Abuse, harassment, aggression, shouting, yelling, screaming, degradation and dehumanization.
These are but a few of the terms one can use to describe a shopping experience at a large number of the stores in our neighborhood.
This behavior would come as an utter shock to anyone in the outside world where such treatment is deemed absolutely unacceptable. It would result in consumers no longer patronizing such merchants, and the eventual downfall of the business in question.
A free market in our capitalist society means that anyone is free to start any business they would like, and earn as much money as they can. Capitalism also allows – and in some cases requires – competition. In fact, there are laws against one company having a monopoly over any industry.
The way merchants stay a step ahead of their competition, is by offering something different or better. They may offer such incentives as lower prices, higher quality merchandise, better customer service, convenient location, convenient hours, and so on.
Should a merchant fail to try pleasing potential customers by offering pleasant service, quality merchandise and reasonable prices, that business will inevitably fail, as consumers will patronize the competitors who do offer such basic incentives.
It seems, however, that the memo has not reached many of the long-time Crown Heights merchants who are, seemingly, convinced that they are doing customers a favor by selling to them.
As far back as I can remember, I was always afraid when sent as a child to eat out or shop for groceries. If I dropped something in a store, the store owner would shout at me, publicly shame me, and force me to clean up the mess. If I didn’t move to the counter fast enough or articulate my order quickly, I would either be scolded or would be passed over for the next customer in line. The cardinal sin was if my order was made wrong, in which case I would be blamed for not being clear enough when describing what I wanted. Eventually, I was so afraid to open my mouth and would simply take my order as-is, rather than open my mouth and be publicly insulted.
And G-d forbid you even attempt to return a defective or unsatisfactory item. The policy has always been that once you paid for something it was too late, even if the item was defective. Words like “refund”, “return policy” and “exchange” were never in these merchants’ vocabularies.
The following are some first-hand examples that I have either witnessed or experienced recently:
While shopping for Pesach, I noted that one merchant was yelling continuously at both customers and employees from before I entered the store and continuing after I left.
In a different store, one customer was told to “get that wet umbrella out of my store” and the other to “move your stroller out of the way, lady!”
While waiting in line at yet another store, I watched as the store’s owner shouted at each customer to speak up, move faster, or blaming them for a mixed-up order. In that case, I was proud of one customer who, when shouted at aggressively stood up for himself, telling the merchant, “you don’t yell at paying customers”, after which he promptly exited the store.
The other day I waited in line at a local store, and watched as a child stuttered while detailing his order. “I don’t have time for people who are not ready with their order,” the counterperson yelled, then shouted, “next!”, and moved on to the next customer.
I decided to leave the store and try a different store nearby. The owner at the other store was equally loud, hasty, and impolite. Regardless, I stayed, until I noticed a customer who, instead of blurting out his order as everyone else had already been trained to do, dared ask about a price and what was included in a certain item. Once again, he was met with a barrage of insults about how he was holding up the line and wasting everyone’s time, and was told to “come back when you know what you want.”
It goes without saying that if any other store anywhere else were to treat its customers this way, they are guaranteed to be out of business in no time. If businesses such as Macy’s, Bloomingdales and JetBlue would insult and disrespect their customers, their customers would patronize their competition, resulting is loss of sales and revenue.
Such businesses have a track record of treating each and every customer as if they were their only customer, providing pleasant service and respect. A customer spending twenty dollars is given equal time as a customer spending thousands of dollars. That’s why they are around for as long as they are, and are as successful as they are.
The only positive shopping experiences I can remember were in other neighborhoods or in non-Jewish stores.
In a large chain supermarket, I witnessed a child pull a jar of marinara sauce off of a shelf, causing it to land on the floor and crack, leaving shards of glass and sauce spread throughout the aisle.
A manager quickly approached, apologized to the parent, and kindly asked them to leave the aisle, allowing him a few minutes to have the mess cleaned up. Moments later, I could hear “clean-up in aisle 4” over the loudspeaker. An employee arrived with a mop, cleaned up the mess, and then allowed customers to resume shopping – all without making a scene or causing the mother or child to feel ashamed about the incident.
I placed an order in a Jewish store in a different neighborhood. I had wanted my order in a specific way, but when I received my order it was not prepared the way I had wished. I did not recall whether I had made the mistake while making the order, or if the counterperson was at fault. It didn’t matter. I was the paying customer. He apologized for the mix-up and promptly made the order the way I liked it and handed it to me with a smile.
