‘Tis the season for overwhelmed shoppers who say the darndest things. One of the hallmarks of my store, and all indies, is personal service. This often means having one-on-one conversations with customers to get a sense of what they’re looking for. Sometimes, these simple chats can turn hostile.
After 17 years of bookselling, I think I’m a pretty good judge of when to chat with a customer and when to abandon ship, as it were. Here is a list of body language cues that all booksellers might find helpful during the last crazy weeks of the season. Hopefully, this will help you recognize who actually wants help and who would rather have a root canal.
– The customer refuses to make eye contact, keeping their focus instead, on that spot on the floor. Usually, I check in with this customer while I’m clearly on my way to shelve so they don’t feel like my whole focus is on them. This helps a lot. Sometimes if the discomfort about being the center of attention can be avoided, the customer will have a better experience.
– The customer actually backs away from you and starts waving you away, sometimes with vigor. These folks might not know where the dinosaur books are they’re looking for, but they surely don’t want any help finding them.
– They say things like, “Oh, no. Please don’t tell me about your stocking stuffers,” as you’re about to show them how the wind-up toy works.
– Some customers think we’re listening to their conversations throughout the store and are irritated when we don’t come over if they say to their friend, “I wonder if they have that new book by what’s-her-name?” Actually, most booksellers do listen for exactly these cues from customers who don’t just come up and ask us these questions, but when it’s really busy, please just come up to one of us and ask.
– Occasionally, a customer will stop wanting help as you’re still showing the book she wanted to look at. This can either be a sign of success or a sign that, for whatever reason, you’ve now become irritating. Do not take anything personally. Put the book down, the book the customer won’t even touch (it’s amazing how people act like the book they no longer want is going to hurt them if they touch it) and remind them you’re around should they need you.
We know holiday shopping is inherently stressful. There’s so much pressure to get the right gifts for everyone and it’s expensive. We’re here to help and if that means leaving customers alone while they happily browse, we’re happy to do that as well. As we get closer to Christmas I can only say: Happy Shopping! I hope you all find the exact right books for everyone on your list.