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Consumer confidence isn't what it used to be

After the capitalist romp of the 2005 holiday season, consumer confidence is up an astonishing 40 percent. I'll admit, I'm not that confident. Shoppers rushed the stores, trampling each other without missing a call. With budded ears and averted eyes, they tossed global goods into carts in a relay race to family dinner, as blue-smocked associates ran for cover.

This new experience escapes me. Shopping used to be sublime -- a glorious day of feminine bonding no matter the season or reason. Even selecting my first underwire bra was a special occasion followed by lunch at the Statler, an event shared by a matriarchy of aunts who commanded service, leaving the foundation department of L.L. Berger in an Oleg Cassini hangover.

But the queen of retail mavens -- my dear, departed Aunt Geri -- took the concept of customer service to the most exciting dimensions. One long afternoon, after being blatantly ignored by an unfortunate sales clerk, Aunt Geri insisted the store manager be paged.

"I want this outfit in her size and there are no nines on the rack," she explained, pushing me forward as I cowered in adolescent anticipation. A powerful lesson about "being right," as the customer always is, was being taught.

"We don't have it in a nine. You could try our Northtown store," he said, dismissing her request.

"Well, I see there's a nine on the mannequin. Take it off."

"But ma'am, we'll have to disassemble the entire display!"

"OK, I'll wait."

Aunt Geri sat, petite legs crossed, dangling one polished pump as she pulled me to her side with a cool demeanor and a devilish smile only I could decipher. We waited while the sales clerk and her impatient manager worked begrudgingly until every piece of the winter ensemble was stripped from the shivering dummies. Arms and legs, wigs and torsos were scattered about the carpeted aisles in stark contrast to the holiday topiaries decorated to perfection.

I took the outfit to the dressing room. My heart beat faster as each piece fit more perfectly. The end of the battle was near!

Pirouetting into the show room, I turned on my green suede platform boot heel and pranced across an imaginary catwalk. The sales people held their breath, hoping for Auntie's approval.

She stood, tugged the shoulders and sleeves of the tartan wool jacket, adjusted the skirt, smoothed the hem, then wrinkled her nose and snapped, "I don't like it. Take it off."

An audible gasp filled the department and I dared not look behind me lest I turned into a pillar of salt. I filed back to the dressing room a little puzzled, but not surprised. My aunt worked retail all her life and expected as much charm and professionalism as she exuded eight hours a day for meager pay and slight benefits. Even at 14, I got the point!

Consumer confidence meant prime service -- an establishment's savvy to please its customer base. Today we're constantly settling for less. Less ounces in our pound, less money in our gift cards and less service in our stores. We've been conned and convinced that checking ourselves out at the register and pumping our own gas is better.

How about some genuine consumer confidence! Take a two-hour lunch and undress a dummy. You may not feel more confident, but our collective ancestral spirit will soar like a revolutionary tossing a few crates of tea in the harbor.

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