At home in the States I did a lot of online shopping. The sales were better, they always had my size and I could try on everything without that fun house mirror in the dressing room assaulting my eyeballs. This also meant however, that I was a serial returner. As in, there were times I could be mistaken for UPS.
Since moving to France I have returned one item. One. One item in over a year and a half. And I remember exactly what it was- black pants from Zara with tags and receipt and an incredibly apologetic look on my face.
Assistance is a conscious decision in Paris, unlike back home where their job and tips depend on it. So they must and so they will and so they can, plaster a smile on their face all day and ask if there’s anything else they can help you with no matter what. Here, they won’t be fired. It’s that simple. A person can help you or not help you, but either way they’re keeping their job.
Customer service in Pars is a privilege. You must earn it by walking through the fiery droves of Hell and fending off saber toothed tigers with your baguette. Or at least that’s what it feels like sometimes.
So if you find yourself at Galleries Lafayette or just the local supermarché, here are some helpful hints to ensure you ‘blend, not offend.’ (side note: I just made that up but you should write it down. That shit’s gold)
1. Do not, under any circumstance, interrupt a personal call or conversation that the sales person is having.
2. Do not wear anything that would in any way offend the sales person. Ahem…sweatshirts, track shoes, messy bed hair that is unintentional. Basically, look French.
3. Prepare and practice for your interactions. Returning an item? Well first, think it over. If you cannot be swayed, make sure you have a damn good speech ready with no fewer than 5 points and 1 compliment. Hell, make it 2.
4. Find the fine line between I-am-very-important-and-it-is-a-hassle-speaking-with-you-at-this-very-moment and I-am-so-unbearably-sorry-to-bother-you-but-if-you-have-the-time-and-it-wouldn’t-be-too-much-of-an-inconvenience-I’d-love-to-have-your-attention-for-just-a-sec, and glue yourself to it. Don’t forget that smiling uncontrollably is a dead giveaway that you’re an American. So is crying in the fetal position on the floor.
5. If the sales people will not help you or if they direct you to another department (such as the gardening floor despite your request for a size 38 in those gorgeous leather flats), give up and try again tomorrow. Seriously. Just grab a croissant on your way home and rethink the whole thing.
It’s a game. A game in which no only means no for like the first five times. Then, if you play your cards right, it could mean ‘probably not’ and eventually even ‘maybe’.
But it’s also a matter of pride. Most people in Paris will go above and beyond if you win them over, be it with compliments, bribery or your continued presence day in, day out. Take for example at the pâtisserie, where each item is carefully wrapped and placed inside a delicate box, with perhaps an extra chocolate thrown in for being such a great customer. At the market, where your friendly neighborhood fruit stand will give you the best of the bunch once he knows he’ll see you next week without fail. At the boulangerie, where finding a baguette bien cuit is no problem despite the line out the door, and while you’re here “comment ça va?”
I suppose it’s something we don’t understand in the same way that the French don’t get how people in America say “How are you?” and keep walking. Like a “hi” without giving a shit about the answer. Their confusion is completely understandable considering this is a country where you don’t pay for gum without at least a bonjour and bonsoir madame.
So while I may miss those super happy overly helpful American salespeople when I go to buy a shirt, I know now how to approach the situation here (groveling). And at least I know when I’m asked how I’m doing they’ll mean it and stick around for the answer.
If none of this appeals to you, there is of course the tried and true #Murica response to poor customer service: