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by Mike Masterson | May 3, 2022 at 4:37 a.m.

Anyone recall the classic admonition reminding every merchant the customer is always right? It's been a long time since I've heard it, though the principle remains as valid as ever.

In place of customer service, I've often witnessed a contradictory approach in too many places I patronize today. I'm talking about employees and managers who either haven't been properly trained or couldn't care less when it comes to their vital customer base feeling accommodated or appreciated.

You should realize, valued readers, you're hearing from a guy who five decades ago was fired from his job as a manager trainee at Osco Drug Store in downtown Little Rock.

My transgression? I was handing out single wrapped pieces from the store's Brach's candy bin to weary customers trapped in long checkout lines.

Afterwards (and thank goodness), I was deemed by my much older boss at the time "to not be Osco management material." I understood I wasn't supposed to be giving away the store's merchandise, even if it was penny candy and probably cost Osco all of $3.

Yet I'm willing to bet to this day that a lot of those customers felt positive about an employee in a pastel blue smock recognizing their frustration. I was busy treating others like I'd like to be treated as a customer trying his or her darnedest to pay the drugstore their money.

In stores lately, I've observed similar scenarios, recently watching five employees identified as such by their company smocks, standing around gabbing and laughing as customers with money to spend were lined up four-deep at the only two open registers of at least eight available.

I've seen an obviously untrained waitress serving tables at a high-dollar restaurant forgetting to bring even utensils and condiments, then leaving water glasses empty. You know, basic waitressing stuff.

A butcher I watched was clearly irritated when a customer politely asked if he'd make a package of smaller-sized hamburgers than what had been prepackaged. Another seemed irritated when a customer repeatedly insisted he trim all the fat from an expensive cut of meat.

I've seen a convenience-store clerk taking a three-minute phone call when customers waited to pay for their purchases. Which was more important to his employer?

A fast-food employee handed over a bag of food the other day and the customer later discovered the sack contained food that wasn't what he ordered and paid for.

Employees at big-box stores appear to always be heading in the opposite direction from customers who might have questions or need assistance just to make a purchase.

Customers with fewer than five items and eager to pay were forced to join a long checkout line of shoppers with baskets filled with merchandise and no alternative but to wait, and wait, and wait.

At least today they can head for a self-checkout. But that's another point of contention since many shoppers don't care to check their own groceries.

Customers needing questions resolved over the phone with employees who speak a similar language become frustrated trying to communicate effectively with someone in a foreign nation who is difficult to understand. Many are routed into prerecorded electronic baskets from which they find little satisfaction and no alternative.

The influx of part-time employees into the workforce and covid discombobulation likely have something to do with what I'm seeing. Perhaps the ability of some merchants to properly train their workforce has become financially unrealistic, all things considered. Or maybe the rudeness and seeming lack of concern by service folk is another sign of the times we've lived long enough to see.

Whatever the root cause, I have a message for every business owner and manager who relies on the patronage and good will of their customers, and any merchant who seeks to survive financially: It's past time to dust off and apply that message about obliging your customers first.

All of us who spend money certainly still have choices of where and when we open our wallets. That never will change. If I feel slighted or disrespected at one supermarket or restaurant or big-box store, you name it, better believe I can always head down the street to do business elsewhere.

Lately that's just what I am choosing to do.

I didn't write this to scold, lecture, or whine. It just seems to me someone needs to say these words as a reminder that to take anything, or anyone, for granted generally carries consequences we must face.

The consequence for any merchant or service-oriented business who has forgotten the reasoning behind "the customer is always right" is to watch customers choose to spend their money where that policy is still practiced, including penny candy to the most frustrated and leg-weary trapped in line.

I wrote a version of this column back in 2013. Think much has changed in nine years?

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at

Print Headline: Customers first


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