Selling with a scowl

March 22nd, 2013

Les Halles, pronounced ‘Lay All’, the pedestrian shopping district in the middle of Paris, is just east of the Louvre palace. In the 17th century, when the Louvre was the monarchial palace in France, the king being French, and king, demanded a food market near the Louvre so fresh produce and meat would be available for the palace chefs. For hundreds of years the area around les Halles was flooded with farmers, selling their wares in the city. Humans being what we are (I am not singling out farmers here), an area just north of the market on rue St Denis became, and remains, a red light district.

The outdoor farmer’s market was closed in the 1960′s, and today the Les Halles are mostly sells clothing. While walking through the area, with my eleven year old daughter as we returned from her viola class, I spotted a leather jacket in the window of a store. Light brown leather, lambskin, european cut, waist length, collared, with breast pockets; although this kind of jacket has caught my eye for years, I’ve never actually bought one. I guess I should have told the saleswoman this.

I walked in and the saleswoman approached briskly. I explained to her the coat I was looking for, indicating the one in the window display. She helped me into the coat. Then she admired how handsome I looked in it. I had to agree.

Based on her age, mid forties perhaps, and by the way the other salesperson deferred to her, hovering, but not participating in the sales process as if waiting for an instruction, I assumed that she was the owner of the store.

I stretched my arms forward and back, availed myself of the mirror in the back of the store, and asked my daughter’s opinion, all to the friendly encouragement of my saleslady. Then I began to slip out of the coat. “I have to think about it. Maybe I’ll come back and visit my coat tomorrow.”

My saleslady scowled. I got the impression visiting tomorrow was not an option. Clearly it was either buy now or ruin her day. As she helped me out of the coat, (or as i recall it, angrily pulled it off me), I was feeling bad that I seemed to be annoying her. As if I were wasting her time. That entering the store and trying on a coat was insulting, if ultimately I weren’t going to buy it. Was she trying to shame me into buying the jacket?

Does that ever work?

As we left, she was still scowling.

I have had the experience in a Marrakesh, and other markets around the world, where if you propose a price and the price is ultimately accepted, your seller will get mad at you if you don’t buy. Whether it’s real anger or a market norm, to keep people from just suggesting a lower and lower price, I’ve learned to be careful in public markets in the second or third world; careful not to propose a price for anything unless I want it, and I’m prepared to pay that price.

In the leather store in Paris’s shopping district, at what point in the ‘trying it on’ process had I gone too far? If I put it on said ‘Oh no!’ and removed it immediately would I have avoided the saleslady’s scorn? I really don’t get it. The woman in Paris had succeeded in conjuring up her rancor, without there even having been a negotiation.

I’ve heard salespeople say. “I try to put a smile on my face before I dial the phone.” This sounds hokey to me, but faced with the alternative, demonstrated by the Les Halles saleswoman, if a smile keeps the scowl away, it can’t hurt.

I will go back to that store. I want to see what happens when I do. But I’ll never buy anything there. Making me feel like an idiot for not buying is no way to get me to open my wallet. Indeed a friend of mine says if the salesperson says anything more than ‘Can I help you?’, without a sign from him, he walks out of the store. (Granted he is a tad extreme.)

A few blocks farther on, on a snowy day a few weeks later, during the Paris sales of January, my daughter and I passed another store specializing in leather coats. We stepped inside, the bell on the door chimed and the salesman looked up from the high desk at which he was sitting. He quickly figured out, it’s not hard, that English is my first language.

The salesman was relaxed and calm. As we prepared to leave, he said,”It’s a snowy day, there’s no one else shopping. You seem like a nice family.” And he knocked 20% more off the sales price.

I didn’t buy it. He didn’t scowl.

I still might.

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