Recently, a manager who works with a chain of retail stores asked me for an honest opinion. He said one of his store’s competitors seemed to get more favorable mentions on social media, and he was concerned about losing a chunk of his business. “What are they doing that we aren’t doing?” he asked me.
“Two words,” I said. “Lower prices?” he responded. “Nope,” I said. “Better quality?” He asked. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “Y’all pretty much sell the same merchandise.”
“Then, what are the two words?” he asked. I paused, motioned at my head, and said, “Eye contact.”
He asked me to explain, and I told him the truth. The competing retailer was teaching its managers and employees to make eye contact with customers.
Keep in mind, this is not a natural thing for younger people today. We see them crossing the street with eyes downward, focused only on their phone or other device. Police say they get more “pedestrian hit” calls these days, and this is often the reason.
You even see it at restaurants. What was once a lovely setting for conversation between two people is now a phone-staring contest.
So, as I told my friend, I am impressed when I enter a retail establishment, and an employee takes a moment to actually look at me and say hello. I am also grateful when I am obviously struggling to find the peanut butter, and an employee asks if he can help.
Truth be told, in some stores, I could be wearing a clanking suit of armor while carrying a mermaid over my shoulder, and walk past a manager, a cashier, and the deli staff without disturbing a soul. I have been as desperate as a desert castaway in search of an oasis, and some employees wouldn’t have blinked if I had fainted headfirst into the tomatoes. I once walked past a store manager who was so engrossed in his phone I could have been stuffing cans of tuna in my pockets the whole way.
The responding officer would have asked, “Sir, did you get a description of the person who walked out with all your tuna?” “Officer, I did not, but I just won three games of Words with Friends!”
As a kid, I often wished I could be invisible. As an adult, I often get that feeling in certain stores.
Eye contact is also a hot topic in schools. I once attended a teacher workshop, or as some call it, professional development. This is when they pay someone from out of town a few thousand dollars to share a little of their superior knowledge. Because, after all, they are from out of town.
In this particular session, the subject was the engagement of students. How do you get them to listen, notice, and respect you. In other words, how to get them to pay attention.
I am not making this up. The distinguished speaker actually said, “Teachers, some of you think eye contact is a big deal, and you go around demanding it from your students. You need to understand that in some cultures, eye contact is not taught or practiced at home, and is even discouraged. If you are trying to force your students to look you right in the eyes, you are actually disrespecting them.”
After I picked up my jaw off the floor, I asked a teacher friend if she planned to take that advice. “Of course not,” she said. “When my kids get out of school and apply for a job, they had better look people in the eye. I’m doing them a disservice if I don’t prepare them to function in a grown-up world.” It’s too bad she’s not from out of town, because she needs to be heard.
Among the many great stories I read about President George H.W. Bush recently, was one about his struggles as a young man entering politics. For all his wealth and family connections, he struggled to look people in the eyes during his first campaign. It was his wonderful wife Barbara, plain-spoken and without any social inhibition, who noticed that flaw, and she would remind him to make eye contact even when he was president. I think I would have liked him, but I know I would have absolutely loved her.
Shyness cannot be cured overnight. Not everyone is a people person. However, in a retail environment, downright disinterest is a deal-breaker for me. I want to be greeted, I want to be seen, I want to be helped, I want to be thanked, and I want to be invited back.
I want to be able to tell a store manager that the cashier on Aisle 3 did a good job, and deserves a pat on the back. If I could only get him to look away from his phone.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best stories. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.