Thursday, 23 September 2010

Standoffish Local Gaming Shops

Look around on blogs and forums and you'll see two complaints raised about the local gaming shop, wherever it is and wherever it is local to. In fact you'll always see the same two complaints viz

"I went into the shop and nobody spoke to me."


"Everybody there seemed to be in a group and knew each other and I didn't know them."

Well, yeah. Welcome to England.

The idea that a gaming shop is committing a great sin if the owners or till monkeys don't buttonhole a browser strikes me as an odd one and one that seems almost exclusive to the gaming scene. Off-hand I can't think of a single UK high street store where anybody entering the shop is greeted or to be fair, even acknowledged. Well, I can think of one and you can to and I believe since this is a gaming blog and you are a gamer and I am a gamer we are in fact thinking of THE SAME ONE. And we'll deal with them later.

Much of this is basically because in England we just don't do that. Shop staff don't initiate contact with customers unless spoken to or the customer looks woefully lost and confused, and to be fair then they'll usually find an excuse to be somewhere else anyway.

Maybe this is a hangover from a class thing - when a department store was staffed by people "below stairs" and people able to afford the free time and spending money to leisure shop were their social superiors. In those days (the 1970s I believe...) there were so-called floor walkers and they were superior sales assistants employed to help and smooth the visit of shoppers - the till monkeys were just there to ring up the bill.

It is socially acceptable for this man to address you unbidden in his employer's department store.

More likely I think is this is an English thing to do with insouciance. It might appear to an outsider to be a haughty state of contempt and ignorance but it's not, it's more a respect for personal space. The assumption is always that the customer doesn't wish to be hassled. You'll know when you are really really being ignored because the Englishman concerned will actually have to pay you more attention just to point out how ignored you are being. (The unspoken equivalent of telling someone verbally that you aren't speaking to them with all the irony that implies). And we are talking England England here, not Britain - A Scot will tell you he is ignoring you, A Welshman will talk at you in Welsh so that you can't understand him and an Irishman will talk at you in, err, English so that you can't understand him either.

This Irishman does not wish to speak to you so is communicating to you in English such that actual communication is rendered impossible. (Posed by actor).

The assumption is that a English customer wishes to be left alone, knows what to do if they should require assistance and is fully aware that the ettiquette of shopping is such that if you wish to purchase something you take it to till and hand over money.

When I've entered shops in the US I find it a culture shock that the owner will go out of their way to say hello. Mostly this is because Americans are actually friendlier upfront than Brits but initially it put my back up. Because if it were happening in England I would know that really, deep down that "Hello son" was actually saying "I'm watching you for shop-lifting you little bastard". And in England that would drive customers away.

So why do we expect one niche hobby out of a whole raft of niche hobbies to have a pro-active meet-and-greet philosophy when supermarkets and corner shops and WHSmiths don't? The local RC specialist doesn't acknowledge customers they don't know by name and neither do customers expect them to. I've never wandered in there and taken umbrage that the staff don't say hello and ask me if I know what I want.

Right then, now to that aforementioned not-mentioned UK high street shop.

I said that there are two criticisms made online of every gaming shop ever. There is actually a third and it's specific to this one which is of course, the Evil Empire. It goes like this

"I've stopped going in there to buy their paints because I just can't fucking stand the way the staff leap on as soon as you have one foot across the threshold and they treat you like you are wet behind the ears and it's bloody obvious that you know more about gaming than they do."

Here's a truth. I will only set foot in my local GW if one of two members of staff are present. One is a fellow club member, the other a close friend of a fellow club member. Only if they are present do I feel that I'm not about to go cornered and given the full false bonhomie, I'm-your-new-best-mate-I-am-what-are-you-painting treatment. (Ridiculously because I am inbetween stages 1 and 2 of laser eye surgery I have to stop five yards short of the entrance, find my specs and put them on thus enabling me to see all the way to the back of the store to check who is in attendance on that particular day).

This may work quite well in the US where meet-and-greet is the norm. (The Warner Brothers merchandise store in my local mall used to do this, no doubt under instructions from USA HQ, but the attitude of Black Country folk was a baffled "What the fuck are you standing there collaring me for? I can walk in the shop under my own power, I can see the goods and I can see the tills. Now fuck off and stop hassling me."). In England it just pisses people off.

Yeah, it's full on. Toned down it might not be so bad. You could argue that a simple "Good afternoon, if you need anything just shout" would suffice but then the attitude would still be "Well yeah, I know that because you work here that's clearly your job".

So let's give the gaming store a free pass here. Nobody else does it and if you are incapable of asking the staff a question then you must surely struggle when on the customer side of any customer-facing outfit.

I just find it really odd that gaming shops get hammered for this in a culture that actively discourages it.

Are gaming shops cliques? Yes, but so are pubs, workplaces, football terraces. There are lots of social circles in which everybody knows each other except for the new guys. Again if people struggle with this in a gaming shop they must struggle with it in a lot of places.

In many ways a shop that doesn't have a clique of regulars on first name terms with the staff is like a restaurant that's half-empty at the busiest time of the day - it suggests that it's not that good.

If there is a hardcore, if the same people are in weekend on weekend that's a good sign. It shows the local gaming scene, even if it's just the scene within the shop itself is strong and that the stock is accurately reflecting what people play and what they might move into playing. It shows there is a good rapport between staff and customers and in an age whereby it's nearly always cheaper online the fact that people keep coming back should be taken as a sign of the shop keeping people happy. Here are a crowd who appreciate the shop and want for it to stay in business. Despite appearances this is a social hobby we have. People support businesses like this when they are face-to-face arrangements.

I'd be leery about a shop that didn't have a hardcore regular customer base cultivated. Somethings gone wrong and either the staff are nonchalant about repeat custom or what they wish to sell is out of kilter with what people what to buy.

Now there are instances were the two criticisms are valid. Being ignored when you go to till because the staff are busy playing or chatting is not acceptable. A clique that treats a noob as a second-class citizen because they are purchasing a game the clique doesn't rate or is not well-versed in what is available is also a bad sign. But these are hopefully extremes. There are a myriad of sins that a retail outlet can commit (don't get me started on CEX or we will be here all night) but the two mentioned back at the start shouldn't really be counted amongst them. Merely disliking a shop because nobody comes over to you or because a group of regulars mysteriously all seem to know each other is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Afterthought written after reading all that back - I wonder if perhaps there is an issue of people within a hobby oft held to be socially awkward feeling this quite strongly in a new environment. If a newcomer to a shop is the sort of person that deep down prefers somebody else to initiate social contact, and is actively wishing for this to happen, then perhaps the old "nobody spoke" suddenly becomes a major thing whereas somebody without social awkwardness would not find it even noteworthy if he went into Halfords to buy spray paint and nobody offered to help.

Likewise the hardcore of regulars. Perhaps it's felt strongly because they see not knowing these people, their foibles and in-jokes they feel excluded rather than taking a more realistic line that they don't know these people and indeed why should they when they've never before met? Maybe after all that, this is why gaming shops seem to held to these standards that aren't expected from other shops.


  1. Of course I largely agree, but on the other hand, as you say, it is a social hobby, so shouldn't the shops be a bit more "social" to the newcomer?

  2. Great observations. As an American ex-pat in England, I actually have come to like the laid-back customer service. Especially evident when I go back stateside and for some reason am roped into eating in one of those awful chain theme restaurants where the waitron intrusively crouches at your table like a desperate, marginally popular kid, and tries to organize some kind of party game for you when you'd really rather have conversation with people you actually know.