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No Food, No Drinks, No Strollers, No Change: No Wonder US Retail is Tanking

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"No service?" ask two irate customers in a cartoon, waiting to be served in a restaurant. "No shirt! No shoes!" they yell, as they pitch the articles of clothing.

As the retail sector struggles in the recession, stores and restaurants have apaprently decided that employees are a dispensable expense. Raise your hand if you've waited 14 minutes for a store clerk only to have him or her express annoyance that you'd pay in cash while also shaking you down for the store's "valued customer rewards" program with a canned speech. How many people choose to be loyal customers after a 14 minute wait?

Not that store clerks have it easy either, forced to answer phone calls on a headset while wearing a badge for Preparation H and Kwell shampoo on sale at the collarbone. Some stores even announce, "Employees, it is time for your 15 minute break. Please pick up around yourself before heading to the break room," to further support employee dignity.

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Grumpy, overworked or absent employees are just the latest rung in a retail descent that began with signs in the window like No Food, No Drinks, No Strollers, No Change, No Restroom, No Soliciting, No Backpacks, No Refunds, No Exchanges, No Bills Over $20, No Credit Cards, No Special Orders, No Pets, No More Than 3 Students At A Time and even No Leaning On The Counter.

There was a day when the US' customer-oriented service was the envy of the Western world. Especially because European stores still closed at 5:00 PM, when 85 percent of the world gets off work. And because European shopkeepers often told you, when you asked to see something in the window, "perhaps tomorrow."

In fact an anecdote is told about a shopper in the former Soviet Union was so disconcerted by a local store which had converted to US style service-Hello! We're Glad You're Here; How May We Help You?-she ran out of the store screaming.

But as economic times got tight, ordering something in a store became "special ordering" something which became, "Have you tried our Web site?" Now, so many stores are instituting self-checkouts, it's just a matter of time before requesting a human clerk to check you out is a special order.

The self-service trend probably began when restaurants discovered (to their amazement) that people would bus their own tables. And all these years they had paid bus boys. Even more amazing to restaurant operators was, despite carrying their own food to the table and bussing the table themselves, people still tipped. For what? Who says Americans are stingy?

As the retail sector tightened its belt, the challenge of making customers feel valued without spending any money to do so continued. "Special offers" on luggage and costume jewelry came with credit card bills. "Progress reports" when you bought something online-Your order has left the warehouse; It's on the truck; It's in a neighboring state-made you feel like your business really mattered.

And how about those nice and patient robot voices on the phone? "Sorry you misplaced your ticket! I'll just look that information up! Here we go!"

But use a real employee who costs real money and you get the flip side of free service when it costs the company nothing- namely, Service-With-A-Snare.

Service-With-A-Snare began with phone company shakedowns like, "Before we restore your dial tone can we interest you in our new Dialing Elite service program?" But it soon graduated to banks, automobile shops, medical professionals and any business who has power over you.

In restaurants Service-With-A-Snare is known as the tableside culinary filibuster. "Hello My Name is Dwayne and I will be your server this evening. Tonight we offer a glazed, skewered, marinated, caramelized bisque of ..." begins the soliloquy, not that you asked or couldn't read the menu.

The tableside culinary filibuster is not as threatening as the tactics of phone companies with power over your dial tone. But if you were going to just have an appetizer, you'll probably upsell your order because of the subtle duress. If you're wearing a shirt, that is.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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