Consider some of the phrases that pass for customer service in the UK. “Thank you” is just basic good manners, but the words are still held up as part of a customer-centric view of retailing. “Have a nice day” is an American import – and one that sits uncomfortably with almost any Anglo-Saxon, Welsh or Scots accent, yet still we persist in using it. “Do you need any help?” For the great majority of shoppers in our culture, the answer to this question is a curt “No”, which seems to mean: “Please leave me alone”.

These are just a few of the terms that are supposed to impart a warm, friendly feel to the shopping experience (whatever that may be), but that in reality do almost the exact opposite when uttered with the lack of sincerity that is the hallmark of our service industries. And they are supposed to act as just one of the elements – store design is another – that will persuade us to part with hard-earned cash.
Now take a trip to almost any small or medium-sized town in Italy.

This remains a nation where big chains have yet to exact a grip over high streets, so most of the shops that you will encounter are small, local businesses. Apart from a cursory “Buon giorno”, the chances are that you will not be treated to a plethora of stock phrases when you walk into one of these stores, but what you will get is service and choice. At the meat counter in any supermarket or deli, for instance, not only will you be confronted by a dazzling array of products, but there will also be people behind the counter who know their proscuitto crudo (raw ham) from their cotto (cooked), or their melone (melon) from their melanzane (aubergine).

The service you receive will be slow and painstaking and largely unaccompanied by facile verbiage or downright rudeness, when “Yes, mate?” means, “What would you like?” that is tolerated here. You don’t even have to ask to try before you buy; it will frequently be insisted on.

The result is that you exit the shop feeling that you really have had an experience and, more often than not, the abysmal store design will barely matter, although the Italians are masters of food pornography. There is a well-known movement for “slow food” in this part of the Med – taking time to enjoy the better things in life – and this also finds its way into many aspects of retailing. If just a fraction of this could be brought to the UK, with our generally higher standards of store design, there really would be something worth stepping out for.

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