In America I have seen crazed shoppers with Mastercard eyes tear clothing from each other’s hands like rabid animals. Over-weight, over-paid women fighting each other for the privilege of buying $200 pants for $20. You’d think that killing someone over a price difference like that would be legal in America, but apparently the law hasn’t yet been passed. Working at the outlet sales, I’d always hoped I’d see a fist fight or someone pull a shotgun out of an over-sized designer handbag, but I never got to see so much as a bitch slap. Afraid of losing too much face, the customers would restrain themselves to backhanded insults and hateful glances.
Then I moved to Germany. Here, retail shopping is a blood sport.
Retail clerks, not actually obligated to wait on you, tend to treat customers much better than their waitress cousins. In retail stores, it’s not the employees you have to worry about, it’s the other customers. The clerks ignore the shoppers while the shoppers jostle each other out of the way, grab clothing from under each others’ noses, and cut each other in the dressing room lines every chance they get.
At first I thought I’d just had the bad luck of running into the rudest people in the country all in one day. Then it all happened again. And again. And again. And I started to think that maybe it was just normal. There’s certainly a distinct difference in regard for personal space here. That is, there is no regard for personal space. Try walking down a busy shopping street (like, for example, the Zeil in Frankfurt am Main). In America, it’d be considered impolite to jostle a clumsy shopper or a slow pedestrian. Many Germans would agree. But not the shoppers buzzing through Germany’s highly populated shopping districts. There jostling is not only normal, it’s expected, and, once you embrace it, a great way to take out aggression on a Saturday afternoon.
I once had a student who worked in high-end retail. Department stores, then designer jeans, then onto high-priced Italian luggage. He was sweet and witty and flamingly homosexual. We would commiserate about rude customers over cups of coffee and call it an English lesson. His name was Danny.
In German, he told me one morning, they don’t say that the customer is always right, they say that the customer is king. An appropriate metaphor seeing as “the customer” is almost never actually right and often behaves like a moody monarch on a power trip.
Once during his designer jeans days, a customer came in and demanded that Danny take back a pair of pants clearly marked nonreturnable. Danny told him that he was very very sorry, but that it wasn’t going to happen.
“I want to speak to the manager!” the customer shouted.
“I am the manager,” Danny replied calmly.
“But the customer is king!” came the arrogant response.
“Yes, and I’m the queen, and you’re not returning those pants.”