Can I help you find anything?

I currently reside in West Hollywood, California, where the streets are lined with gay bars and coffee shops, and there is very little to be found in terms of a deli or bodega or grocery store. But when we moved to this neighborhood I knew this would be okay, because there was a supermarket within walking distance, Pavillions, an upscale branch of the Von’s chain. This soon became my regular store, and it was actual pretty great in terms of selection of items, freshness of produce, and price. A pretty good deal, you say?

Except for one thing.

Upon entering the store, a clerk would inevitably look up and ask me “Can I help you find anything?” I would politely refuse, get my cart, and attempt to navigate around the huge display of canned sodas where another clerk would be waiting for me, and ask again, “Can I help you find anything?” To which I would smile and nod and proceed down bread aisle, only to meet another clerk coming my way who would stop and…you get the picture. Every single employee, without fail, would ask me the same question. This sometimes added up to eight or twelve people, in a single visit. No matter how fast I raced my cart through the aisles, no matter what amount of purpose I fixed in my gaze, there was no way to escape the helpful minions of this particular Von’s.

Now, it will probably take someone who’s spent a little time in New York to fully appreciate why I found this “helpfullness” so irksome.  I knew intellectually that it wasn’t meant as a personal affront, that it was merely a customer service directive that had been passed down to these people, who were just doing their jobs. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was being asked if I was an idiot. Did I look like someone who didn’t know how to choose a brand of peanut butter? Who didn’t know how to read the signs and navigate the aisles?

Each time I was asked if I needed help a little bit of rage would start to boil up inside of me. It got so bad I started to fantasize about putting a sign on my shirt before entering the store, asking them not to ask me. I put headphones on and listened to loud music, hoping that this might get them to stop. But there was just no way to put an end to it. I finally decided that the irrational anger I was carrying was completely destroying my grocery store experience, and started driving a few blocks out of my way to go to the Ralphs, where the prices were a little higher and the produce a little less fresh, but at least the store clerks would let me shop in peace.

Then today I was running a little late, so I decided to stop at the Pavillions for the first time in months. The store had a huge banner in front announcing its closing on September 12, the building to be demolished and a new one built in its place. A huge sale was announced starting this Wednesday, everything 50% off for the rest of the week.

As I walked into the store, I noticed that they’d already started to take things apart. All of the annoying displays that caused traffic problems among the customers had been removed, so the aisles were suddenly wide and easy to navigate. The toiletry items and other non-perishables were drastically reduced in price, making Ralph’s look like a Gelson’s in comparison. And the store clerks? They looked sullen and depressed, no reason to impress with only a few days left on the job. Not a single one of them asked if they could help me find anything.

Now that’s a grocery store that I would shop at all the time.

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2 thoughts on “Can I help you find anything?

  1. Derek says:

    I would only add that the “Can I help you find anything?” might be someone’s idea of “helpfulness,” but it can also be seen as a subtle way of enforcing certain behaviour in the store: Discouraging shoplifting by making sure people realize they are being watched; discouraging the presence of people who would choose other forms of social interaction (or non-interaction). You imply that it was a customer service strategy that failed, but perhaps it was also a security/customer control strategy that was way too successful!

  2. ruthmckee says:

    Fascinating. I hadn’t thought of it as a security measure at all! My thinking was based on my experiences working at Borders in San Diego one summer. There were all kinds of customer service directives that we had to follow whether we thought they were “helpful” or not – with constant threats of secret shoppers who might catch us not following the rules. And 90% of their security seemed to be aimed at us – they were much more concerned about employees stealing than customers.

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