Selling Point

The Oprah Winfrey-Swiss salesgirl episode says stores need to change their attitudes towards the ‘superior shopping experience’ they promise

Published: August 14, 2013 12:14 am

Poor Oprah Winfrey. In Switzerland for Tina Turner’s wedding,she thought she’d step out for a little shopping. Instead,at Zurich’s chichi Trois Pommes boutique,she was rudely turned away by the salesgirl. Winfrey says she was not shown a handbag she coveted by the assistant because it may have been too expensive and the girl didn’t want to “hurt her feelings”. Winfrey stepped out only to pronounce the incident racist on her show and also wince in the fact that she,the goddess of chat shows,went unrecognised in Europe.

Being treated rudely by the staff at luxury stores is something we have all experienced,regardless of our skin tone. It brings to mind Julia Roberts’ famous interlude at a Rodeo Drive store in Pretty Woman.

For all the “superior shopping experience” luxury stores promise us,the truth is far from it. Shoddy service is one of the luxury industry’s biggest bugaboos. Companies spend a small fortune training their staff to “be the brand” and read customers accurately. But “snob value” is a sword that swings both ways.

Many of us have been treated like blue-chip royalty at high-end stores in India,and also abroad. The thing about good service is that it’s largely culture-specific. I personally feel the French excel at it: not only do they love stylish things,they are such elegant conversationalists. They greet everyone with a Bonjour — something they are forced to do as toddlers. If it is responded to with just a smile as many foreigners are wont to do,well,that’s considered rude instead.

The Italians are the ones that I don’t love. I’ve never enjoyed good service at a Prada store in Italy or anywhere else,as much as I adore its goodies. I don’t recall being welcomed here by anyone other than the doorman,and I usually have to call upon someone to be served. I’ve signed off the manners of Italian sales staff as nonchalant: buying beautiful leather is akin to buying a fresh baked ciabatta on your way home — not a big deal.

The Americans are casual and eager,commissions are fat here. The Spanish are probably cursing you under their breath for walking into their shop and making them work. And the Asians try too hard.

But they all have weak moments,personal prejudices or are just plain tired from all the smiling. This is something companies can ill-afford these days,especially with serious expansion plans. Stores are also developing online shopping to curb store costs. It’s wiser to have one or two well-managed and full-stocked flagship stores instead.

Many European stores are teaching their staff Mandarin. In India,shop assistants are encouraged to break into Hindi or the local language. After all,the lady in a sari often spends more than the one in stilettos. The new rich call for new rules.

namratanow@gmail.com

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