Saturday, October 10, 2009

the 'real'ization of germany

the first place i ever lived where there was a wal-mart was wetzlar, germany.

no kidding! talk about depressing and discouraging proof of the american 'culture' overtaking the world. we never made the trek up to the wetzlar wal-mart, but it didn't last long. while we were living there, wal-mart pulled out of germany - sold all thier stores and never looked back. the stores, bought by a european chain called 'real', i'm sure are pretty similar, but i bet there's no greeters.

i talked this over with a german friend of mine, and we're pretty sure it was the greeters that did wal-mart in.

when you walk into a large store in germany (it's slightly different with small boutiques and small stores), it's just silent. there's no help, anywhere. there's no, 'how are you today?', no extraneous conversation, no 'can i help you?'

i spent the first 6 months in germany shopping with a cloud hanging over me, convinced  that somehow my mere presence had offended everyone so much that they were ignoring me. i was certain i had done something wrong without knowing it. why else would no one speak to me? why else would no workers be around to help when i was struggling to get something off the top shelf? why wasn't the cashier asking me about my child's day at school and complaining about her backache? why wasn't there a cheery, smiling stockboy asking if i found everything ok? it must be my fault!

eventually i not only realized that it's just the way things were, i even adapted to it without realizing it. the first time i was back in the states was about 9 months after moving to germany. we were driving from portland to LC and i stopped at a safeway for something - may have even been to just use the bathroom (ok, one nice thing about the states - public bathrooms). i entered and was walking through the store - walking with purpose, mind you - when a cheery, well-scrubbed lad of maybe 18 popped in front of me.

'hi! can i help you find anything?' he said.

i was a bit surprised and taken aback. 'uh, no thanks', i said and continued on my very directed walk.

then another fresh, bright person accosted me. 'finding everything ok today?' she said, grinning hugely.

'yes', i said, now a little put out. did i look lost? was i going slowly, scanning the shelves? no! what was the freaking deal with these people?

on the return trip - a bee-line, really - from the bathroom to the exit the same cheery cherub that first interrogated me appeared again. 'find everything alright?' he said, smiling.

by now i was downright annoyed. who were these people, and why would they not allow me to move through the store in silence? why were they trailing me, nagging me with their incessant questions? then i remembered - oh yeah. that's just how it is here.

i had only been in germany a matter of months. now imagine a native german, walking into wal-mart for the first time, encountering a person whose sole role in the store was to immediately jump on you. 'HI! WELCOME TO WAL-MART!' how utterly confusing, and kind of frightening. i can just picture nervous frauen clutching their handbags a little tighter when confronted with such a madperson, vowing never to return. it's just not how it's done there.

call it a customer service desert, call it peaceful. sometimes it's annoyingly one way, sometimes another. but sometimes, despite the best efforts of a wildly successful company, their way of doing things just isn't quite - right.

for me, back here in the US, i've completely adjusted back to this way. i love the smiles, the over-effusive offers of assistance. i let those cheery smiles wrap around me like a comforting hug - that familiar way that is neither right or wrong, good or bad, but just what i'm used to.

note: the picture of the real- store in germany comes from another blog which appears to be, randomly enough, devoted to discussions of brands and retail chains - not anything more or anything less than brand talk. how obscure. but the proper credit is thus:
photo from []

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