Thursday, July 19, 2007

On Race and Retail

I know my recent postings have been, well, lacking in diversity, as my topics have centered primarily on racial issues. But I have another that I hope will be of interest.

We recently received a complaint from a black woman at our store. As an aside, I would like to point out that the vast majority of our interections with customers are positive, however, most of those are not particularly noteworthy, or blogworthy. Anyway, the woman called us the day after she had visited our store. She stated that she was not greeted when coming into our store, while some white people were greeted. Additionally, she could have used some help, but none was offered. She stated that she left the store without making a purchase, and she felt as though her race was a factor in her treatment.

FYI, I was not present in the store on the day in question. Neither of my employees remember the woman having been in the store. Our unwritten practice is to greet people when they enter the store. Sometimes this is awkward, if, for example, some customers are between us and any new customers. In that instance, we would not typically shout past customers to greet someone. Sometimes we are busy with customers and don't have an opportunity to greet new arrivals. Of course, none of us know if these factors were involved, as none of us remember the woman.

But let us assume that the woman's version of events is accurate and I have no reason to doubt her. Is it fair for her to assume that her poor treatment was the result of her color and imagined hostility, on our part, towards black people?

Interestingly, we have noticed an increase in black customers. I welcome this development, obviously, as we, like everyone else in business, want to increase the number of customers that we serve.

My own conclusion is that the woman's reaction was mistaken and unfair to us.

My question to FreeRacine readers is this: When you have an unsatisfactory interaction in a business, do you typically assign a sinister motive to the business person or business owner? If so, or not, why?


gopfolk said...

I worked in retail for many years before becoming an auditor and I expect a level of attention that the average customer would not.
I expect to be greeted. It may not be right when I come in due to customers that were there earlier than me, but a greeting is necessary.
I expect to be asked at least one question of me related to the store I’m in…even if it’s the old “can I help you find anything?”
I also expect to have someone say “good bye” or “have a nice day” whether I purchase something or not.
The person should be well spoken and have desire to be there…there is nothing worse than an angry or rude salesperson who should have just taken the day off!!
Those things are, in my book, necessary for a good shopping experience.

There are times where those items are not always able to be done as quickly as one would like, such as being greeted when entering a store, but they should be done at some point.

If these items are not done I do not feel that the owner has some “sinister motive” but I do question the employer’s hiring and training practices. Many times owners forget that the people they employ are not as committed to the business as the owner, it is only a job to them and if they are not properly trained they can cause damage to the businesses reputation over the long haul.

Denis I don’t believe that there was any intention to ignore this or any other customer in your store but ultimately this person was overlooked. She took the time to write I know that you will kindly write her back and assure her that you and your staff have reviewed how to interact with all your potential customers and in the future you will try to greet every customer in a timely fashion.

Denis Navratil said...

gopfolk, thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree completely that customers should be greeted and offered help. That she was not greeted or offered help may have been because our staff was busy or perhaps inattentive. In any case, as a business owner, I am glad to have had the opportunity to make ammends, so her call to us was welcome. My wife explained to her our philosohy, (which normally includes a greeting) wherin we seek to be helpful without being aggressive. At times we may err on the side of being too passive with customers. The problem is that every customer has different expectations. Some clearly want to be left alone while some may want a sort of personal shopper. The trick is to accurately judge the expectations of the customer. Evidentally, we got it wrong that time. We think and hope that the woman accepted our explanation, and that her treatment, while perhaps subpar, was not the result of racial anomosity on our part.

And like you, I don't assume sinister motives when my treatment or experience at a business is subpar. Usually, it seems, training may be poor, or more likely, staff are there only to pick up a paycheck and don't really care much beyond that. As for my staff, I think that they are excellent. I am often told that my staff was very helpful and enjoyable to work with. Complaints are very few and far between, thankfully.

eric said...

