05 April 2012

Customer Service

I love browsing. I love to walk into a store and take in the atmosphere, actually breathe it in, look around, take my time, see how the products are displayed, look for sales, handle things, put them back, touch the fabrics, buy what I need and buy what I don't need. You know, browse. Yet in all my years of shopping in Brazil I've enjoyed very few chances to browse. There's no word for "browse" in Portuguese, although you could say olhar sem compromisso (look around without obligation). But that really misses the deeply satisfying "browsiness" of the behavior. No, in most stores Brazilians are serious about face-to-face, hands-on customer service. I rarely walk more than two feet into a store before a salesperson comes right up to me and says, Pois não? (May I help you?)

Somehow I don't see this as helping 
For most Brazilians this is an expected and welcomed part of the shopping experience. It's part of what makes Brazil Brazil. Must drive Brazilians crazy to walk into a CVS Pharmacy in the States and have to wander around aisle after aisle, looking for — and never finding — a salesperson. But for me, this immediate approach on the part of the sales help is counterproductive. In my early years here I used to just walk out of the store. At least now I'm getting better at standing my ground. Sympathetic friends have taught me to say, 'Tou só olhando, 'brigada (Just looking, thanks). But then I find that the salesperson sticks with me, follows me around the store (as in the picture) just in case I might have an urgent question. I know this all sounds very grouchy and grumpy, but I really cannot do quality shopping — let alone browsing — if I'm being watched and followed. It makes me nervous. 

One more thing while I'm on the subject of shopping. In Portuguese, boa noite (good night) is both a greeting and a farewell. Therefore, when you walk into a store after sundown, the salesperson says boa noite as you walk in and boa noite as you walk out. A salesperson who hears English spoken by customers — and who wants not only to be helpful, but to practice his English — almost always says "good night" as you walk in. And every time this happens to my husband and me, no matter how much we expect it now, our immediate reaction is to think that the store must be closing, we'll have to leave. It's instinct. Well, I want to be helpful, too, so I always explain to the salesperson that English speakers make a distinction. Good night is a farewell, a good-bye, a taking leave. When people walk into your store, say "good evening" if you mean to greet them. I don't think any salesperson has ever believed me. 

Even U.S.-based reporters for the Brazilian television networks seem to have misunderstood the Good Night, Irene sign that many homeowners across the East Coast put up on their property as the hurricane barreled down on them last August. It was explained, wrongly, to the Brazilian television audience that these signs were put up to greet the storm, as if the homeowners were taunting the storm: Come and get me! In truth, the homeowners were actually saying, Irene, it's over, you're dead meat, you're history. And there was a double whammy confusion. Besides not getting the meaning of the signs at the most superficial level, they also didn't know the reference being made to the ultimate leave-taking American folk song. Here's the version that The Weavers sung at the end of all their concert performances. 

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