alarm. I left and wondered the whole way home if the trip had even been worth it. In the absence of any genuine help, shoppers think maybe it’s best to go home and make do with what we already have. No wonder the economy is depressed. Nobody wants to sell stuff anymore. Nobody really cares whether or not you find what you came looking for.
To be fair, there are still some great shops out there where the sales clerks are helpful without being pushy, and they actually like helping customers find the perfect gift or put together a great outfit. But those clerks seem to be fewer and far between. Many of them work at more upscale shops where prices are higher, leaving shoppers at discount stores to wander around and beg a teenager to stop folding sweaters and help us.
It’s a shame because, in the end, what we want is simple. It’s just four little words: “Can I help you?” We just want someone to say it. And, if it’s not too much to ask, it’d be great if they could mean it, too.