Rosita Boland: A case of the customer being clearly in the wrong

The customer is said to be always right but sometimes that’s just untrue

 Lego pirate ship. ‘The mother declared it was a donation, because her son had misbehaved, and as a punishment, he was now going to donate his favourite toy to a child who would appreciate it.’ Photograph: Disney

Lego pirate ship. ‘The mother declared it was a donation, because her son had misbehaved, and as a punishment, he was now going to donate his favourite toy to a child who would appreciate it.’ Photograph: Disney

 

Some time ago, while on holidays I found myself browsing in a shop, and realised there was a kerfuffle going on between a customer and the shop’s proprietor.

The shop was a small one, in a small town. It was small enough to hear everything that was going on. There was a very large dog in the small shop; a dog that had not been there when I walked through the door a couple of minutes previously. The dog’s owner was in a fait accompli conversation with the shop’s owner.

“Is it okay to bring the dog in?”

The dog was already deep inside the shop at this point, roaming free, without a leash.

“He’s very quiet,” the dog owner announced loudly, as the dog proceeded to examine the goods on display. “Very well trained.”

“Um, we don’t actually allow dogs in the shop,” the proprietor said tentatively.

“Why not? Nobody else on this street had had a problem with him. He’s been in all the other shops.”

A dog who likes shopping, I thought, wondering how this was going to pan out.

“Sorry, but not everyone likes dogs.”

The woman whose bag was currently being sniffed by the large dog certainly did not seem to be fond of the canine species, judging from her body language.

The woman whose dog it was eyed up the shop’s proprietor, a woman some three decades younger than herself (worked out by my unscientific gaze). “I thought shops like yours needed custom. You were closed long enough. But I can see I’m not welcome here. So you’ve just lost yourself a customer.”

She called the dog, and the two of them departed in a flounce of tail and tossed hair. The woman behind the counter looked like she might cry.

Overbearing behaviour

The whole thing made me think yet again about how stupid and untrue the cliche is about the customer always being right. There is no reason why anyone should put up with rude, overbearing behaviour, just because that person is dropping some money in your establishment for goods or services. It’s a power imbalance that an outdated cliche has normalised.

The oddest case of the customer not being right that I ever came across was in the unlikely setting of a charity shop in Dublin some years ago. I was there on a job; talking to the person who decorated the windows, which is a whole art in itself, especially with the unpredictability of donated items.

As she was speaking, the distraught child was trying fruitlessly to retrieve the toy he so clearly did not want to donate

Over tea in the staff room, I chatted with some of the other volunteers working there. Between them, they had a considerable number of years’ experience in the shop. I asked them if they had had any particularly memorable donations over time.

“The pirate ship,” a woman said at once.

“Pirate ship?”

“I was behind the counter one day, and in came a little boy and his mother. He was roaring crying. Up she marched to the counter and told me her son had a donation for the shop.”

The donation was a Lego pirate ship. Those sets of Lego are expensive. Expensive enough to be given as the one big Christmas gift, or as a joint birthday and Christmas gift. They start somewhere near €100 and keep going north, depending on the model, and by the sounds of it, this ship had a full complement of pirates, booty, sails, cannons and treasure chests.

Punishment

The ship was placed on the counter. The mother declared it was a donation, because her son had misbehaved, and as a punishment, he was now going to donate his favourite toy to a child who would appreciate it. As she was speaking, the distraught child was trying fruitlessly to retrieve the toy he so clearly did not want to donate.

“What did you do?” I asked, horrified and agog.

She had tried to persuade the woman to take the ship back. That had not happened. What had happened was that mother and son had departed the shop, leaving the ship behind.

“I left the ship on the counter, because I thought they might come back that day. I was going to give it back.”

The customer who had donated her son’s Lego pirate ship against his will did not return that day, or indeed, ever again. But another customer did show up that very same day. The same woman was still on volunteer duty behind the counter.

“She said the ship was just what she was looking for.”

This customer was not buying the pirate ship as a toy. Instead she wanted it as a receptacle for ashes for a deceased relative, who had been very fond of the sea. It was her intention to place these ashes in the pirate ship and launch it out into the ocean from a rocky headland near her home.

“You’re joking me,” I said.

Traumatised

She was not joking me. She was still a bit traumatised by the whole thing. She wished now she had tried harder to refuse to accept the child’s toy. “We depend on donations from the public. We have to be polite to all our customers, no matter how difficult they are sometimes. But how do you tell a customer she is being horrible to her child, and you cannot accept the donation?”

So no. The customer is definitely not always right. Sometimes, they are very wrong indeed.

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