Customer service that makes ours look good

I have lived in the Bloor West Village area of Toronto for 16 years now, and after my current contract in Prague is over, in seven months, I'll be back in the hood for good.

I have lived in the Bloor West Village area of Toronto for 16 years now, and after my current contract in Prague is over, in seven months, I’ll be back in the hood for good.

A big part of the charm of this neighbourhood is the commercial strip along Bloor between Jane and High Park. With the exception of a few national brands like Chapters and Second Cup, it has traditionally been the stronghold of small shopkeepers, mostly dealing in foodstuffs. Bakeries, meat shops, delicatessens, and greengrocers jostle for the pocketbooks of the local citizenry, all contributing to the village atmosphere.

Anyone familiar with the area knows that the ’50s and ’60s saw a massive influx of Eastern European immigrants. You can still hear almost as much Polish and Ukrainian on the street as English.

As a resident of BWV, I never understood the treatment I would get in some of the Eastern European shops along the strip. There is one store so overcrowded with merchandise that one is always fearful of knocking things off the shelves. You walk down the narrow aisles at your peril. The proprietors and their minions are arrogant, condescending and disrespectful of every customer, especially those who do not speak their language. The attitude they convey is that it is a privilege for you to breathe the same air as they. And if you are really lucky, they might even let you buy something.

One of my fondest fantasies is to film that store in the process of being blown to bits by a pipe bomb hurled through the window, and play it back in slow motion over and over again. All those sparkling shards of glass and shiny shrapnel floating through the air – what sweet revenge for the attitude I’ve gotten in there over the years.

Now I understand where it comes from. After being in Prague for two weeks, I decided to buy a pair of athletic shoes. I went to a sporting goods store one Saturday morning just after it had opened. I found lots to choose from, and when a sales clerk started walking in my direction, I instinctively walked towards her with a shoe in hand to ask for a fitting. Much to my surprise, she walked right past me to a shop-vac and started vacuuming the carpet.

I spoke no Czech at the time so was at a loss as to how to deal with her. Then another clerk approached, a much nicer one, and I sat down on a bench to wait for her to get what I needed from the stock room. A moment later I could hear the roar of the vacuum getting louder. Then suddenly the bench I was sitting on was being lifted by the first clerk, who continued to tilt it until I all but fell off.

It would be very unfair to suggest that this is the norm here in Central Europe, but it is an extreme symptom of a service mentality that still has a long way to go to live up to western standards. There are two historical reasons for this. Before communism, the merchants considered themselves a class apart from the masses. They thought themselves better off than you because they owned a commercial enterprise, and you didn’t. Then during communism, they were reduced to the same level as everyone else. There was no incentive to move merchandise, or even order it. They got the same paycheque in the mail as the streetcleaners did.

The influx of western retailers is changing everything. Tesco, Ikea, Carrefour and many others have given the population a taste for how good retail can be, and expectations have risen accordingly. Homegrown chains are beginning to emulate western models.

One big opportunity here is for a store designed after the new Shoppers Drug Mart model. Czech female consumers would come in droves. The nearest local attempt at this, a store called Drogerie Max, has miles to go before it catches up. It is not uncommon to walk by one and see nothing but the backs of merchandising shelves staring back at you though the front window.

The need for improvement in retail service inspired one of our VPs to come up with a bright idea. We are each supplied with free passes to the local Imax theatre (a co-brand of ours), and when any of us has a good experience in a retail store – any store in Prague outside of our own – we are authorized to reward the clerk with a couple of Imax vouchers. It is a small gesture that recognizes the value of customer experience, and hopefully sends a message to shopkeepers that we are the kind of company that promotes good service when it sees it.

You can be sure I won’t be handing any out on Bloor Street.

Will Novosedlik is a brand strategist at Oskar, the Czech Republic’s third mobile phone operator. He can be reached at