The minefield of retail manners

These days, you can't enter a shop without being bombarded by friendly personal questions, or walk down the high street without being accosted by cheery packs of fundraisers. What's going on? And are they being nice, or just faking it?
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The Independent Online

Ten days ago, on the way to a meeting in central London, I remembered that I was running low on moisturiser. There was a Body Shop across the road so I wove through the traffic, darted in, grabbed a jar at random, and headed over to the counter.

"Having a good day?" asked the girl at the till, raising her eyes to mine, beaming blissfully.

"Um, yes, thanks," I replied.

"That's great!" She ran the scanner over the jar, and made eye contact again.

"Been shopping all morning?"

Not having the time to take her through my diary, I made a vaguely affirmative coughing noise.

"Yeah? Lovely! Lucky you!" She told me the total, and as I keyed in my PIN, she said, "So, what have you got planned for the afternoon?"

"Oh, you know," I said, forcing a dry smile, aware of time ticking on. "This and that. Stuff."

I took the bag and as I hurried on my way I found myself thinking about the girl, the smile, the questions, the barrage of niceness to which I'd just been subjected. Was this normal? Had we met before? Was she - nah, she can't have been - hitting on me?

And why did it make me feel so bad? Was I a churl for not chatting back? Or was this sort of rather pushy friendliness every bit as rude, in its way, as scowling and chucking my change down on the counter? I was reminded of this after the meeting, when I met a newish friend for lunch at All Bar One. I had the fishcakes. They were perfectly disgusting.

"Everything all right with your meal?" asked the waitress, leaning over the table like a ship's figurehead breasting the waves, interrupting our conversation with a happily expectant grin.

"Fine," I said. What could I say? No, the fishcakes weren't hot, and they weren't even slightly crispy on the outside, and there was way too much spring onion in them, and the mayonnaise was the consistency of a petroleum by-product? I didn't want to get into all of this, I didn't have time, and anyway, it might have made my new friend, who had suggested the venue, uncomfortable. So I shook my head when the waitress asked if we needed anything else, and she went away smilingly. And of course, when we wanted to settle the bill, she was nowhere to be seen, and it was impossible to get anyone's attention for a good seven minutes.

On the way home later that afternoon, on a bus filled with the steam of strangers' chips, as teenaged boys slumped in their seats affecting not to notice the pregnant women strap-hanging in front of them and the playlists of multiple MP3 players spilled with tinny persistence out of earphones, I thought about manners. As a society, we do not take manners, by which I suppose I mean the fleeting consideration of strangers, very seriously.

If you are approaching a bank or a department store, you can depend on someone just ahead of you to let go of the doors so that they fall back heavily into your face. Middle-aged men swing their sports cars into disabled spaces. Schoolgirls clog up buggy-bays. At the end of a long day punctuated with queue-jumpers and people spitting openly on the pavement, you close the front door with a sigh of relief. You listen to shouty panel discussions on Radio 4 while cooking supper, and then slump on the sofa to eat it, while Sir Alan Sugar, Trinny and Susannah and f Simon Cowell tell people that they're lightweight wankers, appalling dressers, and altogether lacking in talent. The evening's viewing is interrupted from time to time by the telephone: so-called "courtesy calls" from Indian call centres, which we curtail as viciously as we can. Welcome to everyday life in Rude Britannia.

And yet, it's obvious on the high street that Fake Nice, as practised by my Body Shop cashier and the waitress, is in the ascendant too. It has become a highly overused marketing weapon, and more of us are finding it a turn-off. My mother changed hairdressers because her stylist started kissing her when she arrived for her appointments. "I could see it coming, and I hated it. He couldn't have had any 'embracing' feelings towards me, could he? Ridiculous. I stopped going in the end because it annoyed me so much."

At least they'd had a sustained relationship. Now you can't wander vaguely into Gap or Lush without some perky person popping up and saying, "Hi! Need any help today?" Queuing at Tesco is a matter of answering the cashier's "Still raining?" without betraying the fact that you heard them ask someone else this very question two minutes earlier. Call me a miserable old moo, but I'm not stupid. I know what these people want, and they don't want to be my friend; they want my money.

