It was a bad week for retail in the United States. I haven’t looked up statistics, but I am The Generic Consumer, and I can tell you that America is failing Retail 101 and is on the verge of flunking Customer Service unless it can get the notes from somebody who’s been paying attention.
My awareness of the peril was triggered by the process of trying to buy a new phone. I had sufficient funds and a focused need for a specific product. Straightforward, right?
I sincerely believe it would have been easier to convert to any major religion, secure a new job and find a legal parking space in a cosmopolitan city — simultaneously — than it was to acquire a new phone from Apple.
As a longtime and devoted Apple fan, the kind who argues with non-fruit users, I was particularly frustrated; I wanted it all to go smoothly. I wanted to be able to brag. I wanted that lovely glow of self-righteousness that makes Mac users intolerable to others.
The problem probably started when I refused to call the process of purchasing the device an “upgrade.” When I buy a new roll of toilet paper, I do not refer to it as “upgrading” my toilet paper even if, for some uncanny reason, the new roll is slightly better than the previous one.
In the same respect, I do not “upgrade” my soap, my kitty litter, my seltzer or my toothpaste. I buy new stuff when the old stuff is depleted. It’s not that I want anything shiny and new for the sake of it, but I do require stability and recognizable ingredients. In that respect, it’s pretty much like dating, at least as I remember it.
But now it’s as if buying a new phone is like winning some kind of contest. I felt as if I were in a bidding war for the color I wanted, not that I actually care, because I’ll get a case to prevent the thing from shattering the first time it falls out of my bra strap, which is where I tuck it to have long conversations on speaker phone as I walk around the house doing chores.
It didn’t take mere hours to get what I wanted. It took days — not to mention lengthy on-line chats, then actual human-being phone calls (made from my landline) and finally petty threats about switching to the carrier who uses tin cans and string.
And all I really wanted was for a retailer to take my money and, in exchange, give me the item I purchased. Retailers, however, no longer seem prepared to make these kinds of tawdry deals. It’s not just Apple.
On another day, I tried to buy four towels, four washcloths and a bath mat from a major department store. It was tough enough to locate a clearly overworked sales associate — she had to go to the back to see whether they had, in stock, an actual bath mat in the same color as the towels — but then this poor soul started asking me to fill out forms for a store credit card that would give me 4 percent savings over a lifetime of purchases, meaning I could get $11.45 if I paid on time until I dropped dead but would be charged $7,873,974 in fees every month if I was late because their interest rate is higher than my weight and then also they could put a lien on my house.
It was not a happy shopping experience.
On another day, I called one of those nationally advertised delivery services to have food from a little local place brought to my office so that some terrific students could have a good lunch. I’d have been delighted by the irony of the delivery service not being able to deliver, but the mood was ruined. I had to pick up the food myself, which meant losing my campus parking space, and the students couldn’t wait around. They went off to class lunchless, looking like the cast of “Oliver!”
Board members, officers, executives, directors, managers, client service experts and geniuses: We, the consumers, want you to succeed. We dearly want to believe you know what you’re doing — and that you care about our respect and appreciation. It doesn’t take much to make us feel both looked after and loyal.
But it doesn’t take much to make us feel like fools, either, and we’re less afraid to talk about it.
Caveat venditor: let the seller beware. The guy with the tin cans is now offering a 10 percent discount.
Gina Barreca is an author and professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut. She wrote this column for The Hartford Courant. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.