Phyllis Puffer
The Customer is Always Right

The hi-liter did not work. It definitely did not work. Not a single yellow mark would appear on the newspaper over an important quote, no matter how hard the instrument was pressed against the page.

Based on my experience in Germany and the Czech Republic, I suspected it would not be easy. Nonetheless, I decided to try returning the hi-liter as a cross-cultural experiment/adventure.

The convenience store where I had bought the hi-liter was located in a corner of a huge open space in the student center on the campus of the University of Botswana. A goodly number of chairs stacked along one side of the open area indicated that the space was used for large gatherings and performances of various kinds. On one side of the shop entrance was a wall of post office boxes with bright red doors and stark white, round knobs in the centers. The campus post office was located on the other side. Through the store’s open door, for all to see and beware, was a blue uniformed security guard sitting on a chair. Inside the store to the right of the guard sat another guard. And then, just to be certain the store was adequately protected, a third guard sat in a booth to the left of the entrance. One other person was in the booth with the third guard. It was the manager.

The manager was a young man, rather good looking, of an attractive latte color, wearing a navy blue jacket. I approached his side of the administrative box, presented the hi-liter and the receipt, and stated the problem.

“It does not work.”

The manager neither smiled nor frowned. He took the hi-liter and ran it over a piece of paper. The tip was hard and desert dry like the land outside. It did not make a mark.

“You left it uncapped.”

His tone was not sarcastic, accusing, or attacking as I had experienced in Europe. It was calm and unemotional.

“No. It was that way when I took it out of the package.”

“Where is the package?”

“It was all torn up. I put it in the trash.”

“I need the package.”

“But the package was torn into pieces. It’s in the trash.”

The young man was beginning to be exasperated, but this was not turning into the war I had experienced in a shoe repair shop in Germany or in an optical shop in the Czech Republic.

To strengthen my case, I added, “I’m a good customer. I’ve been here several times.”

“I’ve never seen you.”

“I’ve been here.”

How could he have missed the only pale face who ever came into the building, employee or customer? Color blindness is a good thing, but this was over doing it.

“I need the bar code from the package.”

“You have the receipt.”

The manager was beginning to look minutely irritated.

“I need the bar code.”

He began searching through papers. He left his box briefly and re-turned with papers. He looked through papers. He went over to the cashier with the hi-liter and the papers. He said a few words to the cashier. I went over to the cashier. She gave me seven pula and 95 thebe, a cent or two less than one dollar.

“Next time, just throw it in the trash.”

Back in the US, at our local hardware store in my mountain town, still operating healthily in spite a well-patronized Wal-Mart on the edge of town, I brought in a tub stopper. It was a shade too large. No matter how it was turned or tipped this way or that or scrutinized closely, it did not fit. The young woman at the cash register looked at it casually. She said blandly, “Do you have the package?”

“No. It’s torn up and I put it in the trash.”

“I have to have the bar code.”  

The stopper went back home with me.

Phyllis Puffer received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University, all in sociology. She has traveled in over 30 countries, mostly in the Third World.



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