"We are definitely aware this is happening," says Jan Walsh, of the Consumer Analysis Group. "High-street stores are very aware of the competition of online shopping which is why they're now going to the other extreme. They're making it very clear to customers that if they go into an actual building to buy their things, there is an added incentive: face-to-face interaction of a pleasant, friendly nature. But stores are also playing it up for the best reason in the book, which is to build loyalty. If the assistant makes eye contact or treats you as a friend, as opposed to a customer, there's a proven psychological effect: the customer then feels wanted and needed, and the shop becomes home territory. All the psychological studies that have been done into loyalty have shown that if customers are made to feel that the store is familiar territory, part of their orbit, they will return to it."

According to Cathrine Jansson, consumer psychologist and senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, the situation isn't quite as straightforward as it might appear. "Researchers are increasingly suggesting that this sales technique could be one of the reasons why retail sales figures aren't as good as they should be. There are constant reports that we're not buying as much stuff as we did a year ago, and people are suggesting that [Fake Nice] could be one of the reasons."

Shaun Smith, co-author of See, Feel, Think, Do: The Power of Instinct in Business, believes that the problems come when stores underestimate their customers and overestimate their sales staff. "Companies are realising that interaction is important, so they need to train people to be nice, but often they end up churning out insincere robots. You get all the right words, but the meaning is lacking. You know the salesperson really doesn't give a shit about you at all, it's just that someone has told them that by addressing you on a personal level, they'll get a response. There are some organisations that understand this and they're able to appoint people who are genuinely interested in their customers. And that shows."

It strikes me that in some circumstances, this upfront, personal style of salesmanship actually benefits sales staff (who aren't cheap to train and retain) at the expense of customers. Unlike France or Italy, the UK is traditionally ill at ease with the culture of service. And you could argue that it's less demeaning to be in sales if you're encouraged to be chummy with the people to whom you are selling. Smith thinks this argument holds some water. "The trouble in the UK is that we often confuse service with servility. Ingrained into our culture is a reluctance to be subservient."

He singles out Pret A Manger as a retailer where the intimacy/efficiency balance is about right. "Pret gives its staff a lot of technical training, but not a lot of service training. What they say is: 'Say something as the customer approaches, say something as you serve them, and say something when they leave you. What you say is up to you.' And by employing the right people, and allowing them to bring their personalities to work, you end up with a much better level of service."

Experimentally, and because I fancy an avocado wrap, I go on a sandwich safari to Pret the next day. It's true. Something different is going on here. It's very quick and streamlined, but the sales staff, who maintain eye contact as much as possible, do not forfeit efficiency for pleasantries; they only chat about the purchase at hand, and do so while continuing to ring stuff through the till. In short, the experience is attentive without being creepy. The wrap is good too. Not enough root veg in the root veg crisps, but hey, you can't have everything.

I eat and leave, in a pretty good humour, only to be greeted - "Hey there! What's your name?" - by the irrepressible chirpiness of that high priest of Fake Nice, the charity street fundraiser (more commonly known as the "chugger", or charity mugger). As I walk past, shaking my head, my mood switches down several gears. Suddenly, simply because I don't have five minutes to spare on a blowy bit of pavement, I feel conscious that I am a Bad Person. Being forced to rebuff the chugger's effervescent Fake Nice approach has left me full of guilt and sour self-loathing and, consequently, resentment.

Hacked off, I keep walking. Oh no, I can't believe it, another sunshine-yellow tabard is looming up in front of me.

"Hiya!" she says.

OK. That's it. I've had enough. I slow down, give her my best smile. "Hiya!" I reply. Instantly, she tenses up. Her smile cools. I stop and explain that I'm writing a piece about what I tactfully term "the friendly sell", and I'm really curious to know what it feels like, to go out in all weathers, with that big shiny grin, and to be knocked back again and again.

"It's OK," she says, shifting uneasily from side to side. "You just have to get into the right mentality."

"And how do you do that?"

She doesn't want to answer me. "Are you prepared to help?" she says, turning abruptly belligerent.

"But hang on, I thought I was asking you for help."

"Look," she says, backing away, gesturing at the empty pavement. "I'm busy, OK? I have to talk to these people."

I get it. I'm getting the brush off from a chugger.

