Service Not Always Included: Dealing with French Salespeople, Part One

Customer, Serve (Or Whatever) Thyself

April 29, 2013By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update French Service
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

One day last week, I needed to buy something. So I went to a store, was greeted by a salesperson, asked for help finding the product I wanted, found it, paid for it, exchanged cheerful goodbyes with the staff and went home.

Amazing, isn’t it? If you answered “yes” to that question, you are laboring under a common misconception. According to an old and apparently imperishable cliché, French people in general, and French shopkeepers (and waiters) in particular, are supposedly rude. To hear some visitors tell it, a vacation in France is one long hazing ritual whose reward, instead of membership in an exclusive club, is that you get to go home.

Nevertheless, as a long-time foreign resident of Paris, I can assert that this stereotype is generally not valid. Never-evertheless, the key word in that last sentence is “generally.” Once in a while, I do in fact happen across salespeople who treat their customers with reactions ranging from annoyed tolerance to disdain to outright hostility.

This is especially shocking to people from Anglophone cultures, like me, who grew up hearing that “the customer is always right.” From an early age we are inculcated with the concept that the key to success in the retail sector is catering, even pandering, to one’s customers. This is the key to success in the catering and pandering sectors as well.

Sometimes I wonder what they teach in French business school — obviously not that. Maybe after mastering commercial basics like the inward opening door, the three-hour lunch closure and the ridiculous English trade name, they just don’t have time to get around to customer relations.

Whatever the explanation, it is indeed possible here to enter a place of business for the specific purpose of spending money and be treated shabbily by the person who stands to benefit from that money. But it is not correct merely to say that these non-catering anti-panderers are “rude.” Their mistreatment of the clientele takes many forms.

Thus, in the scientific interest of establishing a typology of French commercial butt-headedness, I offer, as a public service:


The C’est Ironique Field Guide to the Lesser Retail Species of France

Introductory note:

The vast majority of French merchants and shopkeepers are glad to have customers and reflect that fact in their treatment of the public. This guide concerns only the rare and unusual, but in their own way fascinating, mutant breeds who do not fit that description. Such as…


Species: The Shrinking Shirker

Distinguishing attitude: Wishes you had never been born, or, since that can no longer be remedied, had never entered his store

Habitat: Large stores with many employees

Cry: “Whatever it is you want, we don’t have it!”

Sightings in the field:

For DIY enthusiasts, the basement hardware section of the BHV department store is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in France. From plumbing fixtures to electrical components to building materials of every description, it has, literally, everything.

Which makes it all the more absurd that so many (not all, but many) of its salespeople claim to have nothing. My experience with BHV (“Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville”) is that when I need an obscure hardware component, I know for a fact that I will find it there, but I know for another fact that I’m going to have to find it myself.

This has happened to me perhaps 15 times over the years: something breaks in my apartment, I take the broken part to BHV, I find the section that deals in that type of equipment, and I show the thing to an employee. He gives it a quick glance and says (every single time), “We don’t have that,” whereupon I look around, find it (every single time), pay for it and get out of there, vowing never to return (E.S.T.). Until I break another thing that can’t be found anywhere else.

I swear this is true: I know someone who, fed up with the endemic sloth ethic of the BHV staff, took a lamp socket out of a display bin and asked the guy manning that very same bin if he had any sockets like it, and he said no. Maybe he thinks BHV stands for “Buy Hardware Virtually.”


Species: The Sales Resisting Quizmaster

Distinguishing attitude: Absolutely must have information that you don’t have

Habitat: Stores that are not, or not entirely, self-service

Cry: “Come back when you’re smarter.”

Sightings in the field:

My kitchen is equipped with a ventilator hood whose filter needs to be changed twice a year. When I first moved to my present neighborhood, the only place nearby that sold replacement filters was an appliance store with a counter for selling spare parts manned by a young man who did his utmost to avoid selling spare parts.

The first time I went in for a filter, he asked me what brand my hood was. I told him and he asked for the model number. I told him and he asked for the size.

Who knows the dimensions of their ventilator hood by heart? Not me, in any case, and upon this revelation his face brightened noticeably. “I can’t give you a filter without knowing the size!” he crowed, obviously pleased to have found something that would prevent my making a purchase.

So I went home, measured the goddamn hood and came back with the goddamn figures. The Quizmaster then went back to the stockroom, stayed long enough for a smoke and two bathroom breaks, and re-emerged holding a package marked “One size fits all cut-it-yourself universal fiberglass filter.”

Six months later I went in and had the same conversation with the same guy. Somehow I still hadn’t gotten around to memorizing my hood’s measurements (my fault!), but when I pointed out that he was just going to give me a generic-sized filter anyway, he held firm: no way was he going to hand over the goods without hearing me recite those precious numbers.

