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HindustanTimes Wed,23 Apr 2014
Spectator: are you being served?
Seema Goswami, Hindustan Times
August 24, 2013
First Published: 15:57 IST(24/8/2013)
Last Updated: 17:09 IST(24/8/2013)

We’ve all been there at one time or another. You walk into a designer store where every item on sale has a stratospheric price tag attached. As you browse through the shop, you realise that a sales assistant is beadily tracking your every move. You ask if you could get a closer look at a certain item on display. Instead of handing it over, he snootily informs you that it costs, say, Rs. 3 lakh.

Technically, of course, he has done nothing wrong. You asked to see an item in his store and he told you its price. But you know exactly what is going on. The sales assistant has weighed you up, calculated the cost of your handbag, your watch, your shoes, and whatever jewellery you are wearing, and decided that this item is definitely not within your budget. Having decided that, he sees no point in wasting time showing it to you. He’s a busy man you know; he can’t be bothered with window shoppers like you.

Now, there are three ways you can deal with this. You can act as if you  didn’t get the subtext of his reply and ask to see the bag anyway. Or you can call him on his rudeness and ask why he felt obliged to tell you the price when you hadn’t asked the question. Or you could just walk out and take your custom to another store where the sales assistants are a tad less snobby and a little more helpful. (Always choose option three.)

Even for Oprah? Oprah Winfrey revealed that on a trip to Switzerland, a sales assistant refused to show her a handbag, saying, “This one is too expensive”

But if you are Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest women in the world and a global media superstar, you could also mention this experience in an interview. You can recount the time you walked into a store in Switzerland – which you are careful not to name – and asked to see a handbag. You reveal your amazement when the sales assistant refused to show it to you, despite your repeated requests, and steered you towards some cheaper bags instead. “This one,” she said, “is too expensive.”

Of course, being Oprah, you lay this down to the insidious racism that prevails in much of the world; a world which sees a black person as being too poor to afford pricey goodies like these. And because you are Oprah, all hell breaks loose after your interview.

The Swiss Tourism Board offers you an apology on behalf of the whole country and says it’s a shame you were treated that way. The media track down the store in question and the owner is forced to clarify that it was all a huge misunderstanding because the sales assistant’s English is ‘not so good’. The sales assistant herself tearily explains that she is not racist and that she was just trying to explain to Oprah that there were cheaper versions of ‘that’ handbag on sale as well. She adds, for good measure, that she cannot understand why Oprah is making such accusations. “She is so powerful and I am just a shop girl. I don’t understand why someone as great as her would cannibalise me on TV.”

At which point, Oprah backs down, and says that she wishes she had never raised the issue, and she regrets how it has all got so out of hand

All this kerfuffle about being snubbed (or not) in a designer store… I know, it beggars belief, doesn’t it?

You are being watched: As you browse through a shop you realise that a sales assistant is beadily tracking your every move

But while all this sounds very silly indeed, I have to admit that there is something about these fancy-schmancy stores that brings all our insecurities to the fore. I know women – otherwise completely rational human beings – who never venture into these shops unless they have at least one designer item on their person. And when I scoff at them, they regale me with stories of their ritual humiliation in such stores when they don’t quite look the part.

This can take several forms. The sales assistants may studiously ignore you, offering no help at all even if you indicate that you are looking for it. Or they will shadow you assiduously as if they are afraid you will slip an expensive item in your capacious handbag the moment their back is turned. Or they will be unbearably patronising when you ask questions about the merchandise. Or they will resort to that tried-and-tested insult of telling you much a thing costs even before you ask the question.

Speaking for myself, I have noticed that service in such stores dramatically improves if I am carrying an easily identifiable label handbag, or wearing what looks like a designer garment, or even better, an expensive piece of jewellery. I can feel the sales assistants clocking up the value of every item in their internal computer and placing me on that sliding scale of costumer preference. And their disappointment is almost palpable when I leave without buying anything, as if I had somehow tricked them into serving me under false pretenses.

But while this is fun on a slow afternoon, I must confess that I would never ever set foot again in a store where the shop assistants had been snooty and rude. If I’m not good enough for you, then my money most certainly isn’t either.


From HT Brunch, August 25

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