Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles, Edited by Jeff Martin

Title: The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles
Editor: Jeff Martin
ISBN: 9781933368900, Soft Skull Press, 2008
Genre: Humor
Rating: B-

First Line: "I am Sssshhhearssshh!"

I've been in retail more years than I care to remember, so I received this book from a fellow Paperback Swap member with a great deal of interest. How many essays in this book about retail experiences would strike a chord in me? The answer is: about a third.

Granted, retail is one of those occupations that can stretch credulity some days. Hospital emergency rooms, policemen, firemen and other emergency services pros don't own the monopoly on strange encounters of the human kind. Anyone who deals with the public knows the perils of full moons and the first of the month. Opportunities are ripe for looking at a co-worker and saying, "We should write a book." It's that very thing that editor Jeff Martin tries to cover with his selection of essays in The Customer Is Always Wrong, and the results are rather uneven.

The low point of the book for me was Anita Liberty's essay entitled "No Good Deed...." For the life of me I don't know if the piece was honestly supposed to be funny and completely missed the boat, or if there was a layer of irony and sarcasm woven through the lines and I'm the one left standing at the pier.

The high points of the book were the essays written by James Wagner ("Other Things in Mind") and Elaine Viets ("Minimum-Wage Drama"). For me, those two essays spoke the truth of my own experience. Wagner brings up the phrase "the customer is always right," correctly pointing out that this is

...a theory drummed up by an owner who didn't have to deal with the day-to-day public, who only had to take in their money and then spend it on cars, stocks, and vacations, the likes of which the people who did deal with the public would never see.

For anyone not familiar with Elaine Viets, she is the author of the Dead End Job mystery series. She's gone out and worked each of the jobs covered in her series, so she's been on more than one front line. Some of her observations are short and to the point: "The first rule of retail is that everyone wants to check out at once" and "Working retail is like going to the theater-- except you get paid to watch the show. Also, your feet hurt."

Although the choice of essays in the book is uneven, the book is more than worth reading for Wagner and Viets alone. If you've ever been on the other side of the counter, the book will have you reliving some of your own "glory days". If you've never worked on the other side of the counter, you should read this book. Unless you're totally self-absorbed, you'll learn a thing or two.

Working retail is often thankless, and you can be subject to tremendous mood swings. But in amongst the days that make you worry about your sanity are the ones that make you smile, make you laugh, and make you put on your comfy shoes and head in to another day with the Public. Because....Steinbeck rules! (Right, Elaine?)


  1. Having worked in both retail and a hospital emergency room, admittedly a long time ago, I would never ever be surprised at anything that happens.
    I have frequently thought of writing a book of short essays based on the antics of members of the public, and former work colleagues, but would probably need a team of lawyers on retainer to cover me.
    People that I have told some of these stories think I am making them up, but you will know nothing is impossible when you work with the public.

  2. Sounds interesting. I haven't worked in retail but have done plenty of waitressing, bar work and working on information/service counters for government services. Most days I fear for the human race. After being handed money that someone had used to wipe their bum with on the third occasion (I worked for the govt agency that collects driver's license and car registration money and lots of people didn't like to pay their fees) I turned to a job that doesn't involve nearly as much direct contact with the unwashed masses.

  3. I had worked in retail for only two years (Borders, BTW) but that was enough for me to never ever again look for this kind of job. I swear it is one of the most thankless jobs ever. It would be interesting to read this book just to have a 'last laugh'.

  4. I have worked retail, so I know it can be ugly, especially at Christmas when the hot item everyone wants is out of stock. The essays in this book do sound entertaining for the most part.

  5. Thanks for the review, I may have to get this book. I've been in retail management for a few years now and I'm never suprised by what happens and I know every day will bring something different.

  6. Uriah-- How well I know this. Working for so many years with the public it takes a great deal to shock me.

    Bernadette-- I've been handed money from very dubious locations on human bodies before. Makes you want to run and take a shower, doesn't it? Like you, I began to fear too much for the human race, and now I work behind the scenes with extremely little customer contact. My psyche is very grateful.

    Lilly-- Reading it also makes your memory banks turn up gems from your own experiences.

    Kathy-- It doesn't even have to be Christmas. I almost didn't survive Cabbage Patch dolls and Tickle Me Elmo!

    Ryan-- I can see you've "got the t-shirt" too!

  7. I was a fan of Elaine Viets when she wrote for the St. Louis Post Dispatch (she once awarded me second place in an ugly bridesmaid's dress contest). So I'll read almost anything by her, and I didn't know about this yet!

  8. I worked in retail all through high school. I was on cash, and a fellow cashier and I used to play a game during the busiest shift (Saturday mornings) where we would see who could take in the most money :) It took the sting out of the whole customer service thing because we were too busy processing as many purchases as we could - no time to feel any emotion with a customer who was having a bad day ... next! Looking back, I can see why our boss loved it when the two of us were on the same shift together LOL

    I also worked briefly at MacDonalds. Very briefly. That wasn't very much fun, although the extra-curricular stuff for the crew was a lot of fun.

  9. Jeanne--I'm glad I found something for a Viets fan!

    Belle-- I LOVBD working the express lane!

  10. I have a weakness for books like these ... so I suspect I will be checking it out soon.


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