A few days later, after much tortuous communication, I get the nod to accompany a team of street fundraisers (they are all quite visibly distressed by the word "chugger") from Amnesty International as they try their luck at Ealing Broadway, in west London. Liam is 25, a lively, bearlike geology student from Adelaide. He has been a street fundraiser for 15 months. Yesterday, he went 90 minutes in an office district in central London without anyone f stopping: "I can understand most of the people in London are busy, but when they refuse to acknowledge you, that's very frustrating." Today, in the friendly suburban atmosphere of Ealing, his strike rate is much better. I spend a couple of hours with him, and though he doesn't persuade anyone to sign up (he gets paid £7.50 per hour as long as he fulfills the target of three sign-ups a day) he doesn't go more than a few minutes without someone slowing down and submitting cordially to his spiel. And boy, does he give it some welly.

"All right ladies! We'll have to make this quick, I've got to get to a meeting!"

And: "I'm putting the weapon down, I just want to talk to you!"

And: "Oh my God, you're that friendly person I heard was coming!"

He does this for hours on end. Every so often you see him making little prancing leaps on the pavement, flexing his shoulders, geeing himself up; a boxer in training.

So, Liam, how do you do it? How do you keep smiling when no one will stop? Even more pertinently, how do you keep smiling when someone you've spent 15 minutes with walks off saying they've left their wallet at home?

Liam says he keeps going because a) he really believes in Amnesty's work, and b) "the more people who pass you, the closer you get to the person who will stop".

And what about if you've woken up in a crap mood? How can you go out and weather the inertia, the insults, the rain and wind, if you've got something serious on your mind?

"What, if I've had an argument with my girlfriend? During the time I've been doing this, I've realised that you can't change anything when you're out on the street. So when you go out to work, there's no point in worrying about it. You put it out of your mind. The problems I'm solving at work are greater than my problems anyway." I ask Liam whether he would say that most charity fundraisers are insanely optimistic. He thinks so, probably. "Yeah. I'd say we're people who consider the glass to be half full, rather than half empty."

And what about the fact that the vast majority of people will feel worse about themselves as soon as they glimpse a fundraiser further down the street?

Liam's OK with that, too. "When people feel bad about saying no - well, that just means people are good, doesn't it?"

Just recently, I found myself back at the store where it all started: that central London branch of Body Shop. I have to get a present for a friend, and in any case, I'm interested to see whether Scary Friendly Girl is doing a shift. Ah, there she is, at the till, giving it lots of oomph and sparkle. I select some eye balm and almond hand cream and drop them on the counter in front of her. She looks up, gives me a look like the one Jenny Agutter gives her daddy at the end of The Railway Children, and I submit to the overwhelming power of her interest and affection. I'm not in a hurry this time, and the experience is not at all unpleasant.

When I get home, I check my bill. There's one £5 item that doesn't ring any bells. I go through the green carrier bag, and find nothing to explain it, so I pick up the phone and call the store. I'm told that I purchased something called a Love Your Body card that entitles me to all sorts of extra perks and beautifying treats.

But no one asked if I wanted to buy it, I say.

"Are you absolutely sure?" the manager asks.

I think about it. I remember the soporific feeling of being buried under a soft, tumbling volley of pink marshmallows. I recall zoning out a little. No, actually, I'm not sure, after all. E

Fake Nice: The lexicon of love

WHAT THEY SAY

Hello, are you having a good day there, guys?

WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN

My company insists a personal greeting like this encourages sales

WHAT THEY SAY

You look like a nice person, sir. Do you have a moment for homeless children?

WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN

Do you have half an hour to listen to a pitch I've recited 500 times already this week?

WHAT THEY SAY

Hiya. Is there anything I can help you with today, madam?

WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN

Please talk to me - my managers are watching on the security camera

WHAT THEY SAY

There's a special store-wide discount available, but only for today!

WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN

If you spend over £75 and let us have your e-mail address, we can send you loads of promotional spam

WHAT THEY SAY

Would you like a free makeover at our beauty counter, madam?

WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN

Then I can mention, just in passing, that your skin is looking tired, and we've got this killer cream for bags under the eyes

WHAT THEY SAY

Great choice, sir. Those trousers are sooo you!

WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN

Come on, big fella, it's commission time!

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