So I leapt across the counter and bit him in the throat. Not really — I went home, measured the hood again, wrote the dimensions down on a card in my wallet for future reference, and went back to get my filter. Then I leapt across the counter and bit him in the throat.


Species: The Compulsively Contentious Outlasher

Distinguishing attitude: Every conversation has to be an argument

Habitat: Mail order houses and pickup counters

Cry: “I’m doing the best I can!”

Sightings in the field:

I once special-ordered some shirts from a store that boasts about being able to acquire any merchandise in 48 hours. After two weeks went by with no news from them, I went back and had, no kidding, this conversation with the saleswoman in charge of outstanding orders:

“I don’t think my order is here yet, but I’d like you to check just in case. Here’s the number.”

“I’m sorry sir, but all I can do is check.”

“Yes, that’s what I’d like you to do, just check its status, please.”

“Sir! If it’s not here there’s nothing I can do! I’m going to check its status, but I can’t promise you anything!”

“Of course, I understand. Just checking will be fine.”

“Sir!! I’m not a miracle worker! I can’t produce your package out of mid-air! I’ll check but that’s all I can do!!!”

Obviously, she was unaccustomed to non-disputatious customers. I kept her going for another three or four rounds, and throughout the entire exchange, the more I agreed with her the more she argued with me. I confess: it was fun.

Oh, and my shirts had not arrived, and when they finally did they didn’t fit, but I couldn’t send them back, so I never went to that store again. Which is too bad, because I really wanted to agree with that lady some more.


Species: The Standing Lying Chest Thumper

Distinguishing attitude: Reeling drunk on a sip of power

Habitat: Stores at closing time

Cry: “We don’t have any.” (Very similar to the cry of the Shrinking Shirker, but delivered in a terse monotone while staring purposefully at the horizon)

Sightings in the field:

One Friday night, I was passing a discount store that had a big display of blank CDs just inside the door, which reminded me that I needed to buy some for a project that I wanted to finish that weekend.

But there was a problem: the store had just started closing. There were still dozens of customers in the checkout lines, but the security guard at the door wasn’t letting any more shoppers in.

However, knowing that my errand would take only a few seconds of their time while generating extra turnover, I figured that he’d be smart to let me in. This was a mistake: what I should have figured was that “smart” was too much to ask.

When I went up to the door and said, “Excuse me, I just want to run in and buy a pack of CDs,” the big man in charge muttered, “We don’t have any,” while crossing his arms, puffing his chest and gazing intently across the street like General Eisenhower watching the launch of the D-Day invasion.

This kills me. I have experienced this many times at various stores around town, and the security hotshots always say the same thing: not, “Sorry, we’re closing — please come back tomorrow,” but a gruff, dismissive denial that they even have the merchandise that’s in plain sight right behind them. I’m looking forward to the day when my bank hires a security guard, and I need to run in just before closing time to withdraw some money.

And now, since it’s closing time for this article, a digression:

The Parisian Chest Thumper reminds me of an encounter I had years ago with what I think was a Secret Service agent in New York. A friend and I were walking in Midtown when we noticed a bunch of beefy guys wearing three-piece suits and one-piece earpieces blocking the entrance of a fancy restaurant. My friend, being the inquisitive type and wondering what prominent figure would warrant such a security cordon, asked one of the inscrutable hulks who they were guarding. He said, “I don’t know.”

What kind of sense does that make? Why not “I can’t tell you?” We found out later that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was in town, which is probably the explanation, but I was sorely tempted to say, “You don’t know? That’s what I thought, because you’re supposed to be guarding me. Let’s go!”

Next week, in Dealing with French Salespeople, Part Two, I venture, racked with trepidation, into the lair of the most dreaded retail breed of all, the one whose very name strikes fear into the hearts of foreign visitors: the Customer-Eating Scorn Heaper.

To be continued…


Reader Gary writes: “Sorry, I’ve had some pretty good experiences, including the salesperson in the electronics chain on St. Germain who didn’t sell me an adapter for my laptop but actually gave me a new cord. I was Impressed, to say the least.”

Reader Pamela Taylor writes: “Your column on customer service was one of your best, especially the part about BHV, which could have been written by my significant other, except that he is not a writer. He is, however, an habitué of the BHV hardware department and knows it better than they do. In the early days, we were so frequently told ‘on n’a pas cela’ or ‘il n’existe pas’ only to ultimately find it, that we would go into uncontrollable laughter, much to their bemusement. Now, each time Ed (my other) hears this, he immediately goes into search mode, finds the object, hunts down the salesman and shows it to him saying, ‘Il n’existe pas?’”

Reader Bob Fusillo writes: “Another popular lie, common in Britain as well, occurs when the shop does not have the product you are looking for: ‘That isn’t made anymore.’”


© 2013 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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