Vienna Needs a New Retail Strategy


I have been in Vienna for a couple of days now and while my body is getting used to the 6-hour time change, my mind still struggles with some of the mindset that’s very unlike my own. I’m going to refrain from labeling my sensitivities as American/Brazilian, but I’m sure they have foundations on both cultures. One facet of the Viennese culture I’m having a hard time accepting is the retailers attitude toward consumers.

Vienna Needs to Retrain Its Retail Workers

Those of you who know me personally, know I actually enjoy shopping.   Yesterday I went to no less than a dozen stores, both bargain as well as high end. Throughout the entire day, not once a store clerk approached me and offered to help or even the simple, “let me know if I can help you with anything.”  Sometimes workers stood right next to me stocking shelves, other times they stood at their post next to the cash register. But no matter where they were, one thing was for sure, they were not going to make eye contact with me until I decided to engage them first and ask for help. Once I did, they answered my question but never went beyond the minimum required effort.

Cultural sensitivities aside, retail stores, whether small boutiques or large department stores, are in business to make money. The way they make money is by selling goods. Even at the most expensive and exclusive boutiques in New York City, sales people are at minimum helpful and at best solicitous. I would say that the Viennese retail workforce is at best cordial, but most of the time, completely disengaged from the customer.

Some might make the case they do not need the business. I don’t think so. The global recession has hit Europe as well. But no matter your cultural background, we all want good service, we valued a shopping experience that makes us feel special, we welcome someone to help us understand the merchandise or navigate the latest fashion trends. All of us want to feel good about our purchases and a well-trained store clerk could be extremely helpful and the difference between making a sale or losing, between someone buying one item or several.

During my shopping trip I kept thinking, “if I can train these people, I bet they would double their sales.” I really believe that. Globalization is bigger than just goods being shipped around the globe. Consumer expect attentive service from retailers. I made through the entire day without making one purchase not because I didn’t find anything I wanted, but because I was not going to fight for the privilege to buy over-priced goods from less-than-friendly sales people.

Have  you ever walked away from a store because the workers were not helpful?

  • Lisa Lewis

    This is so true, Maurilio. I have walked away from stores I planned on spending money because of poor customer service. This day and age, there’s no reason for sales people not to be attentive.

  • Tami Heim

    Hey Maurilio – I bet I could get the job done for you. I know a little bit about retail customer service training. Hmmmm. Let me know when your next trip is so I can clear my calendar.nTravel safe partner and don’t forget to bring back the chocolate. We miss you.

    • I already bought your chocolate. However, I was hungry, so now I must buy more. 🙂

  • Maurilio,nI’ll be interested to hear your thoughts after you’ve been out and about in Prague. Vienna is stellar in service compared to Prague. Parts in the tourist quarter are more service friendly, but Communism took a huge toll here. It’s most interesting when studying the whys. Why do they have this philosophy? Why don’t they have a service-oriented attitude? Having native friends has helped us to understand a little better, but it’s a complicated issue, a very complex and high context society, with little incentive to change. But I’m convinced change can start with offering a smile. Sometimes, the pokladna (cashier) responds negatively (throwing my bread on the floor, for one example), but little by little it will improve. Glad you’re tossing some thoughts onto the issue. nHave great travels, and send a message my way if you need help while in Prague.nSincerely,nJennifer King

    • I spent the evening in Prague and the only shop I went to was a watch where a young guy tried to sell me hard on an ugly and expensive watch. He was friendly, however. I’ll see what happens tomorrow.

  • John

    When I was about to leave Austria for good after three years, I was going to pay my cell bill THREE days early. A1, the national provider at the time, informed me that since the bill wasn’t due, I couldn’t pay it. I informed them that I would not fly back to Austria after I left to pay my bill. Last time I heard from my old roommate, I was still getting bills and now have been called to court. nnI will say this about the Austrian consumer system, they are by the books driven. If it’s not written down and mandated, you don’t do it and everyone sticks to it!

    • I saw your picture on a poster in the subway. Don’t come back. They’re looking for you.

  • oh yeah, I’ve definitely done that. I’ve walked out of Home Depot, Best Buy, a bunch of big name retailers that you’d think would be well-positioned to have plenty of experts on hand. In actuality, they’re often the worst. They spend their resources hiring cashiers and have no experts left on the payroll.nnWhen I was in Paris, I noticed the same thing you described, though maybe not to as much degree. The people were really nice in general, but their retail culture seemed very different. nnIn Hong Kong, it was downright disturbing. I’m a brown guy, and I was TOTALLY ignored in some stores until I let my passport flash. Then it was like kids on cake.

    • When I was in Paris I told them I was Brazilian. They love Brazilians.

      • Robert Vandenberg

        They love Brazilians because they bring a heap of cash to spend.

      • Robert Vandenberg

        Oh by the way I live in Brasilia, but prefer to be in Austria.

  • You’re suffering from culture shock my friend. Austria (and Europe in General) is not America. And I, for one, am thankful for the difference.nnI’ve walked out of stores in America (and Canada) because of pushy/friendly/helpful sales people who wouldn’t let me look and consider what I wanted to do.

    • There’s a difference between pushy and helpful when the consumer needs it. I asked for help a couple of times and didn’t get much of a response. I shopped in Asia, Americas and other European cities, but this is the worst consistently bad service I’ve had.

      • Berni

        I agree with Al, I am from Austria and live in Canada right now, and i hate it here when they ask you every 5 minutes if they can help you, way too annoying, and it happens in almost every store, you can’t just walk around and look, but I guess you are right, if you are used to the other way around it might look as if they don’t want to sell anything. Still I prefer the Austrian way 🙂

  • I walked out of a womens clothing store at Christmas time. The place was huge and product was strewn everywhere. I asked for some help in finding a particular item for Diana, the sales girls were just talking amongst each other. They looked at me, then pointed to some distant mound of clothing.nnI would think any intelligent female sales person seeing a man walking into their store would see an easy prey. oh well.

    • They just thought you were a creepy guy trying to buy women’s underwear.

  • Scowlingcashier

    I’ve been the unhelpful worker before, I am sort of ashamed (not really) to say….

  • Maybe you ought to think of taking a dentist with you on your next trip….dental care is horrible over there. Don’t break that beautiful smile.

    • You’re onto something here. I bit into a nut that was supposed to be shelled and it wasn’t! Almost broke a tooth. A traveling dentist companion would have come in handy.

  • A friend of mine said that all the people who wanted to do the customer service thing had already moved to America and made their first million dollars.

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