Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Customer Is Never Right

After hearing of our experience in the Movistar shop trying to recharge our phone, our friend Cesar said, "One thing you will learn in Spain - when it comes to shopping, the customer is never right."

I wouldn't describe Spanish retail assistants as rude exactly - indeed, compared with, say, Russian retail assistants, they're sweetness and light. But you do get the distinct impression with most that their attitude towards customers is at best, tolerant and at worst, disinterested.

The sales assistant Jorge flagged down when I was trying to buy my A-Z was a case in point. She made no attempt to disguise the fact that she had much better things to do than serve us and could scarcely contain her disgust when she realised the sale that required so much effort on her part only came to six Euros. Jorge and I both saw the funny side.

Theo, however, is more easily traumatised by unhelpful shop assistants and baffling retail systems. Shopping is a necessary evil, as far as he's concerned and large department stores can give him noticeable allergic reactions. This morning we had all the fun of returning a faulty item to just such a store - and boy, does it add to the fun when you can't speak or understand the language!

In my experience of large stores in the UK (M&S, Ikea, TK Maxx) if you want to return something, you take it up to their customer services counter, queue for a bit then have the exchange or refund dealt with then and there.

Part one of that process is the same at Hipercor in Madrid - Theo explained that the new computer speakers we'd bought the day before weren't working and the assistant dutifully fillled out a piece of paper and gave it to him.

At that point it all got rather hazy. Now what? If the assistant had indeed explained to Theo what he had to do next, he hadn't understood and when I found him (I'd gone to a different department to buy some contact lens solution) he was wandering around, gingerly holding the piece of paper between finger and thumb and looking bemused.

The paper itself contained no obvious clues, so we went down to another customer services desk and brandished it at the woman there, wearing pleading expressions. As it happened, we had found one of those rare creatures in Spanish retail, a kind assistant and when it was clear that her patient explanations had left us none the wiser, she actually smiled and told us to follow her.

Our customer services lady took us back up the ramp to the electronics department, all the time telling us reassuringly how difficult it was for people without much Spanish to understand the way things worked (ironically, both Theo and I understood perfectly what she was saying at that point). She then led us to another sales assistant, explained our situation and making sure we had finally got the hang of things, bid us farewell and left us to it. The rest was a breeze. The money was refunded to our credit card and we were free to go and find a replacement set of speakers.

As we walked back to the flat, Theo confessed that he felt rather dispirited by the whole episode. "But at least we managed it in the end!" I said, encouragingly.

I know what he means though. The frustration of not even having the simplest language at your fingertips to deal with a largely straightforward situation does make you realise what a long way there is to go with your linguistic prowess. But let's be realistic, we've only actually been here for four days. Meanwhile, we are more motivated than ever to learn the language and more thankful than ever that we moved to Spain and not Japan. At least we've got an alphabet in common.

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