I tend to ascribe poor bussiness manners to employee incompetence as opposed to owner's sinister motives. Customer service has varied alot over time and across the country. On the east coast I can remember frequently begging young workers to wait on me so I could spend money in the establishments where they were employed - 'could you please get off the phone with your girl/boy friend, I want to give you some money to pay for my purchase'. But down in Texas it was all good manners and fast service. Seems customer service gets re-evaluated and written about every so often. Bussinesses need to trim costs and sometimes customer service is not given a priority - only to relearn the old lessons about how important customer service is.

My wife who is Asian and grew up abroad would answer your question slightly differently. Her experience has been that employees in retail bussinesses sometimes treat her with far less cheer and manners than they treat white customers. When we were first married I was skeptical - she comes from a culture that demands and expects good service, her English skills were good but she might be susceptible to mis-interpretation. Then by happenstance I witnessed that she was sometimes not being treated well by some of the same clerks that were wonderful to me. Now my wife is not an aggressive in your face person - somewhat diminutive, friendly, kind, good manners, and good sense of humor. We try to give the benefit of the doubt to people - perhaps the clerk has never met someone from abroad, or the accent is causing problems - but when merely standing in line appears to cause the clerk's behavior and mood to change, it gets discouraging.

Now here's how the whole situation gets exaggerated and spins out of control as I see it. Once you've been mistreated a couple times just because of your race everytime you believe you've been mistreated you'll be tempted to attribute that mistreatment to racism. Problem is the bad behavior may spring from a person who is just having a bad day and is lashing out at the whole world, regardless of race. But the minority on the receiving end doesn't know that - they only know racism has been a factor in the past and it appears to be again.

My whole family has been in your store and is always treated well. My guess is through innocent circumstances (similar to what you mentioned) this woman wasn't waited only as quickly as some other customers and since she has likely encountered racism in her past she was inclined to attribute that as the cause.

Denis Navratil said...

Thank you Eric for your thoughts on the subject. I think we tend to agree, it seems.

If one has been subject to racist treatment, or thinks one has, that person may be more inclined to attribute racism as the reason for the mistreatment while racism may well have had nothing to do with it. As such there are likely to be more perceived racist incidents than actual racist incidents. The difference can be attributed to mistaken assumptions on the part of the non-victim of racism.

Now are these mistaken assumptions of racism benign? I don't think so. To mistakenly assign hateful motives to another person can be quite damaging. In my case, I could unfairly lose business as a result. I suspect that if one is quick to attribute racist intent to people of another race, it is likely that that attitude will poison any relationship before it even begins. The person quick to accuse others of racism will be suspicious, distrustful and perhaps even hostile towards members of the other race. It should be no surprise then, if they get a bit of that attitude in return. Thus their attitudes and mistaken assumptions may actually play a part in the poor treatment that they receive. If you treat someone poorly (and assuming that someone is hateful is poor treatment), you should not be surprised when you get treated poorly in return.

As such, if you want to be treated well by people, it is best not to expect mistreatment from them, as this will poison the relationship from the outset. Expect the best from people and you just might get it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Denis, have you never interacted with a MAN. I object to you always telling "irrational women" stories. Maybe next time you could write "We recently received a complaint from a black person..." or "...a black customer..." I am beginning to believe you really do have issues with women.

Denis Navratil said...

Object all you want anon. FYI, her conflict was not with me. I never saw her, or spoke with her. Also, my store caters primarily to women. As such, any conflict that I or we might have with a customer is likely then to be with a female. Has that crossed your mind anon?

Now anon, I don't have a problem with women generally, as I have stated previously, not that you would believe me. I have a problem with people, like you, who are quick to label others as racist or, in your case, sexist. So I know nothing about you anon other than your warped perspective pertaining to me. I don't know whether you are male or female, gay or straight, tall or short, black or white, or whatever, but your unfounded accusations are growing tiresome.

I am eager to engage with people who wish to have reasoned disagreements or discussions based on facts. It is impossible to have reasonable discussions when one party, in this case you, wish to engage in baseless personal attacks. Feel free to shape up or bother someone else.

Anonymous said...

Well, Denis, my comment was somewhat tongue in cheek.

