It didn't take long for Miss Manners to collect a basketful of shopping stories. The following adventures are not only true but, she believes, not atypical.
She will endeavor to prove that they point to a problem beyond that old staple of tsk-tsk-isn't-the-help-rude-these-days.
1. Gentle Customer unwraps at home a dress she has bought in a distant shopping mall, and discovers it is being bitten by one of those huge plastic tags designed to discourage shoplifting. As she had lifted neither the shop nor the dress, and was not stopped upon departing, she wonders about the effectiveness of the system.
Her more immediate problem, however, is to de-accessorize the dress, as it were. That part of the process is working: The tag will not yield to any legal household implement.
She calls the store, and is told, "Bring it in."
This would involve her making a special hourlong trip. Only three telephone calls later does an executive of the store agree to have the dress picked up, de-tagged and returned.
2. Later that season, Gentle Customer again shops at that store, and selects a dress from a sale rack, although the tag shows the full price. With credit card in hand, she inquires whether it is nevertheless on sale (cannily not admitting that she is otherwise prepared to pay the full price).
The reply is that yes, the dress is on sale, but since the sale price has accidentally been omitted, and the store will be closing in 15 minutes, it is impossible to sell her the dress. It can't be sold at the full price because it's on sale; but it can't be sold for the sale price, because that hasn't been marked.
The clerk suggests that the customer return to the store on another day, but warns that the dress cannot be held because it is sale merchandise. When Gentle Customer objects, a call is placed to a supervisor, to whom the exasperated clerk complains, "This woman insists on buying the dress."
It is then suggested that Gentle Customer go home and the dress will be charged and sent to her when it has been properly marked. The next week it arrives; so does a bill for the full price, plus a delivery charge.
3. Gentle Customer, trying another store, sees a sweater she wants, but it is the wrong size. Another branch has the correct size, she is told, and it can be sent to the store she is in. Explaining that she wants to give the sweater as a birthday present, she says she must have it by Friday at the latest. The promise is made, but on Friday, when it is too late to do alternative shopping for a present, she is told that the sweater is still at the branch store.
The clerk suggests that she drive the 20 miles to pick it up. Otherwise, he shrugs, there is no way of getting it.
4. Gentle Customer actually makes a purchase this time, in still another store. She asks for a box.
"You have to go upstairs to Gift Wrap," is the reply.
"But I don't want it gift wrapped," she says. "You used to give out boxes here."
"Oh, we still do. But every once in a while we run out, so we send the customers upstairs."
5. On her way out, Gentle Customer tries to buy a tube of makeup. The clerk behind the counter objects that she doesn't sell that brand, only the neighboring brand at the counter, and that the clerk for the brand Gentle Customer wants is out to lunch.
But the clerk reluctantly agrees to try, until she registers disgust because Gentle Customer cannot tell her the manufacturer's name of the shade ("It's the palest shade" is dismissed as useless information), nor where, behind the counter, it is kept.
"But I don't work here," wails Gentle Customer. "I don't know where you keep your merchandise."
"You use the brand, don't you?" retorts the clerk. "So you ought to know."
Miss Manners promised that these stories would have more of a point than that there are surly people in the world, which we all already knew. In fact, she prefers to believe that people tend to be kind and helpful, unless driven to do otherwise.
It is therefore her presumption that many of these clerks are naturally fine people, unnaturally induced to be unpleasant to customers.
It is not only that they may well be overworked. That is no excuse, any more than "I'm in a hurry!" is an excuse for bursting into a line which is, the burster implies, composed of idlers.
Each incident occurred in a major department store, priding itself on offering service that discount outlets do not. But if any of these stores has a policy of rectifying its own mistakes, rather than asking the customer to do so, it has left its employes ignorant of that policy.
Miss Manners believes that these clerks, believing that their employers will refuse to take re- sponsibility, are giving the best advice they can when they tell customers to make up for the store's deficiencies themselves, or abandon the idea of shopping there.