Saturday, 4 April 2009

Sales Pitches and Silence

It's just after nine in the morning and I'm at Birmingham New Street station with ten minutes to wait before a train out to Lea Hall. I'm queuing up at the station branch of WH Smiths to buy chocolate. In an adventurous moment I've chosen a couple of new Galaxy Cookie Crumble bars, currently in a two-for-a-pound offer.

I reach the front of the queue, and the middle aged female assistant waves her hand over another selection of chocolate.

'Any of these for half price?' she asks.

This is a regular feature in all branches of Smiths now. No matter what you are buying you will be asked if you want any cheap chocolate to go with it, even if the only thing you are buying already is cheap chocolate.

Early yesterday morning I fueled up a car at a BP garage on the A14 in Northamptonshire, and was served by a rather uncommunicative and unhurried woman. While I was waiting for her to finish waiting for the till to do something, I noticed a sign on the wall behind her, tersely reminding all staff that, until 9am, they had to ask every customer if they wanted coffee -

'This is not optional. Just say "Any hot drinks this morning?"'

The notice concluded by saying 'Lets get behind this,' as if exhorting the staff to support a worthy cause, rather than the firm's latest attempt to reduce them to the level of automata. The cashier's silence now seemed like an act of defiance and I warmed to her in an instant.

Today, I politely refuse the extra chocolate.

'Are you sure?' the woman asks, smiling.

I smile back but don't answer. She then looks at the Cookie Crumble bars as she scans them, and asks -

'Have you tried these yet?'

'No.'

'Oooh, they're lovely! I've already got a stash of them.'

I realise that she is no longer following orders and is now trying to have a genuine conversation with me, but I can't think of any reply. What are men supposed to say about chocolate? I keep smiling, hand her a pound coin, and then leave without waiting for a receipt. After all, there is a queue forming behind me, full of people who might want to buy half-price chocolate, but who just haven't realised it yet.

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