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

The Goods May Be Expensive, But the Insults Are Free

May 4, 2013By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update French Salespeople DJ
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

Last week, in the first part of the C’est Ironique Field Guide to the Lesser Retail Species of France, I described many, but not all, of the rare varieties of shopkeepers whose goal in life seems to be to prevent wear and tear on their cash register keys by abusing their customers. This week, I only have one of these beasts left to discuss, but one that merits its own article due to its especially virulent nature.

When provoked, especially by coming into contact with someone trying to give them money, members of this bizarre breed have been known to attack, verbally or even (in extreme cases — see below) physically. Only the hardiest mercantile adventurers can boast of having been able to return with a trophy purchase from the lair of one of these ferocious, bloodthirsty brutes. I refer, of course, to:

Species: The Customer-Eating Scorn Heaper

Distinguishing attitude: The customer is not only wrong, he’s despicable scum

Habitat: Impossible to pinpoint — the Scorn Heaper roams freely throughout the commercial realm

Cry: “Bug off and drop dead (but leave your money)!”

Sightings in the field:

I have encountered this life form many times in my years in France, in sales situations of all types. For the purposes of this guide, I have decided to organize the following case studies in ascending order of viciousness.

Case study 1: Standing really hard on a thousand metric tons of ceremony

Toward the bottom of Rue des Martyrs is a large butcher’s shop with a fancy old-fashioned facade. It is the nicest-looking food shop in the neighborhood and has been in business, handed down father to son, for more than a century. The selection of products is bounteous and of superb quality. It’s the closest butcher’s shop to my building. And I wouldn’t set foot in the place if you threatened me with a blowtorch.

There’s a reason for this. It was my regular source of meat for the first five years after I moved to the district. Until one day when I was waiting in line to buy a chicken.

It was Sunday near closing time, and the shop was crowded. There were many people ahead of me at the poultry counter, and the woman being served had just asked for the last chicken in the display case.

Wondering whether I was going to wait another 20 minutes for nothing, I felt that I would be justified in bending the unspoken French retail rule about not speaking to the employees out of turn. My feeling was not shared.

I said to the poultry guy, who knew perfectly well that I was a long-time regular customer, “Excuse me — sorry to interrupt, but just so I know, do you have more chickens in the back?”

Well. He looked at me as though I had just blown my nose on his apron and said, in a slow patient voice like a teacher telling an especially dimwitted child to stop eating the crayons, “Right… now… I… am… ser-ving… this… la-dy… here!” and huffily refused to answer my question.

As it turned out, he did have more chickens, and when he fetched mine from the storeroom I asked him to cut it up for frying. When I got it home, it looked as though a drunk person had cut it in the dark.

And when Bird Man went home, I imagine he was thinking, “That guy with the accent had better be a little more polite the next time he comes into my store.” Which is exactly what I intend to do — just as soon as he starts offering frozen pork wings imported from hell.

Case study 2: You owe me a living

Within 100 meters of that butcher’s shop, there are two newsstands that I no longer patronize for a similar reason. Both of the owners have literally yelled at me, in both cases for committing the unforgivable offense of subscribing to a newspaper.

For many years, I used to buy two papers from one or the other of them every day, which, seen in terms of monthly cash outlay, added up to a fairly large expense. Finally I did the smart thing, by taking out home-delivery subscriptions for my preferred periodicals, thus cutting my finger-staining media budget in half.

And then I did the stupid thing, which was to mention this to the newsmongers the next time I bought a magazine from them. Both became furious with me, ranting at length and high volume about how I was singlehandedly responsible for “the death of the small merchant.” Both managed to make my sign-up sound like a drive-by.

This happened more than 10 years ago, and both of the casualties are still in business, so I guess they have been resurrected as zombies. Or maybe what they meant was not “death” of the small merchant but “senility.”

Case study 3: Money is no object

When Nancy and I bought our present apartment, we decided to put in a new kitchen. It so happened that there was a small appliance store, a one-man operation with reasonable prices, just two blocks away, and I ended up buying a stove, oven, refrigerator and dishwasher there for a total of about €4,000.

When the tradesman we had hired to install it all was putting in the stove, he noticed that there were some important brackets missing. So I went to the store and explained the problem to the owner, showed him the parts list and asked if he had any spares.

Since the installer was in my apartment at that very moment, I was hoping that I wouldn’t need to wait for the brackets to be ordered and delivered. So I suggested to the appliance guy that, if he thought it was a good idea, maybe he could possibly give me the brackets from his display model of that stove, which was never going to be installed anyway.

Lo and behold, I had just stepped on an anti-clientele landmine. For reasons I have yet to fathom, my proposal triggered a long and elaborate tirade, mostly centering around the timeless classic themes, first expounded in Plato’s Republic and still a favorite of angry people everywhere, of “Don’t tell me how to do my job!” and “People like you really get on my nerves!”

