Hey Kel, can I help you?
I’ve noticed a new trend recently while indulging in some retail therapy, and I fear it’s catching on. This has been going on for a while, but it happened twice in one hour recently and it’s just irritating. I’m speaking of overly familiar retail sales clerks that ask for your first name. I can’t be alone in my disdain for this strange practice.
First of all, it’s obvious that this is a management directive. I doubt very much that the sales people really give a damn what my first name is. Well, management: It feels intrusive to have to surrender your identity just to shop. Anthropologie has a policy, I gather, of asking for customers’ first names before they can try on merchandise. They even write your name on the fitting room door’s nameplate, so all your fitting room neighbors know who you are, and any staff member wandering by can speak to you through the door as though they’ve always known you.
Some other stores, like Coach, have a different tactic; they look at your credit card when you’re paying and then take the liberty of calling you by name. My waitress at a chain restaurant recently used this same approach when I paid for lunch, calling me by my first name when returning the slip to sign. These methods feel like an invasion of privacy and make me inwardly recoil a little. When pointedly asked, I find myself begrudgingly giving my name because I can’t think of a polite way out of it. I don’t want to cause an incident or make the clerk feel bad, but I don’t know these people and I don’t necessarily want to be on a first-name basis with them just for buying, say, an umbrella or pizza. It all feels a bit too personal. I’m a grown-up. Being implored to disclose my first name by a stranger makes me feel like a 20-year-old Hooters waitress.
There should be some natural distance between customers and sales clerks unless you’ve built up a relationship, of course. If I’m a regular shopper and they know me in a particular store, then of course it’s nice to have them greet me as such and likewise. I’m very chatty with the regular staff at stores I frequent. I’m happy to receive familiar greetings by people I’m actually familiar with. It feels normal when you’ve gotten to know each other over time. Trying to expedite this process feels unnatural. Forced. I’ve considered coming up with a made-up name just for this purpose, like Hildegarde or Etheldrada. Maybe something totally unpronounceable comprised of all consonants—a handle to echo how stupid I find the whole practice.
I think it’s emphasizing informality that seems to be the root of the problem. Although I don’t generally feel the need to be called Mrs. Rowell, this silliness makes me want to rebel and request to be addressed formally. For the first time ever, I’ve realized I don’t mind “ma’am”! (I know I may be on my own with that one.) At Genuardi’s, the cashiers look at your receipt and then call you by your surname: “Thank you for shopping with us, Mrs. Rowell.” If we’re going to do the name thing, I have to admit I do kind of enjoy that method. It sounds professional, a bit old-fashioned and respectful. And it doesn’t sound like they’re pretending I’m their age and they want to be my new best friend.
I appeal to the management of these businesses: Can you please discontinue the practice of making your employees approach customers in this strange, uncomfortable and somewhat invasive fashion? Mature customers do not necessarily want your 22-year-old fitting room attendant calling them by their first names. Witness Protection Program participants definitely don’t. Personally, I’m much more likely to return happily without the hat, sunglasses and pseudonym … if I can just be another unidentified shopper.