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The customer is always right... but

Stan Gotlieb

Carved figure on display at the annual Radish Festival, held each year on December 23. "Mata rile rile ron" is a children's verse, used in a sort of "musical chairs" game. Photography by Diana Ricci

Sometimes I believe that my entire purpose here on Earth is to learn patience - and that Mexico is a graduate level course.

Take yesterday, for example. A beautiful Sunday afternoon. Warm, sunny, air fresh after Saturday's rains. A great day to go shopping.

We have just moved, and the new house has a large patio, providing myriad opportunities for acquiring even more stuff. We get off the bus and enter the largest of our "superstores", and after combing it for goodies, we come to the checkout counter with one yellow lightbulb (unattractive, according to the label, to insects), price (on the shelf sticker): nueve (9) pesesitas mexicanas cada uno (9 pesos each). A little extravagant, but what the heck, it's more than a lightbulb, it's a gadget.

We stroll up to the checkout, the clerk runs it over the bar code reader, Diana hands her a 20-peso note, and receives a receipt and 7 pesos in change. Whoa! We've been overcharged. We explain that nine from twenty is eleven, and ask for the other four pesos. The clerk looks at the slip. No mistake, she says: the slip says 13 pesos. But, we expostulate, the shelf sticker said 9. But, she says, the bar code reader says 13.

We refuse to pay 13 for something that was marked 9. She rings a bell. We wait. Nobody comes (in fairness, Sunday is the busiest day of the week for such stores as this) for about ten minutes, and at our insistence, she rings the bell again. An assistant manager arrives. You can tell he is an assistant manager because he wears a white shirt with pens in the pocket AND a badge.

The clerk explains the situation. He takes the lightbulb and disappears into the bowels of the store. After another ten minutes (the lightbulb display is about five aisles over) we are speculating that maybe we caught him on his way to lunch. A couple of minutes later, he reappears to tell the clerk that indeed the lightbulb was marked 9 pesos. Then he disappears again. And we wait.

About 5 minutes later, a stock boy shows up. You can tell he is a stock boy because he wears a blue overshirt on top of his white shirt, and has NO badge. He may have pens in his shirt pocket, but it is covered by his blue overshirt (ahh, exotic, mysterious Mexico). After an exchange with the clerk in Spanish too rapid for me to follow, he too disappears. Another five minutes passes.

He returns with the sticker. It clearly says 9 pesos. He shows it to the clerk. I have had enough. "Look here", I say, "at this point I must insist that you either give us our four pesos, or accept the return of this lightbulb and refund our 13 pesos". The clerk's expression becomes pained. She is of course helpless; unauthorized to do either. I feel chastened. "Is there a manager in the store?" I ask. Claro (of course). "May we talk with this person?" Claro. "When?" Just then, the manager finally arrives. You can tell she is the manager because she wears a suit, no badge, and carries a set of cash register keys. She goes into a huddle with the clerk, the stock boy, and the assistant manager.

The clerk keeps pointing to the bar code sticker (13 pesos). The stock boy brandishes the shelf sticker (9 pesos). The assistant manager looks dreamily off into the middle distance, not wanting to get involved in a decision which clearly must be made at a higher level. The manager decides to let us have the lightbulb for 9 pesos. The clerk gives us four pesos. We leave the store with our lightbulb, too exhausted by our ordeal to put it up when we get home.

Well, you may say, this doesn't sound all that much different than my own experiences at K-Mart or Target. My reply is this: that the system comes from a different perspective here, one in which it is assumed that the clerk will rip off the store if given the chance; that the assistant manager will do likewise; that distribution of power (in this case, keys to the register) invites disaster. In the K-Mart, the assistant manager would have made the decision - and the refund - on the spot. In Mexico, money decisions are made by the owner only (or, in this case, the owner's sole representative).

So why didn't the clerk call the manager? Because that's the assistant manager's job. Jumping the chain of command is a very heavy no-no.

As we left the store, there was a sign advising us that the owners of the store welcomed any suggestions or complaints that customers might have. A (non-toll-free) number in Mexico City was listed. Assuming we called, what would we say? That we think giving the assistant manager more power would make the store operate more efficiently? We didn't bother to take down the number. After all, there is a great difference between the customer being right and the customer being served.

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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