When the Sunrise Mall in Massapequa first opened, it seemed like every kid got their first job there. I was no different. I started out at Friendly’s, moved to The Gap and eventually landed a gig as the “Shoe Guy” at Pants Place Plus, a junior sportswear store on the upper level.
Although I dealt with the public in every job I ever had as a kid, it was always in a service capacity—cashier, sales, etc. It wasn’t until New York rescinded the archaic “Blue Laws” and allowed stores to be open on Sundays that I got my first “taste” of management.
Store managers didn’t want to work on Sundays, so I was the sacrificial lamb. I was responsible for opening and closing the store and making executive decisions during the shopping day. After all, what could go wrong?
Like any other first time manager taking their responsibilities seriously, I wore a tie to look “managerial,” as recommended by the regular boss, Jim Pierce. We discussed many things, including mitigating potential customer issues, and calling him at home if anything abnormal occurred. I wasn’t too concerned, after all, I knew all the store policies like the back of my hand from dealing with everyday customers questions like available sizes and store return policies. Besides, there were large signs at the register touting “No Refunds Without a Receipt” and “No Returns on Worn Gowns or Shoes.”
On my first Sunday as “boss,” I arrived early to open the store. While waiting for the rest of the staff, I strolled around straightening out the racks of clothes and rearranging shoes like Tony Shalhoub on Monk.
With very few customers in the mall, the day was progressing uneventfully. It would take a while for customers to get used to this Sunday shopping thing. Late in the afternoon, a woman arrived to return an evening gown, telling the cashier it didn’t fit and requesting a refund. The cashier explained the gown couldn’t be returned because it was obvious she had worn it —there were sweat stains under the arms. In addition, no refunds without a receipt. The customer went ballistic.
I was in the back when I heard the customer ranting and raving about being called a liar and demanding to see the manager. I took a deep breath and headed over to the fracas all pumped up with authority and ready to defuse the situation like Henry Kissinger. Of course, no amount of diplomacy was going to appease this customer.
I politely pointed to the signs supporting our store return policies and smugly reminded her that if she had her receipt, the gown return policy was stamped in bright red. That only sent her to DEFCOM 1. She dismissed my temporary authority and demanded I call the store manager or she was going to “tear this place up.”
Infused with Ralph Kramden like confidence and knowing that I was “in the right,” I promptly called Jim and explained the situation. After a few seconds of dead air, Jim simply said, “Give her back the money.” What? How could that be? The store returns policy, all the signs, and the red stamp on the receipt, did none of that matter? Jim simply said, “She’s making a scene and disrupting the other customers. Give her back the money.”
As I hung up the phone in defeat, the woman looked me dead in the eye and grinned, knowing all along she was getting her money back. I had been schooled by a veteran shopper who knew the most important rule of retail, “The customer is always right.”
The experience taught me a valuable retail lesson that day. Although I never chose to make a career of retail, I’ve drawn on that experience whenever the situation called for it. As a customer, I never take “no” for an answer. I don’t care what the signs say or what policies have been written. In the retail world, the customer is always right, even when they are completely wrong.
I just wish Jim had imparted those words of wisdom to me sooner.
Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a 2018 Press Club of Long Island award winning columnist and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.