Judith Timson: When sales encounters get weird
Is the newest generation of retail and service industry employees being trained to ask their customers unnecessary and intrusive questions?
Take two weeks ago, when I was rushing around getting ready for a trip to France.
The young sales associate in a neighbourhood store couldn’t have been more helpful or charming. I was buying Canadian made socks for myself as well as gifts for Parisian friends (don’t laugh, a French female friend loves le hiking, and her husband, an international businessman, seemed to adore his Justin Trudeau like dress socks).
So my store interaction was very successful until the sales woman handed me my package.
“Any plans for tonight?” she asked. It was a Friday, but still. I wondered how I was supposed to answer a question that couldn’t possibly be relevant to our completed transaction. And why she cared.
As I left the store, I amused myself by narrowing down my response to three options:
Any plans for tonight? Why no, what do you have in mind?
Any plans for tonight? Yes, I’m going to go to bed early with my husband wearing my new socks.
Any plans for tonight? Just the usual, a quick dinner, too much wine and then despairingly follow the political hate unfolding on Twitter. You?
In other words, unless you happen to be doing something wonderful, exotic or impressive how can this question make you as a customer feel good about yourself? And if you do have something fabulous to do, it’s not likely you would need to share it with a stranger who is selling you socks.
The question seems to be part of a trend toward extreme informality in tone and content in stores.
That same weekend, another young sales associate in a high end running shoe store on Queen West, asked me for my first name before she brought me shoes to try on. (Why? Why?) And then, before she sold me a pair of top brand runners, she said conspiratorially about another pair by the same brand I was considering: “Judith, those shoes are shit.” Really? My first thought was how inappropriate, and if they are,why was she selling them at all?
I then wondered two contradictory things about myself. Did I in any way by my manner encourage too much informality? Or was I drearily becoming an all too age appropriate boomer stuffed shirt who now wants to be treated only deferentially and discreetly in stores?
To check my own reaction I began asking friends whether they get the same informality and whether they like it. They said yes they got it and no, they didn’t particularly like it. No one of any age said they actually enjoyed it.
I am asked uneccessary and too personal questions even in my bank, where if I order euros, the teller often asks me specifically when and where I am going, and even why.
I certainly am willing to explain all this to a customs officer, or describe my plans with friends or family.
But in an age where we have to seriously guard against digital invasion of our privacy, this personal question route seems like a tone deaf attempt to fill the air with small talk in order to foster a good relationship with a client so they will come back.
I exempt hair stylists who can be very helpful if your Friday night plans include a glamorous event. And to whom most of us confess far too much anyway. Hair stylists are the repositories of more secrets than therapists. But I don’t think they initiate the intimacies so much as just absorb the details of their clients’ lives while making us look better.
Obviously, we can individually choose to reveal anything and everything we want to anyone we meet.
I’ve always been a bit on the paranoid side when shopping. In an age of digital cameras and recorders, I am even more cautious.
Yet there is another side of this up close and too personal sales interaction to consider: we live in an increasingly impersonal world in which we exist largely online, buying, banking and relating. Some people are truly lonely. A lovely human interaction in a store can make our lives seem fuller and richer.
I enjoy talking to strangers. You can’t be a journalist without being able to talk at great length and deeply to people you don’t know. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether I ask too many probing questions of strangers. Maybe now I’m getting payback.
Having lived in the same neighbourhood for years, I am a regular in some stores where they ask with true warmth about me and my life, as I do about theirs.
But come to think of it, sales people who know me have never asked me what I’m doing tonight. It’s an oddly specific, irrelevant and awkward question.
So a note to young, refreshing and helpful sales associates. By all means greet me, ask how you can help me, and any questions that will lead you to sell me the perfect product.
Just don’t ask me what I’m doing tonight. Frankly, it’s none of your business.