I do find it interesting how easily you have become aggitated by my comment to the point you have shooed me off your blog.

I find it hard to believe you would consider my comment a personal attack, because it wasn't meant to be. It was just an observation.

I have to say your reaction to my comment on this blog really makes me wonder if that is how uppity you get when a female challenges you in the real world.

Denis Navratil said...

anon, do you have anything add regarding the subject at hand? The subject at hand is racism and false assumptions of racism, and whether said false assumptions are benign or harmful.

eric said...

Denis, I think once someone has experienced mistreatment motivated by racism it is reasonable that when they exeperience mistreatment again and the only visible reason they can discern is a racial motive, then its reasonable for them to suspect racism. The problem is the true motivation for the bad behaior may be incompetence, a bad mood, situational, or some other reason that has nothing to do with race. What strikes me as very unfortuneate is that it takes only a small number of racist acts by a very small number of people and pretty soon we have scared victims who misinterpret some situations and before you know it the rest of us are arguing with each other about it. We should be focusing on that small number of racists that originate this chain of events and not beating each other up. These types of circumstances playout over a million times each day in the USA. Most people aren't racists, but for me anyhow, its understandable if you've been a victim of racism a couple/few times that you may over-react in some situations when there is no racism present.

Denis Navratil said...

Hey Eric, I guess I am a bit less inclined to let those "quick to accuse" folks off the hook. If we look back on our lives, surely we could recall bad treatment of one sort or another from men, women, blacks, whites, teachers, doctors, etc... If we continued our lives suspicious of or hostile to men, women etc... as a result of those bad experiences, we will be simply spreading the disease. At some point adults need to get over the pain, move on, and recognize that the prejudicial judgements are not only harmful to others, but themselves as well.

eric said...

Problem is, at least in our family's experience, racist behavior revisits periodically - sometimes often enough that thick skin gives way to frustration, and that in turn leads one to be more sensitive and suspicious of racial motives. If the person has been the target of racially motivated behavior on-and-off for years, I think you have to cut them some slack and explain yourself. I've only been a minority in a population for an extended period a couple times, and it did affect my behavior - the "walk in someone else's shoes" was illuminating.

Denis Navratil said...

As I see it, every person of every race, gender, ethnicity etc... is subject to initial judgements by others that are shaped by previous experiences. These judgements are sometimes necessary to make even though we lack sufficient information on the person. The key is not to mistreat one person because you have had some bad experiences with people who have shared characteristics with said person. And to me at least, it is a form of mistreatment when you assume that someone else is going to treat you poorly, especially if it affects your behavior towards that innocent person.

eric said...

So, ignore history, ignore tendencies, ignore perpetrators and originators of racially motivated behavior? Instead rag on a past victim who's recent behavior was likely inappropriate but is rooted in past injury.

Ever been around someone who has experienced several traffic accidents at no fault of their own? They suddenly begin to fear every driver on the road is out to get them - right or rational? No, but an understandably human reaction. Time and positive experiences slowly erase the fear, but they get hit again and there's likley a relapse. Frequently injured vehicle operators shouldn't fear all other drivers, but given their history it's an understandable reaction.

Given the history of our country's treatment to African-Americans it's understandable if they over-react sometimes. In today's circumstances it may not be right or rational, but its understandable.

We are probably at that point where we're beating a dead horse as I don't think we're that far apart on this. The black woman has been wronged over the years because of her race. You were wrongly accused because of your race. I can only reiterate that the originators who believe in racist behavior are having a good laugh on us as we who are well intentioned beat each other up and they go on their merry way causing more harm.

Denis Navratil said...

Eric I like your traffic accident analogy. If you have been in an accident, or even if you haven't, it is best to prepare as though any driver at any time might do something dangerous. So we keep our eyes on the road, we maintain a safe distance behind the car in front of us etc... But it would not be OK to preemptively strike another car. Same applies to interections with strsngers. We don't know what they will do. It is best to maintain a safe distance until you know what you are dealing with.