Shoppers fight for TVs on Black Friday.
The mantra „The customer is always right” has been baked into the American retail experience.
While it originated over a century ago, it’s been perpetuated by companies like Amazon.
The pandemic has revealed just how much customers believe they should always get their way.
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If there’s one unifying theory among American shoppers, it’s that they’re always right.
After all, that’s what we’ve been taught to believe for over a century: that the customer is never wrong, at least inside the four walls of a Starbucks or a Walmart. It’s an ethos that has guided everything from the rise of early department stores to post-World War II suburban malls – and, in more recent times, e-commerce behemoths like Amazon.
But now, 18 months into the pandemic, it’s clear that not only is that mantra indelibly baked into the American shopping experience, it’s also dangerous. It’s created a sense of entitlement among shoppers that has led to agression and even violence toward retail workers.
„We’ve gone past the point where the retailer was in charge to a point in society where the customer is in charge,” Mark Cohen, an adjunct professor and director of retail studies at Columbia University, told Insider.
‘The customer is never wrong’
Brendan McDermid TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY/Reuters
There’s some debate about where the phrase „The customer is always right” originated.
It’s most often attributed to Harry Gordon Selfridge, the Wisconsin-born retail magnate who got his start at one of the nation’s first department stores, Marshall Field’s, before building a department store empire of his own in London.
But before Selfridge, there was César Ritz, who built the first Ritz hotel in the late 1800s. According to A.E. Hotchner’s 2012 piece in Vanity Fair, Ritz created a code of conduct for hotel staff that stated, among other mandates, „If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked.”
Ritz reportedly used a slightly tweaked, though similarly definitive, turn of phrase: „Le client n’a jamais tort,” or, „The customer is never wrong.”
Regardless of the origin of the phrase, there’s no doubt that its ethos infiltrated the retail world, particularly in the US. But according to Cohen, it wasn’t until after World War II that things shifted in America. The interstate highway system allowed recently returned servicemen to move out of urban centers into suburbs, and the department stores followed, becoming anchor tenants at newly built shopping malls.
In order to lure this influx of middle-class customers, Cohen said, retailers started making promises.
„It was ‘satisfaction guaranteed,’ ‘returns permissible anytime, forever,'” he said. „There were an enormous array of promises, all intended to assure customers that they should have no fear in doing business with them.”
Fast-forward to the modern era and the rise of Amazon: The retail behemoth has made customer-focus the cornerstone of its business, so much so that one of its guiding principles is titled „Customer Obsession.”
„Leaders start with the customer and work backwards,” it reads. „They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust.”
But Amazon has often had to sacrifice its own workers in the process of pleasing the customer. And while obsessing over what the customer might want has led to groundbreaking new products like the Kindle e-reader or the ability for batteries to arrive on your doorstep in less than 24 hours, it’s also meant that, with 200 million Prime subscribers and counting, that ethos has pervaded consumer culture, creating a world where many believe getting anything you want, when you want it, should be the norm, not the exception.
Violence against retail workers has spiked during the pandemic
AP Photo/John Minchillo
The pandemic has revealed just how much power has been ceded to American consumers – or, perhaps more accurately, how much power consumers believe they should have.
When the coronavirus struck last March, retail workers across the country were charged with enforcing government or store policies around masks. Employees told Insider’s Kate Taylor and Áine Cain at the time that they were afraid to ask shoppers to don a mask upon entry out of concern for their own safety. Customers who didn’t get their way, workers feared, would get violent.
Those fears were warranted: In May of last year, a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Michigan was shot and killed after he stopped a customer from coming into the store because her daughter wasn’t wearing a mask. One month later, a grocery store cashier in Atlanta was shot dead following a mask dispute, police said.
And, just this week, tourists were captured on video attacking a hostess at New York City restaurant Carmine’s after she asked for proof of their vaccination status. Last month, the city began requiring patrons to be at least partially vaccinated in order to dine indoors.
Reports of workers being attacked or customers becoming chaotic or aggressive have become commonplace over the last 18 months – in fact, 80% of workers said in a poll earlier this year that they’ve experienced hostile behavior from customers who didn’t want to follow safety protocols, and 39% said they were leaving their jobs because of it.
Some workers and employees are trying to bring attention to the issue. Last month, employees at a Los Angeles McDonald’s held a rally outside the restaurant to protest to what they described as a pattern of violence at the hands of customers. And Gap recently teamed up with competitors like H&M, American Eagle, and Ralph Lauren on a campaign to encourage shoppers to show support for workers who are being harassed by other customers.
But those measures won’t be enough to curb bad behavior from customers who believe they have the right to do as they please in stores and restaurants.
„We have to be careful about how much gas we put in the tank and what kind of license we give customers to do business with us,” Cohen said. „I think that retailers are going to be a lot more careful about portraying themselves as wide-open opportunities for customers.”