Your custom is very important to us, please hold the line

Something very bizzare happened to me the other day.  I went into a shop in a Barrow-in-Furness to buy some curtain clips and the conversation went like this:

Ben: do you have any of those clips that you hook onto curtain hooks and clip onto a piece of cloth?

Shop lady: no, sorry, we don’t

Ben: ok, thanks

Shop lady:…

Ben (thinks): What? Why’s she still talking to me? She doesn’t have what I want – I’m outta here…

Shop lady:… You could try James’s Hardware opposite, or Johnstons in the High Street.  Or Joan in the market.

At the risk of chanelling my grandmother, it’s been years since I’ve had that sort of conversation without prompting, the sort where someone in a shop engages with your problem and tries to help you solve it, just because you are both human. So long that I’ve given up prompting it.

Earlier in the autumn I was getting prints of some wedding photographs from the photographer in Orkney and the conversation went like this:

Ben: I dropped by the website on Saturday and asked for some framed prints; I left my number but I’d not heard from you…?

Ken: Yes, we’re just framing them now.

Ben: Oh, er, that’s great.  What about payment? I’ve got my card…

Ken: Don’t worry about that. We’ll get them in the post tonight and put an invoice in with them.

It’s got to be 10 years at least since someone offering their services online has done that for me, rather than demanding money up front.



  • Is it that chains and franchises dehumanise the people who work for them while driving out the small traders like the curtain shop in Barrow and Orkney Photographic?
  • Is it that encroaching urbanisation is speeding up the way of life in and destroying good manners in our county and market towns?
  • Is it that web-based transactions are mechanising and anonymising how we buy things, and having a normative effect on how we behave when dealing with others?
  • Is it that I am indeed turning into my grandmother?
  • Is it all of the above?

14 responses to “Your custom is very important to us, please hold the line

  1. I had a rather funny incident a few days ago where I live. I popped into a small shop near home.

    Me: Can I have some Fusion Rasorblades please.

    Shopkeeper: These ones? Are you sure? They are very expensive.

    Me: How expensive?

    Shopkeeper: 16 euros 50. I’m sure you can get them cheaper in the Boots shop downtown.

    Me: Well, ok then. Thanks for your help.

    Now beat that.. 🙂

  2. I sometimes tried to offer alternative sources when I worked at Borders. Mostly I assumed people either knew about Waterstones or would ask, but I’d suggest the two Christian bookshops if appropriate. I once got asked for the board game Settlers of Catan (which we had occasionally sold but didn’t have at the time) and immediately offered directions to Travelling Man.

  3. I remember getting my first commercial job – one of the question in the final interview was about what to tell a customer if we didn’t have what he wanted. Apparently my answer to direct him to someone who might have it was seen as right 🙂 And I mean why not – you can’t lose any sales and you might get another opportunity because the good service is remembered.

    Is the in-term for that “win-win”? 😉

    I’ll refrain from commenting on the decline of manners (text box way to small 😉 but just agree that it is sad that good service like that stands out so much.

    • I think you’ve put your finger on it, Santra – “you might get another opportunity because the good service is remembered”. This is true in smaller towns where relationships can build up between shop-keepers and shoppers; but those sorts of relationships don’t really build up in any town larger than a market town, or any national chain of shops. every transaction feels transitory these days. Even in the small town that I shop in, I really only recognise a couple of people in the national chains like B&Q and Sainsburys.

      We should ask Bagpuss how many regulars he got to know in Boarders.

      Interesting point, Santra.



  4. I’ve had a few conversations with shop staff along those lines Ben, down here in home counties commuterville. Happens more often in my village, but also in town too.

    The photographer who did us a family portrait sent the photos along with an invoice so maybe this just isn’t unusual, at least in the snapper’s line. More surprising was the kid’s shoes website that sent me two pairs in the next size up after some discussion on the fact that some brands come up small, before I’d returned the wrong sized ones.

  5. kelli has unfortunately preemptively shot down what was going to be my observation: that until relatively recently most of your customer services experiences have probably been “down south”, where the encroachment of franchises etc. is more advanced, and that both your positive experiences have been north even of my home town. I nevertheless maintain that, north of some vague line somewhere through Shropshire, I’m surprised when shop workers aren’t friendly, personable human beings, and south of that line I’m surprised when they are. Both things happen, but they’re exceptions.

    An incidental: went to the Sandcastle in Blackpool a couple of weeks ago. I sent a letter to the manager as a result of the customer service there. I can think of no more descriptive term to use than “American”. Every single member of staff we encountered, without exception, was cheerful, courteous, solicitous and helpful, asking if we were having a good day, anticipating issues and solving them. To a reserved Brit (especially a reserved Brit in his swimming trunks) it bordered on spooky, in the sense that one felt that they must surely be behaving like that because they’re being filmed or something, they can’t possibly be being like that just because it’s their job…

    • Well, I’ve lived in West Yorkshire for 5 years, now, SoRB, though Gloucestershire is turning into Surrey-on-the-Wold. But Kelli’s point is interesting and well made. Though as she implies and Sol says children are the greatest ice-breaker of all.



  6. I find that people are much more helpful in that kind of why now I have my son in tow. Of course, he’s usually softened them up for my by grinning madly at them, but still. Mind you, we are shopping at different times of the day and such than I would have done previously.

    I once went from Moscow to Los Angeles and back again. Now that was a scary experience in different shop assistent interaciton culture.

  7. Sorry, not Los Angeles. Las Vegas. You’d think I’d know the difference.

    • The Moscow-Vegas culture-shock would be astonishing Sol.

      Do tell!


      • Actually the weirdest thing was that I was there with British people (straight from Britain) and they were all complaining about the overfirendliness of the Americans they were meeting. Well, I say meeting but actually I mean sharing a lift with and such. Thing is, it had been about 2 years at that point since I’d been in an English speaking country even for a holiday, and so I was also that person striking up random conversations with all and sundrey with the slightest provocation.

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