Clerks keep eyes on fresh prey

The Baltimore Sun

Iam at a men's clothing store in the mall and have taken exactly two steps into the place when here come the sharks.

"Hi, how you doing?" says the first, closing hard and fast on my right.

I give him the nod -- you know the one, pleasant but noncommittal -- and go another 10 feet when the second shark appears on my left.

"Can I help you find something?" he asks.

This time I break out the standard "Thanks, just looking," which in retail-speak translates into "Get lost, will you?"

But this shark, he's not going very far.

Instead, he positions himself about 10 feet away and pretends to fold some shirts that don't need folding.

Then he pretends to straighten some pants that don't need straightening.

Finally he flashes a big Chiclets smile and says: "So, how you doing today?"

"Me?" I say. "Couldn't be better."

And it's true. Hey, I'm feeling the love. This is better than checking into an ashram. I've been here, what, 20 seconds? And two salesclerks have already asked me how I'm doing.

As I look around the store, it occurs to me that this is how it is with salesclerks these days: Either they pester you to death or you can't find one when you need one.

Try finding someone to help you at these big-box stores. You can wander up and down the aisles for days and not find anyone. You could keel over in the aisles and no one from the store would ever know.

Then I think about a book called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by a research company CEO named Paco Underhill.

I read it years ago, shortly after it was published, and Underhill nailed the whole retail experience.

Here's what he advised retailers about customers who first walk into a store:

"Someone should greet them, but don't ask if they need help, because that provides an opportunity to say no.

"In the entrance of any retail environment, you have a decompression zone where the shopper is in transition and not inclined to take in much information. Asking questions is an intrusion at that point."

An intrusion.

Oh, he got that right.

OK, so now I move through the decompression zone -- although with this shark eyeing me, I'm not feeling too decompressed -- and over to where they have sweaters.

It's 10:30 in the morning, there's no one else in the store, so the sharks are all worked up.

I'm fresh blood with a credit card, and they keep circling and circling, feigning busyness.

They straighten up here, rearrange there, fold this, tuck in that. But I can feel their eyes cutting my way the whole time.

A minute or so later, a third shark sidles up and says: "Let me know if you have any questions."

What questions could I have?

I don't even know where I am, pal. I just walked in the store!

OK, here's a question: Are you people trying to drive me crazy?

Look, I know the economy's in the tank and these are tough times for retailers, and these sales guys are just trying to make a living.

And I know they keep their eyes on customers for theft issues, too.

But they're driving me insane.

Worse for them, they're ignoring another dictum by the great Underhill, who wrote of male customers:

"They usually don't like asking where things are, or any other questions, for that matter. (They shop the way they drive.)"

On the other hand, when I'm driving, I don't have someone asking me every 20 seconds if I need any help or whether I have any questions.

Anyway, for the next several minutes, the sharks let me look at the sweaters in peace.

Undistracted, I quickly picked out a snappy navy number and moved to the check-out counter.

This, too, was in keeping with Underhill's research observations:

"You'll see a man impatiently move through a store to the section he wants, pick something up, and then, almost abruptly, he's ready to buy, having taken no apparent joy in the process of finding."

Joy? In the process of finding?

What could ever be joyful about that?

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