So why does this insanity continue to ensue, and why do merchants continue to berate and degrade their customers this way and get away with it?
The answer is simple: because they can.
So long as this mistreatment of customers does not affect their bottom line – their cash flow – there is nothing forcing it to stop. If a merchant can treat his customers like dirt yet still have constant long lines, it follows that he will continue such behavior. If, however, they were to see a decrease in business because people were fed up with such treatment, it would, perhaps, force them to reevaluate their behavior and begin to improve their customer service to woo customers back to their establishment.
Why is it, then, that residents continue to flock to such stores when they would never do so had they been mistreated or seen others mistreated anywhere else?
The simple answer is that it is a matter of convenience. Local residents continue to tolerate this disrespectful treatment the way they do, simply because they feel that they have no other options. It is much easier to quickly run to a local store to do their grocery shopping, or to take their children to a local eatery for supper.
In some instances, it is because the store in question is the only one of its type in the community, which is an issue by itself for another time.
So consumers continue to patronize local merchants. Merchants who are disrespectful to their customers continue to get away with it. And so the cycle continues.
But there are some glimmers of hope on the horizon.
Firstly, there are a number of long-time Crown Heights merchants who do know how to treat their customers. They understand that many Crown Heightsers no longer have the small-minded mentality of old that virtually guaranteed unwavering loyalty to local stores. Today’s Crown Heights consumer is open-minded and knowledgeable. They know that they have options and are not afraid to use them. They know that there is are competitors – be they in or out of the community – who will treat them the way they deserve to be treated in an attempt to attract and maintain their business and earn a positive reputation.
There is a furniture store whose owner treats her customers with due respect despite being overwhelmed at times. She understands that people can take their business elsewhere, and maintains a positive relationship with her customers via service, easy returns and exchanges, low prices, and quality merchandise. These traits have earned her return customers and excellent word-of-mouth referrals.
There is a drycleaners where they make a point of referring to each customer by name, offers prompt service, and a pleasant experience.
These are but a few examples of merchants who understand that they have competitors and that customers have options. If they fill their customers’ needs, then they get their business. If they don’t please their customers, then they as well as their family and friends will patronize a competitor who does.
Secondly, there has been a trend of younger and more modern establishments opening up in Crown Heights, both on Kingston Avenue as well as other areas such as Albany and Troy Avenues. These merchants are more in touch with today’s consumer. They have updated equipment, clean premises and offer pleasant service to ensure customer satisfaction. They, in turn, are rewarded with return customers and a great reputation. For some customers their location may be a bit of a distance, but they, nevertheless, go the distance for better products and service.
Thirdly – and saddest of all – residents are starting to bring their business to other Jewish communities, as well as chain supermarkets and shopping malls. More people than ever have cars now – thanks, in part, to another such customer-friendly merchant who treats his clientele respectfully and offers competitive leasing rates, knowing that he must satisfy consumers who can simply take their business anywhere they wish.
Nearly every time I am at a restaurant in a different community or a shopping mall, I spot residents of Crown Heights who simply went by car, train or car service, and took their business elsewhere. I performed a survey of random individuals, all of whom told me that had they been able to get the same quality food or merchandise, the same competitive price and the same service in Crown Heights, they would have never taken the time to go elsewhere.
In conclusion, change does not take place without the necessity to do so. As long as rude and inconsiderate merchants do not see a dent in their cash flow, they will have no reason or motivation to discover their faults and change. The cycle will continue – they will disrespect their consumers, who will continue to patronize them, and who will continue to be mistreated, and so it continues…
What we can do is be sure to endorse those merchants – both old and new – that understand their place and vulnerability in the free market, saturated with competition, and who understand your power as a customer to take your business wherever you please. As a last resort, if the service, quality, and prices we desire are not available in Crown Heights, we are more than welcome to take our business to stores in other communities.
It is my sincere hope that this editorial results in the necessary action and the appropriate change, so that we may endorse and support our local businesspeople, while being treated with the service and respect we deserve as consumers.
This Op-Ed reflects the views of its author, who by sending this article in anonymously, wished to remain anonymous. It does not necessarily reflect the views of CrownHeights.info nor of its Editors.
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