By which he apparently meant “people who give me €4,000.” Oh yes, don’t you just hate people like that?

Case study 4: Don’t bother me with logic

Some time before that, when Nancy and I had decided to buy our first apartment in Paris, I started making the rounds of the real-estate agencies. I quickly noticed that there was one a few blocks away that always had a good dozen listings in the window for incredible deals on nice-sounding places.

So I went in one day to see what they had to say. And the answer was: a lot.

I was hoping to find a one-bedroom for less than 500,000 francs (about €75,000 — an utter impossibility today), and that day the agency was advertising seven or eight apartments that fit that very description, all “in the neighborhood.”

Then it got interesting. When I sat down to talk to the agent, the first thing I said was, “I’ll tell you right way: I can’t possibly spend more than 500,000 francs.” And the first thing he said was, “Okay — here’s one for 580,000.”

There followed a barrage of hard-sell tactics that should have been deployed for the last Middle East Peace Plan. The man was, in his way, quite impressive: he could talk nonstop, with no perceptible pauses to inhale, for minutes on end, rattling off endless trivial details about the apartment in question as though the color of the doorbell were the one feature that would clinch the deal.

Finally I stopped him and said, “No really, my absolute top budget is half a million.” To which he barked, “You’ll never find a one-bedroom apartment in Paris at that price!”

When I pointed out that he had half a dozen such places advertised in his window four feet away, he said, “Oh, yeah — those were, ah, all just sold this morning.”

What he neglected to add was, “Really early this morning, in my dreams, because I made them all up out of thin air to lure chumps like you into my clutches.”

But then came the best part: this hard-bargaining, savvy go-getter then turned his frankly extraordinary rhetorical skills to the task of castigating me for five uninterrupted minutes for being a “bad customer” and “wasting his time.”

Once again, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise with a nailgun. Which is too bad because I could have suggested an excellent way for him to avoid wasting five minutes.

I also could have suggested a much better place for him to put his fake apartment ads, although there were probably too many to fit.

Case study 5: Buy or die

I realize that this final tale sounds unlikely, but I swear that it happened exactly as reported (up to the last sentence).

One Friday (I repeat: Friday) some years ago, at a little after 6pm, I was walking along the Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle. I had 20 minutes to kill before an appointment and happened to pass a menswear store that I had been to the previous Saturday (I repeat: Saturday) with a friend. And I happened to remember that they had some trousers I liked, so I went in to have another look.

I was the only customer in the store. A young saleswoman immediately latched onto me like that octopus thing in Alien, shadowing my every move. The first thing I noticed was that the pants I wanted were no longer on display. She helpfully explained that the stock had changed because they had just received the new season’s collections. Fair enough.

I decided to try on a pair or two of the new trousers just for the hell of it. Which is what I got.

In the dressing room, I realized that they were shoddily made, fit badly and had flimsy zippers that would probably give up the ghost (or whatever it is that zippers have that gives them the will to go on) after about the third trip to the WC.

When I came back out, the saleswoman was the very definition of attentive, asking which pair or pairs she should set aside for me at the cash register. I said I wasn’t sure, but would probably come back the next week.

This, of course, was just one of those “face-saving” excuses, because no way was I going to trade money for pants that were only three zips away from the rag bin. But I was not the only one in the room resorting to “little white lies.” The rest of the conversation went like this:

“These pants won’t be on special next week.”

“Well then, maybe I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“We’re closed on Saturdays.”

I knew this to be untrue, so I said, more or less as a joke because it was so obvious by that point that she was lying like a tobacco lobbyist, “Well, how late are you open tonight?”

“We usually close at 6 but we stayed open late just for you.”

Figuring that face-saving was a pointless nicety in the face of such bald-faced bullmerde, I wheeled around and headed for the door. Whereupon Mademoiselle Manières ran up behind me and, no kidding, stuck her foot out for me to trip over as I exited.

I didn’t fall, but stumbled unsteadily out into the boulevard, turned around and looked back at her in disbelief. She in turn was gazing at me with a smug, satisfied smirk, contempt radiating from her every pore like sweatsock fumes from a Camembert. And just then, because there really is a God, a meteor hit her.

In closing, a warning:

The Patronophagous Scorn Heaper is a rare but potentially dangerous creature. Should you find yourself the target of menacing behavior from one of these fiends, the best thing to do is to remain silent and expressionless while backing slowly out of the store, leaving a trail of one-pound slabs of human flesh to divert its attention.

Then proceed to the nearest café and order a glass of wine. Talk nicely to the waiter.

© 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.”

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