Saturday, December 23, 2006
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
There are precisely three places left in Philadelphia where you can buy panty hose, the kind that comes in decent hues, as opposed to "Dijon Mustard," and doesn't feel like Brillo coiled around one's thighs.
Panty hose is a vast conspiracy to keep its wearers subservient to Lycra, and somewhere, someone knows precisely how to fix the crisis but has the solution stashed in a safe-deposit box. I always picture him living somewhere in the Detroit suburbs, but that's just me.
Anyway, I go to one of those emporiums to buy panty hose, wait in an interminable queue that resembles a Soviet-bloc breadline but, you know, without the joy. When I'm finally granted an audience with the lone salesclerk, who's extending all the helpfulness of Princess Stephanie of Monaco, she starts yelling, "Marie! Marie! It's time for my lunch break!"
This is what passes for service in America.
I should have voted with my feet at that moment. That's what everyone should do when treated like an old dog — though, come to think of it, old dogs are treated far better.
Anyway, as I pointed out earlier, there are only three places in the entire city that sell decent hose, so I stay put and coddle the clerk, putting far more effort and charm into the exchange, in order to put off her lunch a tad longer.
Our roles have reversed. I've become the service provider and she, the challenging customer, though I'm the one who's paying.
Here's the trick about shopping: It can be a pleasure, a delightful diversion, provided you don't need anything. That is why shopping for shoes is so much fun, while shopping for bathroom cleanser is, for lack of a better word, not.
Come this time of year, such distinctions wither. You must shop. It's decreed by law or something. Without December shopping, America would crumble into the sea and, as the president likes to say, the terrorists would win.
Service, though, is in decline everywhere and seems to affect virtually everyone except those rich enough to get someone else to provide services for them.
A young friend was grilled by the staff of a stylish boutique, the kind where you pay higher prices for allegedly better service. They wanted to make sure she understood about the higher prices while, as it turns out, neglecting to provide the service. This seems to smack directly in the face of logic, given that most designer clothes are created with a 20-year-old's body in mind, though not necessarily her wallet. This is the inherent problem with fashion: The income always needs to be three decades older than the wearer.
We went to a praised boite where appetizers arrived seconds after our cocktails and the bill appeared without our asking, which is absolutely verboten in the trade. The next day, I phoned to complain. I was raised not to complain, that is not directly to the person you're complaining about, but that was when there was better service, or true service, and less reason to do so.
The manager apologized about the bill, but informed me that the chef serves appetizers whenever he sees fit, and that this policy was unlikely to change. I realize that some chefs have long modeled their winning kitchen behavior after Stalin. Now, apparently, such grace is being extended to the dining room.
This time, as the city offers more than three establishments that serve food, we were able to vote with our feet. We will not be returning.
Nobody should pay for abuse, unless you're into that stuff. Smaller, local businesses tend to care more about keeping customers and creating community. If that isn't the case, walk out the door and find someone who cares. It's your money. It's your time. Service providers should put some attention into winning both.
Once in a while, you'll get a sales associate in a mega store in a huge chain who's not earning commission and he'll still do something as radical as help. When this happens, it's amazing how novel the feeling is. It's not quite like young love or winning the lottery, but it's almost as beautiful and rare.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Karen Heller is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at the Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or send e-mail to email@example.com.
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