February 5, 2013

The Extraordinary Buying Public

On January 15th, in a posting on whether crafters are better suited to wholesale or retail sales, Melissa of Prariefunk posed a question on this blog taken from www.craftsreport.com, written by Loretta Radeschi: “Do you enjoy meeting the buying public?” 

I talk a lot with customers and that’s something I would miss if Wink and Flip were primarily wholesale. My daughter often sells at weekend markets and I accompany her. I ask our customers what they do for a living, where they live, what the ones who are students are studying. Girls who come in pairs are the most fun, since they are often on an outing, a shopping safari. When they safari, you become part of the hunt.

“Who was your favorite customer today?” my daughter and I ask each other at the end of a market day. This is a regular practice that came about as a way to vent the frustration that anyone who works with the general public sometimes feels. A “favorite” customer is usually a euphemism for one that made you want to tear your hair out. Normally, it might be someone who picked up nearly every piece of jewelry on the table, didn’t buy anything, and didn’t entertain us. (Oh yes, our customers are tremendously entertaining.) I actually think customers don’t realize that every piece they touch has to be “fixed” by one of us so the table always looks perfect.  I don’t mind re-merchandising the table; I do it without thinking. I just mind when someone absentmindedly and compulsively touches ten to 15 pieces, and then walks away.

I’ve never found our experience as bad as David Gallant, the customer service rep for Canada’s tax agency that created a lightly filtered interactive point-and-click game about annoying customers called “I Get This Call Every Day.” As he says in his description of the game, “you can lose politely, or lose spectacularly” but you just can’t win. Anyone who sells has had those days dealing with the general public.

In nine years only two customers really stand apart from the crowd. One was a woman at the Hester Street Fair who lived nearby and visited pretty regularly. She was known to spend nearly $100 each time she visited, and I wish I could tell you that was all she was known for.

One week she came to the table with a delicate 30” chain necklace studded with crystals that she had purchased from us a month or two earlier. It was in a ball.

“How did this happen?” I asked. She said it was due to normal wear, but of course that wasn’t true. It looked as though it had been swimming at the bottom of her purse for the past few weeks. I untangled the necklace and gave it back to her with a smile. Two weeks later she was back again, same thing. But when she came a month later, with the poor necklace so knotted up, no one could work on it, we told her it would take some time to fix and she should come back to pick it up next Saturday. She couldn’t return the following week, so she took the piece with her and I never saw her again.

I asked my friend Jesse of Brooklyn Taco what he thought was going on, and his idea was she needed attention. “Do you think she comes home and her husband rips off her clothes before making passionate love, the necklace goes flying into the corner, where her cat plays with it until it resembles a bird’s nest, and then she brings back to us?” He thought that was very funny.

The other outstanding customer was a woman in her early 30s, dressed in business clothes, with a manicure. She walked up to our booth at Union Square and told us she had a necklace she purchased from us that summer and would like it restrung. She took a small plastic bag out of her purse and immediately we recognized the pieces of the necklace as one that my daughter sold.

I walked out from behind the counter. “Let’s step over here,” I told her and moved out of our booth. I wanted to keep her away from the other customers because I really wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out. “Can I take a look at the necklace?” I asked.
I turned the bag over in my hand, and shot a look at my daughter. It was pieces and beads and string. Our policy is that sales are final and we don’t give refunds, but I told her: “We’ll be happy to replace this piece with one in black because we no longer sell this color. It was a summer color.” I tried not to give away what I was thinking. I was thinking that I wanted to give this woman whatever she wanted so she would leave as soon as possible.

“I really loved this one. Can’t you fix it?” she asked very nicely. This was the real tip off. The necklace looked as though it had been tossed into the bottom of a sailboat, a sailboat that took on water, more than 30 days earlier. Once a light brown, it was now moldy.

“You really can’t wear this anymore,” I said softly. “I can give you a refund, or you can have the same necklace in black, which would you prefer?”

She left with the black necklace, but she wasn't happy. She really wanted her necklace fixed. My daughter and I talked about what happened for a good half hour after she left. She looked so average. You could see she really loved the necklace and wanted to wear it again. What she could not see is that she was asking us to repair something that was, literally, refuse.

What’s really amazing is that in nine years, there are only two of these stories to tell. Despite both of these experiences, I really do enjoy meeting the buying public, the ordinary and the extraordinary. 

Wink and Flip

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